Images of America -

Analyzing Music Videos: Billy Joel

Integrated U. S. History and American Literature Class
Deborah Aufdenspring and Sandra Mings-Lamar

New Technology High School, Napa, CA

(Quick Links to related pages)

Below are some captured stills from a music video that will help you understand the kinds of analyses you are expected to do. Remember that all captured stills are the property of the particular music video copyright holder. Stills are to be used in your scholarly work only and copyrights noted.

"We Didn't Start the Fire" - Billy Joel

All Billy Joel video stills ©1990 CBS Records, Inc.
Billy Joel's song and video, "We Didn't Start the Fire", is essentially his view of momentous historical and cultural events through about 40 years of his life - roughly 1946 to 1988.
Joel juxtaposes two primary kinds of images in this video - images of families (as they were in each decade) and images of war and violence. Watch for these images and notice the following:
How do the families change? Stay the same?
How do the images of war and violence change? Stay the same?

Sample Lyrics:

Verse 1 - Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray, South
Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe Dimaggio

Verse 2 - Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, Television,
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

Rest of the lyrics.

Note: You can usually find lyrics to songs on the World Wide Web by using a search engine to find the name of the artist, the title of the song, and the word "lyrics".

The Video:

Besides the people, and the cultural and political history mentioned in the lyrics, the video presents a lot of unmentioned personalities and events. One of those personalities is represented in the beginning of the video and in the still above. If you watch old TV shows on Nickelodeon, you might be able to guess who it is.

When Mr. Joel is on camera, he is often singing in front of very famous photographs, some of them Pulitzer Prize winning. Can you identify any of them? An American Studies student at another school did a web site as a class project based on the events depicted in the photo above.

The stark image above electrified two nations.

Do you know why Elvis gave up his career and joined the Army?

What does the image above say about Joel's view of war, if anything? What image could he have shown if he had believed in the U.S. mission in Vietnam? What image might he have shown that speaks of the Vietnam War without imposing a political view?

How does the image above (from the 1960's) contrast with the one above it (from the 1950's). What does that say about the two decades?

What is this young lady doing with her bra?

Sometimes, there are questions about whether events really happened, but they make it into the history books anyway (or, sometimes just into a culture's oral tradition, where they are sometimes referred to as "choking Doberman" stories).

There are some questions as to whether the first bra-burning ever really occurred as a protest, or was concocted by the media.

Quick Links

Introduction - Analyzing Music Videos
Music Video Assignment
Analysis Tips
Comparing and Contrasting Music Videos
Grading Rubric

Stills of Sample Videos, with Sample Analysis Questions:
Billy Joel.....Erykah Badu.....Pop up Videos.....Tracy Lawrence

Rage Against the Machine.....Vince Gill.....Van Halen.....Aqua.....12 other videos

For Teachers...

For examples of recent student projects on analyzing music videos:
Student Work

E-mail me.

Return to your previous page by clicking your browser's "Back" button, or
go to Next Page, or
go to the Site Index, or
Return to Ms. A's Class Home Page