Billy Joel vs. Allentown – 1982-1991, By Brian Boone

1982: From his album The Nylon Curtain, Billy Joel releases as a single “Allentown,” a sad song about the rapid decline in the economy, culture, and overall quality of life in Allentown, Pennsylvania, due to the closure of Bethlehem Steel, the area’s main source of employment. Billy Joel, from nearby New York, was acutely aware of the downfall of Allentown when he would play concerts there for his blue-collar fan base in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The song reaches #17 on the pop chart.

1983: With a lot of time on their hands since the closing of Bethlehem Steel, as well as a lot of unresolved anger for the same reason, the city of Allentown records a response song to Billy Joel’s “Allentown” entitled “Hey, Billy Joel, What’s the Deal? (I Thought We Were Friends).” It gets modest airplay on northeastern radio stations but is not a commercial success, sending Allentown deeper into its funk.

1984: Joel, confused and offended by Allentown’s unnecessarily hostile and passive-aggressive response in song, responds with a response song of his own, “I Meant No Offense and Was Merely Trying to Shed Light on the Situation (Allentown).” The single sells a million copies, but that’s only because it’s used as the B-side of “Uptown Girl.”

1985: Now enraged for being publicly called out and made to look like a jerk, Allentown resolves to meet up with Billy Joel in the parking lot after a show at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York, and beat the crap out of him with a shovel. To get pumped up and ready to fight, Allentown listens to “Allentown” during the car ride to Flushing. Instead, Allentown realizes that this is the first time it’s ever really listened to the lyrics of the song and discovers that Billy Joel’s depiction is indeed empathetic. Still though, Allentown thinks Billy Joel is exploiting it to further his own interests and, message notwithstanding, did sort of embarrass it — yes, things were bad, but Allentown wasn’t out begging for change or anything like that.

Allentown does not beat up Billy Joel in the parking lot of Shea Stadium with a shovel, getting as far as Bridgewater, where it finds an all-night diner. Over many cups of weak black coffee, Allentown writes on a stack of napkins “Maybe, Billy Joel, But You’re Exploiting Us To Further Your Own Interests And You Embarrassed Us.” The song fails to chart, but is heard by millions when Alex (Michael J. Fox) and Ellen (Courteney Cox) slow dance to it on an episode of the popular NBC situation comedy Family Ties. The revenue allows Allentown to pay its mortgage for six months.

1986: Frustrated and increasingly paranoid that Allentown is going to ambush him in a stadium parking lot and beat him up with a shovel, Billy Joel elects to come out swinging and records “Clearly I’m Being Empathetic, You Stupid Hicks.”

Early 1987: Allentown is out at a local bar, Stu’s, one night and hears Joel’s “Clearly I’m Being Empathetic, You Stupid Hicks” on the jukebox, which was played as a joke by Easton, Pennsylvania, who was visiting for the weekend. Allentown, who had been drinking heavily all night, becomes infuriated and hastily makes plans to go home, get its gun, and end the Billy Joel situation definitively, once and for all. Allentown’s long-suffering wife, Samantha, talks her husband down as she’s done many times before. Samantha takes Allentown home and allows it to make awkward, unsatisfying love to her, after which Allentown immediately falls asleep. Samantha weeps quietly, worried about losing the house, but also wondering if her husband even remembers that their ten-year wedding anniversary is approaching and if it would even ignore it completely, because on that special day, they’d danced to Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman.”

Late 1987: Shocked and somewhat dissatisfied that he hadn’t yet received a response from Allentown, in song or otherwise, Billy Joel records another pre-emptive blow, “Yeah, Allentown, I Called You ‘Stupid Hicks.’ What Are You Gonna Do About It?”

1988: Allentown never told her, but it had heard Samantha crying that night. Allentown had pretended to be asleep; open displays of emotion always left the greater Allentown metropolitan area feeling uncomfortable and helpless. Allentown realizes how hard this six-year-long feud with Billy Joel has been on Samantha, and records a simple, four-track recording that lightly mocks the entire ordeal in the hopes of pointing out its absurdity and putting it to rest for good. Sung to the tune of “I Love Rock and Roll,” Allentown ironically, but unwisely and misleadingly titles it, “Screw You, Billy Joel.”

1990: Anxiously awaiting Allentown’s next move for the better part of four years and ready to strike as soon as possible, Billy Joel sees the single of “Screw You, Billy Joel” on display at a Tower Records. He doesn’t purchase or even listen to the song, instead writing and recording in less than two hours, “You Wanna Say That To My Face, Allentown?”

1991: Allentown hears “You Wanna Say That To My Face, Allentown?” on the radio, chuckles, and turns the dial. Allentown just doesn’t let this kind of thing bother it anymore. Allentown hasn’t had a drink in three months, has a great new job at a Delta Airlines call center, and looks forward to his romantic weekend in Philadelphia with Samantha.

Brian Boone wrote this book about music and you should definitely follow him on the Twitter.

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