This song is as much a pervasive meme as a popular hit, and has received so many parodies and homages that doing so has become a cliche in itself, but unlike most songs that fit that description, it has actual substance, which is why its memetic status has lasted twenty-plus years while most memes almost by definition disappear after a few months. This is one of Billy Joel’s most sophisticated constructions…indeed, there is a song from the legendary off-Broadway cabaret piece Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris called “Marathon” that is all but identical to this piece save for the particular decades it covers…and frankly, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a more satisfying song than “Marathon”. A surprising number of people have missed the point of this song…I’ve actually heard people complain about its device of placing pop culture trivia next to historically crucial events. But what these people miss is that this is exactly how history feels while you’re actually living it, with things that will be remembered forever side by side with transient pop culture and both receiving about the same amount of exposure and saturation, and the song does an uncanny job of capturing in song how the rush of human history actually feels in the moment. While Billy Joel has always been proud of the lyric, he himself underrates the achievement of the song’s melody, which, while not the prettiest thing Joel ever wrote, has the sheer driving force to capture the relentless forward plunging of human history and the helplessness we often feel in being caught up with it. Interestingly, the song’s chorus serves simply as a respite to allow the listener to periodically catch their breath (because being too accurate in capturing the desperate headlong plunge of human existence, which offers no such chances, would have made for an impressive but not very enjoyable song), while the music of real importance is heard on the song’s rushing verses. So you see, what seems at first glance like little more than an unusually well-crafted novelty song is actually much deeper and more complex than it appears on the surface, and it stands as one of the greatest testaments to what Billy Joel is really capable of as an artist.
Verdict: Better than even its admirers generally give it credit for.