Billy Joel Wore Yellow Stars At His Concert Yesterday. Why It Matters.
Was I really seeing what I thought I was seeing? That was my first response last night, sitting in section 200 at Madison Square Garden for another performance by Billy Joel.
When he returned to the stage for the final third of his show, Billy Joel was wearing two large yellow Stars of David, placed front and back, as they were in many areas under Nazi control during the Holocaust era.
As will always be the case with powerful symbols, especially when deployed by carefully watched celebrities, many meanings and interpretations are possible. But, before we get to what this all might mean, let’s start with the fact that this was Billy Joel!
Joel has long eschewed politics, especially at his concerts. Even last night, near the top of the show, he commented that he “doesn’t do politics, and was just there to sing songs.” Not to mention that he even more rarely confirms or affirms his Jewishness. That’s not a judgment. It’s simply a fact about how he chooses to tell his own story.
And then there is his audience. Let’s just say that this was, as it always is, a very white crowd. In fact, he is often applauded by many of his fans for celebrating his steel worker family roots in Allentown. He was, and remains, from Long Island. It is fair to assume that more than a few in the crowd are supporters of the President and may even sympathize with at least some of the Alt-Right’s agenda. Joel is no fool, and knows all this. One might even praise him for holding a space in the American cultural space which is the equivalent of Switzerland — steadfastly above the fray.
Given all that, Joel could have taken an easier path. In fact, earlier in the show, he did so and he could have left it at that. About 6 songs in, Billy brought out Patty Smythe, who performed “Goodbye You”. And, in case there was any doubt regarding her political views, as she sang those words, screens around the arena scrolled the faces of all those who have left the Trump administration. I turned to my wife and the friends who were with us, and commented on the fact that he had rather artfully gotten that of his chest. But as we now know, that was just the beginning.
Now, as the show was coming to it’s crescendo, Billy Joel went all in. And did so in a deeply personal way, which actually respected a good measure of his “Switzerland status”, and one from which we all might learn a thing or two.
There he stood, and sang, and played and danced. Stars affixed. No speeches were made, and no explanations were offered. They would not have helped. “Let others debate what this all means,” he seemed to be telling his audience, “but let there be no debate about who or what I am.” I don’t remember the last time an artist so moved me, both because of what he did, and what he refrained from doing.
There was no anger expressed. No inveighing against some “them” who exist “out there”. There was just all of us inside the Garden — an “us” which I am sure ran a wide gamut, but remained an “us” nonetheless.
When he came back wearing those stars — and I get that any appropriation of Holocaust imagery is always dicey, especially when we approve of how it is being appropriated — it was transformative. A symbol of hate and shame became a sign of dignity and pride. Imagine a national debate about symbols being driven by that goal. But that is another topic.