New York Magazine has a fascinating column series titled, “I Think About This A Lot” where writers reflect on something—typically from pop culture—that they, well, think about a lot. I love this series, and if I ever had the opportunity to contribute my own piece, I know exactly what I’d write: “I Think About The Song Vienna by Billy Joel A Lot.”
I’ve long made the argument to friends, significant others, family members and really anyone who would listen to me: “Vienna” may be the greatest pop song of all time.
It is one of those select songs that upon hearing its first line, you feel instantly calm. A sort of nostalgia—for what or when exactly you’re unsure—and peace washes over you. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard “Vienna” on the radio, or in many movies or television shows—I don’t even remember where I heard it for the first time, although given the robust musical education that was growing up with my father, I’d guess he owned The Stranger and played it during many a car ride. I wonder how it’s possible that I can feel such a fondness for and attachment to a song whose relationship to me is a mystery. I wonder if other people’s hearts leap for this song in the way that mine does.
There are so few songs that can have this kind of visceral, immediate impact. Those that immediately come to mind for me are likewise among the all-time greats: “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root; “Long December” by Counting Crows; “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman; “Breathe (2 a.m.)” by Anna Nalick. You get the idea.
Stunningly, Joel never even released this song as a single, but I still think of it as popularly accepted, endorsed and beloved. From the first staccato chimes of the piano, you feel comforted, and even more so when Joel issues his first piece of advice: “Slow down, you crazy child.”
I’ve never been to France, and only once to Europe, but this song embodies what I imagine it feels like to walk serenely along the Seine.The melody is simple, beautiful and accessible, but the lyrics are even more straightforward. The relaxed, waltz-like beat accompanied by Joel’s sickly sweet and soaring vocals—it’s a recipe for a perfect radio hit. Just as the dulcet tones of the song threaten to become a bit monotonous, an accordion solo comes to the rescue, seemingly on cue at the two-minute mark.
The message of the song is of a kind essential to the best pop music: simple and timeless. In the briefest terms: You’ve got time. Do not fret about your future, because it will arrive in good measure and be somehow different and better than you conceived.
The song is not convoluted, it is not subtle, it is not nuanced or complicated. But somehow, over time, it has remained relevant to my life. Different lyrics have resonated at different times. In college, it was surely the question, “But then if you're so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid?” that seemed most directly personal.
In early adulthood, I’ve often needed the reminder: “Slow down, you're doing fine. You can't be everything you want to be before your time.” And in the age of a social media barrage of bad news, reductive and offensive think pieces, and seemingly endless text messages that demand response, we should all consider taking the phone off the hook and disappearing for a while.