Rock and roll to Billy Joel's music in a symposium

Memorabilia from a Billy Joel concert at Yankee Stadium on display at the symposium.
Memorabilia from a Billy Joel concert at Yankee Stadium on display at the symposium.PHOTO: NYTIMES

COLORADO SPRINGS (Colorado) • Mr Morgan Jones, a high school music teacher from Swaziland, was holding court at a Steinway baby grand in the atrium of the Cornerstone Performing Arts Center at Colorado College in the United States.

What the listeners had in common with him was a love and near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the Piano Man: Billy Joel.

This is the It's Still Rock And Roll To Me, a two-day conference on Joel's music and lyrics that was held here over a recent weekend.

Close to 400 fans and scholars attended to hear the presentation of nearly 30 academic papers written by musicologists and educators from as nearby as Denver and as far away as Africa.

It was a Comic Con for beard- stroking music geeks, all set to a soundtrack of Joel's greatest hits.

"I'm not really sure quite what to make of it, but I'm intrigued," Joel said in an interview before the conference. He did not attend, but took part in a lively telephone question- and-answer with the symposium's co-chairmen Joshua Duchan and Ryan Banagale to close the event.

"I've always thought music was better listened to than explained, but in this case," Joel said, noting that some of the presenters seem to "know my music better than I do. It's a little intimidating".

He added: "I don't know how comfortable I am with a symposium about me, to be honest. I didn't even graduate from high school."

The 14 sessions, most of which included music professors presenting their own studies and interpretations of Joel's work, included heady titles such as Billy Joel And The Language Of Pecuniary Aspiration, The Gendered And Physical Embodiment Of Interpreting Billy Joel In American Sign Language and Jesus And Billy Joel: A Musicotheology.

There was a session on how Joel's lyrics can be deployed in medical and legal scholarship. There was even one on how to best navigate the tricky situation of admitting, in a roomful of "cool" people, to liking Joel's music.

And, perhaps not surprising at a conference populated primarily by superfans, there were the knowing nods and snickers at each lyrical pun or mention of the most obscure factoids about his songs.

"There's a sense among all of us here, certainly among the presenters, that there is a real lack of academic study of Joel's music," said Mr Duchan, 37, an assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and author of a soon-to-be released book on Joel's work.

"We thought this could be a really good way to start to fill that gap."

Neither he nor Mr Banagale had any problem admitting to being a fan.

"It's not a question of us asking, 'Should Billy's music be taken seriously?' It's us simply deciding to take his music seriously," said Mr Banagale, 38, who teaches music at Colorado College, including a course that explores Joel's catalogue.

"Critics and scholars have decided over the years that so many other artists from his same generation are worth this kind of attention, whereas Billy is not. But his music has been the background for people all over the world. There's a reason that happened."

Many fans here spoke of the "validation" they felt in seeing Joel finally receiving the kind of attention lavished on his contemporaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or Peter Gabriel.

The non-presenters, most of whom made up the merchandise- wearing fan contingent, appreciated having a weekend dedicated to their musical hero, even if the granular nature of the studies left their heads spinning.

"I never really thought about Billy on this level before, but I guess neither did anybody else," said Ms Jayne Mocker, 52, a fan who had travelled from Boston to the conference with her husband Kevin, who wore a Red Sox jersey with "Joel" embossed on the back.

"It's so amazing to see all of these different interpretations of what his music can mean to people."

It is something that was not lost on Joel, who told the audience that when he saw the list of presentations, he was hit with the humbling notion that he was "just a songwriter".

"I couldn't objectively come up with the stuff you guys did, that's for sure," he said to laughter.

"I'm probably one of those artists who should be heard and not seen. So, I hope I was worth it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'Rock and roll to Billy Joel's music in a symposium'. Print Edition | Subscribe