Billy Joel Loves You Just the Way You Were

Apart from his first couple records, I’ve never been much of a Billy Joel fan […]

David Zahl / 5.7.10

Apart from his first couple records, I’ve never been much of a Billy Joel fan (with the notable exception of “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'”, naturally). Which is tough, since a number of his hits are downright unavoidable, none more so than “Just the Way You Are”. We’ve all heard it at umpteen weddings, and if you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard it used in a sermon or three, a pop-blueprint of how God loves his people. If so, and you’re at all like me, you may have rolled your (inner-)eyes. Not because the lyrics were off somehow, but because they were so darn cheesy. You hoped – you prayed – that the love of God couldn’t be boiled down to such greeting-card mush. Then I read Chuck Klosterman’s essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, “Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink” which includes the following rumination (devotion?) on the song:

“Joel’s music always has an undercurrent railing against the desire for perfection. Another song off The Stranger — “Just the Way You Are” — proves that sentiment twice (once cleverly and once profoundly.

To this day, women are touched by the words of “Just the Way You Are,” a musical love letter that that says everything everybody wants to hear: you’re not flawless, but you’re still what I want. It was written about Joel’s wife and manager Elizabeth Weber, and it outlines how he doesn’t want his woman to try ‘some new fashion’ or dye her hair blond or work on being witty. He specifically asks that she “don’t go changing” in the hopes of pleasing him. The short-term analysis is that this is a criticism of perfection, but in the best possible way; it’s like Billy is saying he loves Weber because she’s not perfect, and that he could never leave her in times of trouble.

The sad irony, of course, is that Joel divorced Elizabeth three years after ‘Just The Way You Are’ won a Grammy for Song of the Year. Obviously, some would say that cheapens the song and makes it irrelevant. I think the opposite is true. I think the fact that Joel divorced the woman he wrote this song about makes it his single greatest achievment.

When I hear “Just the Way You Are,” it never makes me think about Joel’s broken marriage. It makes me think about all the perfectly scribed love letters and drunken e-mails I have written over the past twelve years, and about all the various women who received them. I think about how I told them they changed the way I thought about the universe, and that they made every other woman on earth unattractive, and that I would love them unconditionally even if we were never together. I hate that those letters still exist. But I don’t hate them because what I said was false; I hate them because what I said was completely true. My convictions could not have been stronger when I wrote those words, and–for whatever reason–they still faded into nothingness. Three times I have been certain that I could never love anyone else, and I was wrong every time. Those old love letters remind me of my emotional failure and my accidental lies, just as “Just the Way You Are” undoubtably reminds Joel of his. 

Perhaps this is why I can’t see Billy Joel as cool. Perhaps it’s because all he makes me see is me.”

What a powerful sentiment. Talk about connection! As Chuck points out, the song does more than articulate the way we want to be loved, it articulates the way we fail to love. You might even say it points us beyond the opposite sex as the means to fulfillment in life, tracing the exact contours of that you-know-what-shaped hole. In a certain sense, “Just the Way You Are” is both Law and Gospel, showing us, um, just the way we are, they are and ultimately, just the way God is. And nothing could be less cheesy than that. I think.

The essay was well-received enough to land Chuck a controversial interview with Joel, which was originally published as a NY Times Magazine profile in September 2002, “The Stranger”. Billy was in pretty bad shape at the time, as the following admission indicates:

“I’ve only felt content a few times in my life, and it never lasted. I’m very discontented right now. There are situations in my life that didn’t pan out. I’m like most other human beings. I try and I fail. The whole metaphor of [“Where’s the Orchestra?”] is that life is a theatrical play, and it’s all a tragedy and – even though you can enjoy the comedic, ironic elements of what you’re experiencing – life will always come up and whap you on the head.”

Sounds like even Billy needs to hear the words of his song from time to time – from the only One whose love letters never go out of date. I’m talking, of course, about Barry White: