(June 30, 2023).  A lot can happen in 34 years, so much so that Fall Out Boy—the popular rock group out of the burbs of Chicago—decided to release an update of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” the 1989 quick musical jaunt through the previous 40 years of important world headlines from a famous Baby Boomer’s perspective. 

In ‘89, first-ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Joel, who earlier this month made history himself after announcing that he’d be ending the longest residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden after 150 lifetime shows, wrote and recorded “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as a sort-of nod to the history of his lifetime (starting with the year of his birth in ‘49).

In less than five minutes, the former No. 1 hit took listeners from Harry Truman (who began his second U.S. presidential term in ‘49) to “rock and roller cola wars,” a reference to the then-ongoing, late-‘80s marketing battles between Coca-Cola and Pepsi in their attempts to outdo each other by getting music’s top stars to promote their products.

The current remake by Fall Out Boy—the 20-year hitmakers who are mostly Millennials known for smashes like “Centuries,” “Thks Fr Th Mmrs” and “Uma Thurman”—has undergone criticism (unfairly I might add) for its updated take on Joel’s musical history lesson, both for its content—or lack thereof—and for the non-chronological way in which the punk-leaning band recaps events.

In the FOB version (released just this past Wednesday, the 28th)—right out of the gate—lead singer Patrick Stump jumps from names and events that happened in the ‘90s (“Captain Planet”) to the 2010s (Arab Spring), back to the ‘90s (LA Riots, Rodney King) and up to the current decade (Deep Fakes).

This zigzag pattern continues through every frame.  In verse 2, the Unabomber (who died earlier this month of a reported suicide) appears alongside John Bobbitt (penile amputee in 1993), the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013), Balloon Boy (hoax in 2009), the War on Terror (2000s) and QAnon (2010s and today).

Fall Out Boy’s remake of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (2023)

Similar references are lumped together, like mass school shootings (Sandy Hook, Columbine), racial injustices (Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice), and royal passings (music icon Prince and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II), which, despite their timeline gaps adding fuel to critics’ complaints, actually work well from a prose standpoint. (Queen Elizabeth ironically provides a connective thread between the two versions as her ascendancy to the British throne is also captured in Joel’s original.)

Aside from the lack of chronological order and some awkward rhyme choices (they rhyme George Floyd with Metroid), FOB’s version has been roundly criticized in social media for one particularly glaring omission: the pandemic, arguably the only event that rivals or exceeds 9/11 in terms of its significance over the 34-year span that FOB’s rendition covers (9/11 gets a late mention in the final line of the song’s final verse).

Fall Out Boy also whiffed on one of the most significant Supreme Court rulings of the past 50 years—the overturning of Roe v Wade in 2022–which is still considered a fresh wound to many women around the country to this day. (Joel at least gave props to The Pill.)

Truth be told, neither version of the song does women’s history much justice.  The first female isn’t mentioned by name in FOB’s version until Taylor Swift (alongside scandal-mate Kanye West) at the end of the song’s second verse.  

By then, sixteen men were already name-checked. 

Swift is one of only six women (along with Sandra Bland, Meghan Markle, Venus and Serena Williams, and Queen Elizabeth II) to get mentions in FOB’s “Fire,” vs. 34 men.

In Joel’s original, there were 54 men—both fictional and not—whose names were included, vs. only six women (a far-worse ratio): Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Grace, and Sally Ride, with American spy (for the Russians) Ethel Rosenberg getting a joint mention along with her husband.  

As someone who was around when Joel’s original was a hit, I don’t recall it being criticized for its content so much as it was for being considered annoying by some. Joel himself told Howard Stern in a 2010 interview that he thought the song sucked musically.

Billy Joel interview with Howard Stern (2010)

Joel admitted in the interview that he had deviated from his tried-and-true formula of coming up with music first before crafting lyrics to fit, doing the exact opposite for “Fire.”  If the melody sounds lame or like patchwork to you, that account from Joel likely explains why. 

Otherwise, the first “Fire” was considered at the time to be a pretty thorough jaunt through then-modern history.

But on further review, a closer examination of Joel’s song’s timeline reveals that there were some key omissions of important people and events, particularly in the latter part of the history session…even some stuff whose more recent historical parallels got nods in the FOB version.  

For example, the 2023 remake mentions the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011, during which three nuclear reactors experienced meltdowns in Japan.  The Piano Man’s original made no mention of either Three Mile Island (the US’ worst nuclear accident in 1979) or Chernobyl (the world’s worst in 1986).

Record-breaking inflation and gas shortages were huge newsmakers during the 1970s, but neither got a nod in Joel’s “Fire.”

While former president Barack Obama—the nation’s first Black commander-in-chief—is mentioned in the new FOB remake, Dr. Martin Luther King—the Civil Rights leader for whom a national holiday was enacted just a few years before Joel’s hit—was not mentioned in the 1989 version (although the “My Life” singer does include Malcolm X).

Also, Fall Out Boy made it a point to mention Michael Jackson’s death in their update.  

No mention of the King of Pop (or Thriller) was included in Joel’s original—despite the two men both being under the CBS Records umbrella and Jackson being the biggest star in the world at the time.

And while both Jackson and Prince (and Kurt Cobain for that matter) all get eulogized, so-to-speak, in the FOB remake, neither Elvis Presley’s nor John Lennon’s untimely passings—arguably the two most significant rock-and-roll deaths of the 25 years preceding Joel’s hit—are referenced in the first “Fire.”

Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” video (1989)

To be fair, Elvis gets name-checked earlier in the song, but only during the 1955 part of the timeline covering the future King of Rock and Roll’s ascendancy.

Hey, if Richard Nixon can get two nods (and he does in Joel’s hit), then certainly Elvis could too, right?

And just as Elvis was extremely important to popular music in the 1950s and beyond, so was MTV during the 1980s.  But you would not have known it from hearing Joel zip through the song’s final verse (covering the years 1964-1989) in which the former all-music TV network got zero mentions.

Part of the issue with Joel’s original version of “Fire” is the fact that he crammed the 25 years from 1964-89 into the song’s fifth and final verse.  By contrast, the first 15 years were spread across four stanzas, allowing many more names and events to be included.

Perhaps this was Billy Joel’s way of saying history was changing so fast, he couldn’t keep up anymore.  (Indeed both his and FOB’s versions retain the throw-up-your-hands line “I can’t take it anymore.”)

As testimony to that fact, by the time the most significant development of 1989–and arguably the late 20th century—occurred, Joel’s “Fire” was already in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and heading to No. 1.

That would be the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989.

Of course, that event fell on the cusp of both Joel’s and FOB’s versions of the song, making for an interesting juxtaposition between the two periods in question.

As a result, the history-shifting fall of the Berlin wall is not covered in FOB’s version either (nor is another famous “wall” of the 2010s at our southern border, or the immigration issue that predicated it).

But just as Joel’s hit coincided with one of the most significant events of the 20th century, so does Fall Out Boy’s. 

Just this week, on the day after FOB’s version was released, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that reversed 60 years of prior rulings and precedent and will have civil rights ramifications for generations to come.

It’s a game-changing event that was too late to be included in FOB’s cover, and likely too early to be captured in a future remake decades from now by an act who may still be in diapers today.

All of which goes to show that, while the pandemic’s omission may be unforgivable, criticisms of such pop song time capsules should be mostly taken with grains of salt.

Fall Out Boy’s decision to cast chronology to the wind is likely just as much a statement about the continuum of time being less and less important in a world where we can access everything everywhere all at once, as Joel’s speed-run through the last 25 years of his first 40-year history was a statement about how fast history was changing at the time. 

In that sense, Fall Out Boy’s version of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is no more or less perfect than Billy Joel’s original, which had its own flaws.

Including the one flaw that Joel would agree is common to both tunes—that “meh” melody he wrote.


DJRob (he/him/his), who appreciated all the homer references of Chi-town (Michael Jordan twice, the 2016 Cubs, Sandra Bland) in FOB’s version of “Fire,” is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

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