Meaning of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Fall Out Boy

As you probably already know, especially if you’re a fan of late 20th century music, the original “We Didn’t Start the Fire” sprang from that era. More specifically, it was a track dropped by Billy Joel in 1989 which proved to be one of his biggest hits and again, one of the more memorable tunes from that time period.

We Didn’t Start The Fire


So to reiterate, the original was an extremely success song, which is very recognizable across the entire globe. However, it isn’t necessarily the type of song, due to its lyrical complexity if you will, that other artists have been compelled to cover. 

The most notable name to make an attempt at it, quite interestingly as recently as 2021, is Hollywood A-lister David Hasselhoff, who isn’t a musician per se. That was until Fall Out Boy officially dropped their rendition of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, as a standalone single, on 28 June 2023.        

One of the reasons why this song isn’t an easy cover is because the lyrics, even though they span decades of popular references, are also very era specific. So to stick to that standard, a lot of updating had to be done on the part of Fall Out Boy. 

In other words, the original deals with matters beginning in 1948 and concluding in 1989. But the cover ranges from 1989 to 2023. And as implied by Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, doing so wasn’t easy at all.

As such, the band is credited with writing their version, alongside Billy Joel of course, and it was produced by one of their regular collaborators in Neal Avron. Furthermore, unlike the original, the critical reception of this song has been less than ideal. 

And amongst the criticism it has endured is being non-chronological, convoluted and arranged in such a way that very serious matters are intermixed with frivolous ones.


For example, even from the very-first line we are met with the mention of Captain Planet, which is a children’s cartoon, followed by the vocalist citing the Arab Spring, which was basically a series of revolutions which occurred in the Middle East a few years back. 

Granted, Captain Planet does revolve around a pressing topic, which is environmental degradation. But granting Fall Out Boy the benefit of the doubt is quickly erodes away when shortly thereafter they proceed to mention the late Kurt Cobain, one of the most famous musicians to ever commit suicide, in the same line with Pokémon, i.e. the Japanese card and video game series.

The chorus of this song alludes to the world being in a troubled state, i.e. on “fire”. So the intended point is supposed to be along the lines of noting that none of us in the here and now actually started those troubles. 

Rather, even if the lyrics only go back three or four decades, the implication is that certain matters have been plaguing mankind since time immemorial. That would likely explain why, in the original, Billy Joel kept the entertainment references to a noticeable minimum.

“We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No, we didn’t light it but we’re trying to fight it”

Such does not read like the case with Fall Out Boy’s version though. There are plenty of shoutouts to important people, places and events of the last four decades, including some present-day matters such as Elon Musk, the Great Pacific garbage patch, Kim Jong Un, the Crimean Peninsula, etc. 

But there’s also what can be deemed quite a few straight-up entertainment references, as if Patrick and the gang are giving shoutouts to their favorite brands, such as Metroid, the classic Nintendo videogame series. 

To some extent, Billy Joel did the same on the original. But the type of pop media references he dropped, such as mentioning Liberace and Chubby Checker, read more generally pertinent than those of Fall Out Boy.

So perhaps we can conclude by saying that what is and isn’t important is more or less subjective anyway. For instance, it has been pointed out that even though Stump and co. did reference the likes of 9/11 and Columbine, they totally ignored the COVID-19 pandemic, i.e. the biggest disaster of recent years. 

So whereas their version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is very general, it also reads quite specific to the band’s personal likings or remembrances. Therefore, what’s being put forth doesn’t consistently come across as being as relevant as Joel’s original.

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