Sunday, March 6, 2016
Track of the Week: Billy Joel "Allentown"
I've been thinking a lot lately about a weird sub-genre of 80s music, which I guess you could call Rust Belt Decline Rock. In the 80s deindustrialization weaponized by Reaganomics smashed factory towns like an economic hurricane, except that the storm has raged for decades, rather than a couple of days. That experience would get discussed in the rock music of the era, but from a weirdly nostalgic angle. "My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen is a great example, along with Billy Joel's "Allentown," of songs from this genre actually entering the charts.
"Allentown" is ostensibly about the decline of the steel industry in eastern Pennsylvania, although the song title's city was less impacted than other cities in the area like Bethlehem. It came out in 1982, in the depths of the Reagan recession, a time I remember well. I found out later from my dad that the small factory he worked for almost went under during that period, which was a fate others didn't escape. Collective memory of the Reagan years tends to forget the double-digit unemployment of the year this song came out.
"Allentown" is nostalgic, and the video even more so, with all kinds of 1940s imagery and longing for a time of economic prosperity. Musically it's poppy and catchy, a world apart from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album of the same year that dealt heavily with hard time stories. The Boss grew up in the Rust Belt, working class world, while Billy Joel came from the Long Island suburbs, and that tells the tale. Joel was looking for some lyrics for a song he'd already written, and got inspiration from one of the issues of the day. Springsteen was commenting directly about the world he grew up in being destroyed and a lot of the people he knew being crushed.
While "Allentown" laments the economic downturn, there's no anger or anguish in the singing or in the lyrics. It's quintessentially 80s in that respect; you wouldn't want politics to get in the way of a money-making radio hit. And it's certainly a great bit of pop music, but it makes me sad to contemplate that the degradation of the American working class has been cultural wallpaper for over three decades now. The Flint water crisis is a national shame, but the rest of the country has stood by for decades while an economic Katrina has been battering that city, like so many others, from Detroit to Youngstown to Camden to Stockton. We don't hear any jaunty pop hits about it anymore, either, it's become so routine.