Billy Joel is Not My Lover

Posted on Nov 25, 2017

Billy Joel is Not My Lover*

By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

This paper will locate at the intersection of memory, creativity and psychoanalysis, a place of deliberate and illegitimate playfulness. I have articulated for the program of this inaugural Billy Joel Conference (It’s All Rock and Roll to Me!) that I will provide a creative non-fiction, a commitment I will now immediately breach. I have to admit that I can no longer quite pinpoint fact from fiction. Hopefully, the melody will sway you.

I begin with a citation in the hopes of leveraging your willing suspension of belief.

According to a 2011 paper co-written by McCabe, Brewster, and Harker Tillman “more than 552,000 young men and almost 1.5 million young women aged 15–21 have engaged in consensual same-sex sexual activity. The majority of these youth do not categorize themselves as homosexual or bisexual, and many do not even acknowledge having sexual attractions to people of the same gender” (149). Of the data these scholars analysed all gathered in one single and recent year, I want to posit that a reasonable proportion of these consensual experimentations were either inspired by pop music and/or that they transpired while listening to pop music. My own biography will provide some substance to this assertion.

When Sonja, the prettiest girl in my elementary school, stood in a draught and flirted with the boy who would later be immortalized in the yearbook as most likely to end up incarcerated, it was my best friend, Meredith, who saw it first. It was Meredith whose eyes glazed over to their most faux-romantic and who then looked wanly in the direction of the nascent couple.

“We didn’t start the fire,” she sang-said, “it was always burning.” I could see just what she was getting at.

“..since the world was turning,” I added, a hint of sarcasm burnishing my response.

“The tightest little chrysanthemum buds you ever did see, eh?” Chrysanthemum meant when your nipples were so hard they pushed through your blouse. And Sonja’s were basically like dollhouse megaphones announcing her to the whole world – or the whole world of St. Catherine’s Separate School, which was our whole world. The boy most likely to be incarcerated wasn’t even giving the pretense of looking at her face. Meredith and I stared as Sonja and jailboy began sucking face. I blinked but no amount of blinking would delete that scene.

Flora,” I deadpanned. Which meant horny.

“You may be right,” Meredith said. Which meant really horny.

Meredith and I had sex code down. Our private language was manufactured out of a strange triangulation of houseplant and lyric and libido. Chrysanthemum was a favourite in our lexicon and Rhodedendron meant when one’s nipples were soft and flaccid. Because Rhododendron was a disgusting word to our puerile ears, because in our opinion flaccid nipples were a revolting fact of life and especially because we enjoyed onomatopoeia, this made it a near-perfect signifier. The language had begun its formation by grade three with “Posey,” which was the term Meredith coined for her gentler girl bits, and later “brown flower” which I had come up with for butthole. Our word-hoard grew along with our undying love for one another. Her mother claimed the we were “in each other’s pockets.” And this was surely true.

Horticultural resonances gave way to pop music codes when Meredith bought her very own transistor radio. Meredith and I had slept together since we’d met in kindergarten but now we lay on her bed, our faces up close to the tinny embedded speakers and listened into the wee hours to CFGO, a pop station that broadcast out of Ottawa Canada, listened for the moment when Joel’s honey warble or Jackson’s pinched up falsetto would scald us. We held hands, as I recall, though memory is notoriously faulty. Joel was all mine. I loved the way his sultry rock hum ran down my nerves.

“My nipples will fall off,” I breathed, the plink of She’s Always a Woman To Me setting me a-swoon.

Meredith grew solemn and like a benediction touched the tips of my nipples each three times with her pointer finger as she incanted, “Chrysanthemum, chrysanthemum, chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum, chrysanthemum, chrysanthemum.”

Jackson was Meredith’s. The shrill pop outbursts, the thump of hip. And even I had to admit that Jackson had the moves, that he knew something forbidden about the body.

“But way too skinny,” I said.

“Ye-ah,” she replied, touching her posey, her eyes almost closed, “Mmm, mmm.”

But how mortifying for Meredith when the scrawny Greek kid named Marco in grade five starting wearing a glove and a Naugahyde jacket to school.

“There’s your man,” I said. “On the floor in the round,” which meant going all the way.

She looked at me in horror.

“Please,” she said. “Don’t,” she said.

And I held my palms up in submission.

Here begins a brief foray into a pop cultural attempt at psychoanalytic theory. It’s very short so please do not leave the room. I want to suggest that: we do not desire our pop crushes. Rather we desire the fantasy of our pop crushes. If pop culture transgresses social norms for youth and if this transgression is enjoyable, it occurs along the drive vector. This vector begins with a disruption of a social norm, which ignites libidinal excitation—or Eros—and it ends with the consummation of the aim of that desire. In the case of Meredith and I, Michael Jackson and Billy Joel represented the disruptions that ignited our desire. If we had been slightly more delusional or slightly less nerdy-shy we might have sought out the actual human people MJ and BJ in order to fulfill this erotic charge. It is true that we loved, and pined, and had very bad cases of mentionitis.

The Canadian Lacanian, Jan Jagodzinski remarks that releasing jouissance (or enjoyment) “means releasing repression” (51), and we certainly enjoyed the wild release of our drive charges. We danced like fools to our own reflections in the living room bay window at my house, we threw off clothes, and thrust our hips until mum and dad suggested we “settle down.” We croaked out love and transgression into a mic we’d fashioned from a wooden spoon. And by God how we laughed at our own maniacal shenanigans. But our desire aimed elsewhere. We sublimated it into one another. We came to stand in for the pop icons we loved. At the time, we believed that we were the only ones on this great good earth who could ever really, truly understand us.

We spent the summer outside with Meredith’s transistor, slathering our bikini-ed selves in baby oil and burning until we got sufficient base to set the stage for later skin cancers. When our songs came on, we lip-synched the lyrics to each other or pounced off the lawn loungers and gyrated to the music; we experienced a kind of lust felt exquisitely through melody. In those moments, we knew life. We knew theoretical heartbreak. We were a more-cruel Betty and a better-natured Veronica. We knew our true value in a pure way we never would or could again. Our longings were electric and universal—and more or less the same. If we disagreed, we talked until we forgot our distinct viewpoints. We policed one other until we were beautifully, hysterically identical, until people thought we were sisters, until people mistook us for each other. The Eros ran back and forth between us like a feather never hitting ground. It was understood that we would have died for each other if it came to that.

One weekend, at my place, at perhaps our three thousandth sleepover, camping out in sleeping bags in my living room, Meredith leaned in and kissed me on the lips. It was the first time I had ever been kissed by anyone other than my parents or grandparents. The kiss started as a peck and quickly became unruly—like nothing a parent or grandparent would impart.

So this was kissing, I thought.

“Sometimes a fantasy/is all that you need,” I said when we finally disengaged.

“Don’t wait for answers,” she crooned.

“You may be right,” I said. “I may be crazy.”

“Haha!” she said, and turned away as if to sleep. “Well, you’re always a woman to me!”

“Haha,” I responded. “Hahahaha.”

I woke first the next morning. My lips were singing with some blurred recollection and I was not entirely convinced that I had not dreamed it all. But then Meredith rolled over, stared fierce and deep into my eyes and said, “You try to scream, but terror takes the sound before/You make it/You start to freeze as horror looks you right between/The eyes/You’re paralyzed.”

My nipples went from Rhododendron to Chrysanthemum so fast they felt like ionized magnets. And we burst into raucous laughter until my mum got up and scolded us from the second floor. So, we plunked Joel onto the turntable and, with the dial at its audible lowest, we whisper-sang the entire album directly into each other’s mouths.

Pop music provides a ritual portal into the sort of identities we condone, glorify, reify. These are the singable identities. It is through the pop music of our adolescent epochs that we come to be who we are. These moments of mediated redemption, yearning, and awakening are our early differentiations and our first adult assimilations. Pop music provides the scissors to the final severing of our umbilicus. Together, Meredith and I explored precisely who and what we were not. And in between we kissed. Pure, reckless kisses that never went anywhere because somehow for us—in the bridge between elementary and high school—they were precisely enough. They marked a time, and coded a contract that read: WE ARE NOT OUR PARENTS.

But still, the kissing weighed. I agonized over our kisses. Of the “almost 1.5 million young women aged 15–21” who “have engaged in consensual same-sex sexual activity” according to McCabe, Brewster, and Harker Tillman, I suggest that only 1 million gave evidence of the pop music to which they transgressed, and very few admitted to having confessed to anyone. I also need to point out that the data combed for these statistics predates by two years the girl-on-girl kissing contagion Katy Perry’s hit song “I Kissed a Girl” unleashed in 2008.

I, of course, did confess. I told my parish priest that I had kissed a girl.

“How?” he asked leaning into the grate that separated us.

“To the dying strains of Don’t Ask Me Why,” I naively answered.

I was hoping he would beckon me to talk about the song, quote the lyrics, sing. Instead he admonished me not to kiss until I married, gave me two decades of the rosary and a series of Hail Marys as punishment. “Kissing leads nowhere,” he muttered, but this I knew already. It was information that only clarified what I already understood as my central theme. It was to nowhere I desperately wanted to arrive. The nowhere of sinking into a crooned love lyric, the nowhere of a fantastic somewhere.

“Every dog must have his everyday,” I muttered exiting the vestibule. But as I slumped over toward the First Station of the Cross, I heard Father Bart whistling the chorus of Only the Good Die Young into the immensely satisfying acoustics of the chapel. I had clearly ignited something, some priestly Eros, some latent unsung love. I sang the lyrics—quiet and sober—while standing beneath Jesus Falling the First Time. I sang and sang as Father Bart warbled through Piano Man and It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me, his whistle attaining a seductive vibrato. And finally, I left as he launched into We Didn’t Start the Fire, evoking Sonja, her wee megaphones, the lust of it all swirling awkwardly behind me as the church doors shushed closed.

The trouble with Eros is that it gets bored easily and seeks some new direction. Eros is the ADHD of affect. For instance, of the 1 million adolescent female respondents who I imagine gave information about the pop music that inspired or serenaded them in their encounters in 2006, none cited either Michael Jackson or Billy Joel. An epoch had ended.

In 1984, Meredith and I watched the Grammys together. I knew already that an ascendency was occurring but still held out hope that Joel might pick up Album of the Year, the only category in which he was nominated. But as Jackson took the stage again and again to the point that even Meredith began to suppress the unabashed banshee squeals she had uttered at his first few wins, I could feel something important atrophy within me.

“Billy Joel’s not cool,” I said. “He’s just not cool.”

“He is,” Meredith said. “He is cool. Anyway, cool isn’t everything. Winning isn’t everything.”

She tried to kiss me then, but there was something corrupted and compensatory in her attempt and I pushed her away. I was sullen and petty. It was true that winning wasn’t everything, and that cool wasn’t everything either, but it was sure unpleasant to have loved and lost, beside your bestie, who had loved and won and won and won. We didn’t kiss that night, and we never kissed again. We grew apart as people do.

*Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer gave this paper at the first ever Billy Joel Conference which was organized and held at Colorado College, Colorado Springs in the fall of 2016.