Billy Joel’s worldwide hit “Just The Way You Are” was released two months before my birth, in September 1977. I love it dearly. It’s a perfectly-produced piece of soft rock, with a lyric that tells us just what we want to hear.
And that’s precisely what’s wrong with it.
Pop music has always lied to us, but “Just The Way You Are” is caught up in something far more insidious: the art of self-delusion.
To be fair, the signs are all there in the production: the beautiful electric piano that opens the song, drenched in chorus and phase shifts, is the aural equivalent of amniotic fluid. You could sleep forever in its womb-like substance.
The inherent contradiction in the song lies with the narrator saying he loves you just the way you are, while simultaneously pleading on several occasions to “don’t go changing”. None of us remains the same throughout our lives, and that’s a fact you have to accept if you’re going to have a successful long-term relationship.
There’s a difference between shared nostalgia and mourning for a past that you will never recapture. If, caught up in the flush of first love, you’re hoping that you’ll always be cocooned in that electric piano, you’re in for one hell of a comedown.
The spread of the soft-rock meme of eternal, unchanging love takes flight as Joel first sings the line, “I’ll take you just the way you are”. At this point, the tenor sax refrain sashays in, as it always does in songs about love, or dance/pop tracks about moving on up and kicking deadbeats to the curb (thank you M People).
On verse 2, a lush wash of breathy synth underpins the depth of the narrator’s desire to keep his lover rooted in the present: “Don’t go trying some new fashion, don’t change the colour of your hair” – there’s most gay men ruled out right there.
The beauty of the music then covers a multitude of sins in the next line, “You always have my unspoken passion, although I might not seem to care.”
That doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid. “You know I love you” does not make up for not being there when your partner needs you, ignoring his needs, and putting him last on your list of priorities, because of some unspoken passion. If it’s unspoken, how is he supposed to know it’s there?
Communication doesn’t seem high on the priority list here. The line, “I don’t want clever conversation, I never want to work that hard” is repeated twice in the song. Relationships are hard work, and conversation skills – clever or otherwise – are something you’re going to need. Sometimes you’re the diplomat, sometimes you’re the life coach, sometimes you’re an arsehole. Or all three in succession.
By the time we reach the middle-eight, it sounds as though the lover isn’t convinced. As the narrator continues to plead for him not to change, the narrator asks, “What will it take till you believe in me, the way that I believe in you?”
Maybe the lover knows that the narrator has fallen in love with an image, a frozen moment in time, rather than a real, evolving person.
And as is often the case, the narrator expects something without necessarily giving it in return. While being lulled into a false sense of security over three glorious minutes, including an instrumental break with the ubiquitous sax and a floating string arrangement that sounds like its being piped in via an elevator held up by angels, we get to the final repeat of “I love you just the way you are”, in which Joel jumps to an unexpected and previously unintroduced chord. It’s ok for him to change, then.
Ironically, Joel reportedly didn’t like the song, which was written about his then wife Elizabeth Weber. They parted ways in 1982.
It sits neatly alongside other tracks on one of Joel’s most famous albums, “The Stranger”, the title track of which alludes to the fact that we can perhaps never really know a person, no matter how much we love them, or how long they’re in our lives.
The lesson? Enjoy the dream that pop music paints, but don’t forget to wake up afterwards.