Music Debate: Elton John Vs Billy Joel
Welcome to my first open music debate. Today's round will see the "Rocket Man" - Elton John - pitted against the "Piano Man" - Billy Joel. The following debate is intended to discuss the merits of the two musicians in question based on a variety of subjective and objective criterion, such as critical acclaim, musical proficiency and complexity, enduring popularity, influence, et al.
Rules for acceptance:
1. No simple claims of "music is subjective, so this debate is meaningless." Not only does this argument avoid the purpose of the debate, but it is ultimately destructive to any debate. Unless dealing in strictly epistemological terms, any debate on any subject can be destroyed on this basis, as there is no widely accepted epistemological proof of existence itself, let alone the quality of music. Arguments can be made to evaluate complexity of musical arrangement, composition, talent level in somewhat objective means. This argument is not conducive to good debate.
2. Musical citation is encouraged.
3. Citing music critics' arguments is encouraged, though each side is openly encouraged to argue against any arguments said critics make (i.e. Robert Christgau argues "A" about "B" Billy Joel song, but this is a fundamental misreading of the tune).
4. Ad populum arguments may be submitted, though by no means are they a winning feature.
5. Judges may not vote based on prior knowledge of the artists in question and their opinions of the artists' work. The only songs/albums permissible as evidence of an artist's quality are those explicitly cited during the course of the debate.
Side Pro will advocate that Elton John is the superior artist, while Side Con will advocate that Billy Joel is the superior artist.
My first stance would be to deliver one counter criteria to today's debate, that being self sufficiency*.. This criteria will be necessary as it will prove decisive in this debate; rightfully taking into account the partnership that created Elton John's initial success; as opposed to the self sufficient creative process that can be attributed to Joel's. This criteria is, as I think everyone will agree, is imperative to the question of superior artistry on the individual level. As such, we can look to the great melodies John provides and the vocal talent he brings to his work, but in discussing collaborations with Bernie Taupin, who championed the lyrics, we must tread carefully.
I don't think anyone will question the poetic beauty of both the song 'Piano Man' by Billy Joel, or 'Tiny Dancer' by Elton John, but something must be said of how they were brought about when looking to claim one artist victorious over the other. The difference is, that the success of Joel was truly the success of Joel; while Johns was a joint effort of two people who did well with different parts of the puzzle that is music. While no one will disagree with Elton's talents; however on the aspect of musical superiority surely something must be said of creating popular music completely, over contributed effort.
"The piano sounds like a carnival/and the microphone smells like a beer/and they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar/and say 'man what are you doing here?' is just one example of the vivid imagery that exists in the song 'Piano Man'. That is Billy Joel. "Jesus freaks out in the street/Handing tickets out for God/Turning back she just laughs/the boulevard is not that bad." That is Elton John, voicing somebody else. Doing something that is difficult, singing well and writing melody well, but none the less is doing something that is less difficult than to be one person singing well, writing melody well, and writing lyric well. This fact makes the beauty of songs like Vienna which contain such insight as 'You've got your passion, you've got your pride/But don't you know that only fools are satisfied?/Dream on, but don't imagine they'll all come true' all the more inspiring, because the art as a whole is created by one body.
Now, I admit this criteria suggestion is rather unorthodox, but it is with the genuine interest of a fair debate. How is one to judge the Critical Acclaim and Musical Complexity of an artist when that artist is actually two? How can one judge the importance of Lennon as a musician when looking at a song that McCartney wrote? You must determine competitive success in a field by looking at the results and effects of two things performing the same task, but uniquely that is not the case here. To make it the case you must strip Elton John of his collaboration with Bernie Taupin in order to compare him in terms of success to Billy Joel, who did write those songs lyrically and melodically as well as sing them. With this necessary criteria in place, We can now compare the two artists.
Nearly all of Billy Joel's successful works stand, Nearly none of Elton John's body of work stands.
Now one might say this is all counter intuitive to good debate, and to this I must disagree. The spirit of this debate lies in the ability of the individual, its the whole point of it. Deciding who is better. In this case, the contribution of success Bernie Taupin has had upon Elton John is enormous. He has been a part of the soundtrack to our lives but because he exists as this other variable that intrudes upon an actual legitimate debate of talent that he must be removed. If the talent that is Sir Elton John and Billy Joel were stranded by themselves in two separate recording studios making an album, in say in the year 1980; and you had to invest all of your life's earnings into the success of only one of those albums, one by Joel and one by John, who would be the more logical bet, preference aside? Elton John, to my knowledge, has no album where he is responsible for lyric, melody, and singing. Billy Joel has several. If we are sticking strictly to the year '1980' from my scenario the album that comes to mind would be Joel's 'Glass Houses', quite a great album which to any who don't know gave us 'Its still Rock and Roll to me' a great commentary on the musical deviations that were happening at the time and the affity for rock and roll as well as many others such as 'Dont Ask Me Why' and 'You May Be Right'.
If we were to go back further, one must surely mention The Stranger, which is truly one of Joel's greatest works. 'Just the Way You Are' has become a staple of classic ballads, alongside Harrison's Something on the Beatles' Abbey Road. 'Only the Good Die Young' has also become emblazoned in pop culture for its scandalous protagonist trying to have premarital relations with a Catholic girl, and 'Scenes from An Italian Restaurant' which follows a young couple from early romance to inevitable separation.
There are many more that grace the album but one that truly deserves an aside recognition is 'Moving Out (Anthony's Song)'. It is the story of inequality that faces immigrants and their inevitable struggle to move up through society. This is where Joel does some of his best work, on the social conscious, creating popular works that also speak to the warts of society. 'Moving Out' isn't the first time, and certainly not the last that Joel will question or bring attention to subjects popular music didn't dare tread, he would do the same with such great pieces as 'Leningrad' 'Goodnight Saigon' 'Allentown' 'The Downeaster Alexa' 'The Entertainer' and 'Miami 2017: I've Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway'. All of these songs in some way canvas a subject that brings to light how one can use influence to raise awareness while still making good works. All of these songs mentioned above graced popularity charts at the time of their release, speaking to their extra ordinariness in terms of sound as well as subject.
To this end, I have seen no original Elton John works that challenge any of the works I have just listed.
I’d like to thank my opponent for his first speech. He has set up the debate to come quite well, and I appreciate the debate going forward. I will begin this speech with a refutation/clarification of my opponent’s argument, before proceeding into my overall case structure.
Let us consider my opponent’s overarching argument. In the beginning of the debate, we established that we would consider these criteria:
My opponent suggests that we should add 5. “Self-sufficiency” to the list. On this point, it appears as if Billy Joel is absolutely triumphant, as he writes both the lyrics and the melodies to his songs, as opposed to Sir Elton John, who only writes the melodies. Undoubtedly, this factor should be taken in consideration when deciding this debate. Yet I feel that adding “self-sufficiency” as a criterion in its own capacity is somewhat self-defeating for both sides. For we must question where “self-sufficiency” begins and ends. For, if I’m to accept my opponent's reasoning, Billy Joel is equally non-self-sufficient as Elton John.
Consider the fact that Sir John’s and Joel’s songs were produced by Gus Dudgeon and Phil Ramone, respectively. Without Gus Dudgeon’s subtle use of strings, “Your Song” would not be considered a masterpiece of 70s singer-songwriting. By the same token, the infectious pop blasts of “Tell Her About It” or the jazzy atmosphere of “New York State of Mind” would not have existed without Phil Ramone’s clever production techniques. If we are to truly judge hese artists on an individual level, as my opponent recommends, we must strip everything away from their tracks except for the vocal and the piano. If so, we would hear two piano players with different songs, one of whom sings with relatively simple and artistically perilous words [as I will discuss in a future speech], one of whom sings gibberish but with a greater sense of musical and emotional virtuosity. To do this would be to render both artists’ songs ineffective and weaken their overall artistic integrity; as a result, I don’t think this is a proper criterion by which to judge the musicians’ abilities.
Even if my opponent chooses only to constrain “self-sufficiency” to the concept of melody and lyric, I’m still not sure if the argument stands. My opponent argues, “nearly none of Elton John’s body of work stands” due to Elton's contribution being based solely on its composition. If we were to remove the lyrics, Elton’s songs would be nothing more than meaningless drivel. Billy Joel is a superior musician purely on the basis of having words. Yet let us apply this idea to another musician: Wolfgang von Mozart. Most of his vocal works and operas were set to libretti written by other people. Applying the same principle, if we removed all the words to Don Giovanni or La Nozze di Figaro, would their artistic merit be diminished any less? Should Billy Joel be a superior artist just on the basis of having words? I doubt many would say yes.
I will concede that the merit of lyric-writing can be evaluated as a metric of  musical proficiency/complexity. Lyric-writing is a talent Elton John does not possess, a fact to which any fans of his Bluesology-era songs can attest. Yet to divorce Elton’s songs of all merit and meaning due to his lack of writing the words is too much of a strain for me, or any other critical listener, to make.
With that, I turn to my main line of argumentation.
1. From a critical standpoint, Sir Elton John is a superior artist.
Examining this website , a compilation of nearly every list of modern rock music criticism, we see that Elton John has 20 songs listed as among the most acclaimed in rock history, while Billy Joel only has ten. Likewise, Joel has only two albums listed as compared to John’s seven. In addition, the top three highest ranked Elton John songs (“Your Song, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Rocket Man”) all top Billy Joel’s highest ranked song, “Piano Man.” Likewise, from a pure critical perspective, purist art rock critics such as Piero Scaruffi  and Robert Christgau  respect Elton John’s songwriting ability and abhor Billy Joel’s. Billy Joel has even been accused by Slate magazine of being the worst pop singer ever (granted, an assessment that I disagree with).
Whatever way one looks at it, Elton John is more critically respected.
2. From a musical standpoint, Sir Elton John is a superior artist.
I think we can examine Elton John and Billy Joel’s musicianship in five ways.
As discussed before, I can concede that Billy Joel could triumph in category A, as he is able to write both lyrics and melodies. In every other category, Elton John outclasses Billy Joel by far.
In terms of singing, Elton’s early work trumps Billy Joel’s in range (see “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), intonation (see “Indian Sunset”), vocal improvisation (see “Take Me to the Pilot”), and breath support (see “Sixty Years On”). By contrast, Billy Joel’s chest voice to falsetto break is glaring and often off-putting (see “Leave a Tender Moment Alone”). Even as the two artists have aged, Elton’s voice has held up. On recordings such as The Union and The Diving Board, Elton sounds crisp and clear, while Billy Joel must either scream through his old songs, as on 12 Gardens Live or meander through easy melodic lines as in “All My Life.”
By Joel’s own admission , Elton John is a superior piano player. While Joel’s “Angry Young Man” and “Root Bear Rag” are certainly impressive, they aren’t even in the same league of difficulty as “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” or “Song for Guy.” And that’s not to discuss Elton’s often improvisatory methods of playing and placing chords. While Joel is far more bound to play basic block chords (see “She’s Got a Way”), Elton usually alters chopping structures with arpeggios and other trills (see “Postcards from Richard Nixon”).
While both players compose from a wide palate, what with Billy Joel’s wide palate of 60s influences (see the Nylon Curtain album), Elton John has had a far wider and comprehensive breadth of musical inspirations and works. Consider the Tumbleweed Connection album, based entirely around the sounds of American country and western music. In addition, Elton John has written the soundtracks to a small assortment of Broadway shows – The Lion King, Aida, and Billy Elliott – all of which received critical respect. Throw in dashes of calypso (see anything from Rock of the Westies), glam rock (see “Grey Seal”), and psychedelia (see “Lady Samantha”), and one has a more comprehensive composer.
Finally, Elton John manages to channel more emotion through his songs than Billy Joel ever does. Most critics of Billy Joel deride him for his emotionless vocals on “She’s Always a Woman to Me” and “Where’s the Orchestra”; while he has given us some truly great performances on “She’s Got a Way” and “Just the Way You Are,” for instance, these are outliers compared to the bulk of his career. Even when Elton John is singing about material that isn’t particularly evocative (“The Cage,” “Screw You (Young Man’s Blues),” “I’ve Seen That Movie Too”), he gives 100% of his pathos into a song. His duds are more infrequent, and he manages to sell his compositions far better.
While Elton may not write lyrics, he is superior to Billy Joel in every other element of musical artistry.
3. From a popular standpoint, Sir Elton is a superior artist.
This category holds no contest . In the US, Sir Elton John has had 56 top 40 hits, 9 of which have reached the number one spot. In the UK, he has had 71 top 40 hits, 8 of which have reached the number one spot. Joel, by comparison has had 31 US top 40 hits, three of which have gone to number one. In the UK, he has had 16 top 40 hits, only one of which has gone to number one. Billy Joel has released 13 studio albums; Sir Elton John has released 31. Worldwide, Elton John is the fifth-highest selling musician in human history; Joel is the twentieth-highest selling . At the very least, Sir Elton John’s music has moved a greater number of ears than Joel’s.
4. From an influential standpoint, Sir Elton is a superior artist.
To uphold this standard, I need only quote Billy Joel . He admits that Elton John, not he, was responsible for the piano rock revival of the 1970s. Were it not for Elton John, artists like the Happy Mondays could not have used piano hooks to jumpstart great Britpop songs, as in “Step On.” Were it not for Elton John, Tom Waits and Nick Cave would not have gained prestige for albums like The Heart of Saturday Night and The Boatman’s Call, due to there being no market for piano rock music. Were it not for Elton John, every modern singer-songwriter, from Adele, to Alicia Keys, to John Legend would not have a substantive career. In terms of influence, Billy Joel rid Elton John’s coattails, and he is very much aware of that fact.
While Billy Joel is a tremendous musical talent and pop culture figure, his legacy pales in comparison to that of Elton John. I have illustrated why dividing Elton John’s music from Bernie Taupin’s lyrics is to be inconsistent with the notion of considering his musical compositions moot. I have also sufficiently presented the case as to Elton John’s dominance as an artist and musician. In the following speech, I hope to deconstruct the various songs presented by my opponent, illustrating why Elton John’s compositions are ultimately superior. Until that time, I eagerly await my opponent’s argument.
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