One of the things that one discovers when one has been trained to look at the world with an objective, skeptical eye is that there are things out there in that world that just aren't as wonderful as they might have originally seemed. Things that we believed were great that, once placed under skeptical scrutiny, actually kind of suck.
This song was a top ten hit, and got Grammy Awards for best record and best song, according to Wikipedia. I was about six years old when the song was first released and, as such, it has stood as a paragon of the romantic pop ballad for essentially my entire life. It is beloved by millions - if you ever go to a Billy Joel concert, you can hear the entire audience singing along with it. Lovers swoon when one sings it to the other, as happened on many a dance floor in my 1980's adolescence, and in many a karaoke bar.
This is because they've never examined the lyrics of the song they are singing. Just for fun, let's do that now (fair warning here - if you love this song and want to continue to do so, unexamined, stop here. I won't think any less of you. Really[^1]).
Don't go changing, to try and please me You never let me down before
We seem to start out good here - a message of unconditional acceptance and regard that would make Carl Rogers proud.
Or is it? "You never let me down before"... Is this in response to some slight?
Or is the word "before" meant to imply that it hasn't happened yet? Am I reading too much into this too soon? Let's explore a little further.
Don't imagine you're too familiar And I don't see you anymore
Why would she be imagining this? Is she imagining it? Clearly this has come up as a point of discussion, at least, if not one of argument.
I wouldn't leave you in times of trouble We never could have come this far
We've had some pretty shitty times, haven't we Baby? But we are still here even though it's been awful...
I took the good times, I'll take the bad times I'll take you just the way you are
And there's the key to the song - I'll take you just the way you are. But the line that precedes it clearly suggests that all the happiness is a thing of the past: "I took the good times" - past tense - remember those good times we had, back when?; followed by "I'll take the bad times" - future tense - cuz that's what seems to be coming along.
Which means that taking you "just the way you are" is taking you in the bad times. Which is all we are going to have going forward, apparently.
Don't go trying some new fashion Don't change the color of your hair You always have my unspoken passion Although I might not seem to care
Even though I ignore you most of the time, you should just assume that I love you deeply and passionately. The reality here is that, aside from writing this song - which he clearly hopes will stand in for all of the relationship heavy lifting that he isn't prepared to do - he would really prefer it if any and all affection or attention could just be taken as a given.
And going back to the beginning - she's clearly not imagining that he doesn't see her any more. He's admitting it here outright, though he'd clearly like her to think otherwise.
Clearly this verse is in the running for the douchiest part of the song, in neck and neck with the next:
I don't want clever conversation I never want to work that hard I just want someone that I can talk to I want you just the way you are.
Here we have the direct implication that his sweetie really isn't very smart. But, you know, that's okay, because talking to smart people is a more challenging undertaking than he wants to manage.
Implicit in that is the suggestion that he could manage it, but he'd rather not. So, you know, that's why he keeps her around.
I need to know that you will always be The same old someone that I knew What will it take till you believe in me The way that I believe in you.
Here one wants to suggest that Billy go back and read the first two-thirds of his own f*%king lyrics if he is really having trouble understanding why it is that she's having trouble believing in him. And, given his descriptions of her here, one wonders what "believing in" him in the same way as he "believes in" her would look like.
I said I love you and that's forever
No, no it wasn't. This was written for his first wife, whom he later divorced. Now, if it were not for the massive douchebaggery presented in the prior lines, I'd be tempted to give this one a pass. After all, the world of love songs is filled with declarations of "forever" and "always", so why shouldn't this song be forgiven as well?
But he's such a dick prior to this point I just can't see letting it go.
And this I promise from the heart I could not love you any better
I think the common - and perhaps intended - interpretation of this line is that he is so filled with love for her that there's simply no more that he could generate. Still, everything prior to this point is such a melange of passive-aggressive spite that it seems impossible this isn't meant that way as well. "I could not love you any better" is to say "I have exactly this much love for you, and given that you are kind of a dummy that I really just prefer to ignore most of the time, that's all you are gonna get".
It also implies that he has absolutely no intention of putting any additional effort into this relationship - what she's getting now is what she's gonna get.
I love you just the way you are.
In the end, this song is essentially a passive-aggressive finger in the eye of a person for whom it's written. One wonders if that was intentional, or if Billy Joel was unable to see the reality of the lyrics that he composed. Both possibilities are fascinating in their own right. It's also interesting that this song was written for and about the same person as the song She's Always a Woman, which is also, shall we say, a less than flattering depiction.
If we're going to dig into history, one might also note that despite the declaration that he loved her just the way she was, he later dated Elle Macpherson and then married Christie Brinkley, whom he later still left and then married a woman 32 years his junior. All of which suggests that he will love you just the way you as long as you are young and incredibly attractive.
But perhaps all of that is unfair - the art is not the artist, after all. Once it's released to the world it becomes what it is for each person who experiences it. And besides, the lyrics are still a passive-aggressive feast of awful on their own.
[^1]: Okay, I might.