Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” Lyrics Meaning

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is an exercise in nostalgia and storytelling for Billy Joel. He wrote it upon reaching the milestone age of 40, when he also happened to be at a crossroad in his career. And its penning was initially inspired by a conversation he had with someone a generation younger who was basically under the impression that the pressing issues of the world just began during his generation. In other words, he thought the 1950s, i.e. the era when Billy Joel came of age, was a cakewalk compared to what was going down in 1989.

So to prove this individual wrong, Billy gives a shoutout to well over 100 events and personalities, some more to his own liking while others being internationally known, that have in fact transpired between 1949 and 1989.  And it’s not all bad, but much of it is. Moreover he is very specific in his approach in terms of encapsulating the history of the world within that exact timeframe. Or another way of saying it is that whereas Billy may have actually lived through all the aforementioned years, he also did his research while writing the lyrics.

Meaning of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

Now as for the various historical references he makes, many of them point to disturbing events or circumstances which defined the period of time upon which the lyrics are based. And that’s where the title of the song comes into play. What Joel is basically saying is that the pressing problems that those now coming up are faced with did not begin in their generation or even in his, the one prior. Rather it had already been like that even before he was born, and when he and the current youngsters themselves “are gone” it will remain so.

So in encapsulating a specific 40-year period, we can say that the ultimate idea the singer is putting forth is that in the grand scheme of things that era is no different than any other in human history. There has been wars and the expansion of hostile forces, and there has also been joyful moments and progress. Indeed he could have taken the lyrics back prior to 1949. Or he could have done a sequel chronicling the years after 1989. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, because the story would still fundamentally remain the same.

Lyrics of "We Didn't Start the Fire"
Chris Blum directed the music video to “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.

Writing and Production

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was written by Billy Joel. And he also co-produced the track with Mick Jones of Foreigner fame.

Release Date of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

Columbia Records released this song on 17 October 1989 as part of Billy’s album, “Storm Front”. The song track served as the lead single from that project.

International Hit

This song proved to be one of the most-successful of Billy Joel’s illustrious career. For instance, it topped the Billboard Hot 100. It also made it onto the top 10 of the UK Singles Chart and did the same in virtually all of the 11 countries in which the track charted. Moreover it has been certified Platinum in the United States and Gold in a number of countries.

And in terms of its success in the US, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was also nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1990.

Billy Isn’t a Huge Fan of this Classic

Yet despite its renown, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” definitely isn’t Billy Joel’s favorite amongst his catalog. What he seems to dislike about it the most is its melody. Moreover the lyrics are so detailed that sometimes when performing the song live he forgets the words. In fact in total there are a whopping 59 historical figures (outside of the events) mentioned in the lyrics. And as of 2019, all but five of them were deceased.

Famous Appearances of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

Anyone familiar with this track likely also knows that it’s a mainstay in American pop culture. Or more specifically, people like making fun of (i.e. parodying) this song. And some of the well-known franchises to have done so include the following:

  • “The Simpsons” (2002)
  • “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1993)
  • “The Office” (2005)
  • “Parks and Recreation” (2015)
  • The cast of the MCU’s “Avengers: Endgame”, via “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”, in 2019

Also, the hit animated comedy TV series, “Family Guy” has made use of this song on multiple occasions.

Billy Joel talks about “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

As explained above, at the age of 40 Billy Joel was compelled to think back to his youth. More specifically he remembered when he was 21, which would have been around 1970. And according to him that was “an awful time”. It was awful because his generation had to deal with the likes of “Vietnam… drug… and civil rights problems” and “the Suez Canal Crisis”, amongst other issues. Or as he expounded, there was a general sense of negativity around that time. 

Also in terms of indirectly referencing the Cold War, Mr. Joel has stated that at the time he wrote this song he didn’t realize that the dissolution of the Soviet Union (which officially occurred in 1991) was imminent. And in terms of the actual aesthetics of the piece, Billy Joel went on to state that he deems “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to be “terrible musically”. And in getting even more graphic, he stated that “it’s like a mosquito buzzing around in your head”.

Usage in American Schools

This song is so historical in its approach that the popular education company Scholastic teamed up with Columbia Records in distributing it to a bunch of high schools. And this included further commentary, entitled “History Is a Living Thing”, from the Piano Man himself. Indeed Billy Joel is recognized as being genuinely interested in the study of history.

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Whack

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