Jordan’s Postcolonial Analysis of Vienna by Billy Joel

Postcolonial criticism can be defined with regards to European domination and its effects. More specifically, this technique of criticism can be broken down into how the colonizers asserted their ideologies and how the colonized responded and adapted. When consulting popular culture, it’s not difficult to see this theory in action, including in the 1977 hit: Vienna by Billy Joel.

For those of you that haven’t heard it, or totally missed the message in the song, Vienna is about a young adult who spends their time trying to force success into their life. Taken at face value, the song could be Joel’s way of warning that person to “slow down.” However, if looked at metaphorically, the person Joel is speaking to in Vienna could reference colonizing nations and their extension of liberal ideals. Vienna, itself, symbolizes the European view that subaltern nations would lead a better life if colonized and so it is the duty, rather than the privilege of Europeans to colonize the world. To further this thesis, I’ll do a stanza breakdown of the song.

Slow down you crazy child

You’re so ambitious for a juvenile

But then if you’re so smart tell me,

Why are you still so afraid?

As mentioned before, the child represents nations in the process of colonizing other areas of the globe. Major cultural changes must occur in order to uproot the fundamentals of a society (language, values, morals, traditions, mannerisms, dress, behaviors, etc.) and replace them with those of another. Therefore, the ambitious nature of the “juvenile” represents the hierarchies being developed by the invader countries that establish new accepted fundamentals according to the more powerful society. Joel’s next two lines reference how the fear of the unknown presented in the societies being marginalized amplifies the more powerful society’s desire to instrument ideals that are more civilized.

Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?

You better cool it off before you burn it out

You got so much to do and only

So many hours in a day

The next stanza stresses the role of imperialism in postcolonial theory. In the 20th century, European nations extended imperial control in attempts to stimulate the mimicry of the (deemed) uncivilized societies to the civilized ones. The following lines reference a very Eurocentric view of time (24 hour days, approximately 30 day months, 12 month years).

But you know that when the truth is told

That you can get what you want

Or you can just get old

You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through

When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?

In this stanza, Joel argues that anti-colonialism maintains itself as an important aspect of postcolonialism because while postcolonialism discusses the influence of the invader countries, the resistance or adoption of traits in the societies being colonized plays a crucial role. The first two lines discuss the success of cross-cultural hybridization and the third and fourth lines bring up the tendency of the abandonment of subaltern nations by their colonizers causing major detriment to their society.

Slow down you’re doing fine

You can’t be everything you want to be before your time

Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight

Too bad, but it’s the life you lead

These stanzas suggest the normalizing judgment used to determine the difference of subaltern societies from those European nations atop the hierarchy. The romance referenced in line 2 refers to the blinding view that the colonization of the subaltern is ALWAYS good for that society regardless of the current system. The European system is normalized to be the standard for a good quality of life regardless of the society being colonized’s quality of life.

You got your passion, you got your pride

But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?

Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true

When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?

Passion, and pride, and satisfaction refer to the results of successful marginalization of cultures into Europeanized ones. The Europeans in this stanza are described as being fools for being satisfied because they are unaware of the identity crisis this type of marginalization can instill in a culture.

Billy Joel’s Vienna articulates both sides of postcolonialism by incorporating Eurocentric behaviors through his depiction of the child in his song, and effects of colonialism on developing nations through his advice to the child.

Sidenote: For those of you who haven’t heard Vienna, I highly recommend giving it a listen. It’s a fantastic song.

One thought on “Jordan’s Postcolonial Analysis of Vienna by Billy Joel

  1. Alyssa

    I would never have picked this song to analyze for postcolonial theory, but I think you did an amazing job doing so. I really loved that you mentioned how Billy Joel argues for both sides of colonization and that he did so in a fairly fluid way. I can tell you took a good chunk of time to analyze each verse and I think it really shows!

    By the way, this song is truly amazing so I agree, it is worth listening to.

Leave a Reply