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The Fire That Still Burns: The Political Relevance of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ and Its Message of Human Continuity.

Three months ago, American pop-punk band Fall Out Boy released an updated version of Billy Joel’s 1980s Top Hit, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’. For those who were neither around in the 80s, nor are fans of Alternative Indie playlists, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ is a dizzying commentary of rapid-fire lists of people, events, and cultural flagstones from the mid-20th century to the late 1980s. Fall Out Boy’s version continues this trend from the late 80s to the present day. Consider it a modern chronicle, edition two. Both versions reference not only a series of isolated historical moments, but a continuous narrative that we are all acutely aware of. Fall Out Boy’s ‘Trump impeached twice’ is Joel’s ‘Richard Nixon’s back again.’ So, what does this revised version suggest about the message of human continuity? 

Human Continuity 

In psychological theory, human continuity is the ability to continue in the same manner indefinitely. Gestalt theory speaks of the undisrupted creation of continuous patterns connected to objects. ‘Objects’ in this context refer to both political and social issues. That is not to say that society is stagnant, but rather that it is interconnected to historical events in a cyclical manner, and that change is a complex and multifaceted process. 

Political Relevance 

In both Joel’s and Fall Out Boy’s versions there is a reach of political relevance. In Joel’s version, the song delivers a quick-fire run-down of major events, including the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal. Through its quick, and sometimes witty, delivery covering over forty years, there is a sense of continuous narrative, rather than a suggestion that these events are isolated moments, as modern media would sometimes have us believe. 

Fall Out Boy’s version of the song updates the reference and commentary to include events from the 80s to the present day, including the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and the rise of terrorism. The commentary of these modern events becomes a part of the same narrative that Joel covered, and stresses that society continues to grapple with many of the same issues, only this time in a new shape. 

Social Themes 

Perhaps the most notable theme in both versions is the persistence of social unrest. In Joel’s version, the song touches on the struggle for racial equality, including references such as ‘Little Rock (Nine, 1957)’ and ‘Ole Miss’ (a public research university in Oxford, Mississippi, where violent protests began over the admission of James Meredith, the first African American student to enrol at the school), as well as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcom X. 

Although Fall Out Boy’s cover updated the list of events to include more recent social issues, similar themes of social inequality and public unrest continue to be recorded. The cover addresses the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle against racial discrimination, as well as the ongoing fight for the LGBTQIA+ communities. The repetition of themes over the course of the song reminds us that many of the new issues we face today are deeply rooted in our culture and history. Granted, that is no excuse, but there is a powerful message in this narrative. Recurrence of these issues over the decades creates a sense of shared frustration and disillusionment that transcends historical and cultural differences. 

The Message of Human Continuity 

It is cyclical. It is a reminder that humans have been fighting metaphorical, and sometimes literal, fires for decades. It is a shower of political bullets, a rapid-fire of social injustices, and a three minute and thirty five second melody that remembers conflict as the result of resource scarcity, ideological indifferences, and power imbalances. In spite of all the chaos, the lyrics express a message of hope that transpires across time – eight decades to be exact. While society may be slow to change, there is a shared experience in our troubles that brings us together across different eras and generations. Each verse continues this narrative and reminds us that neither Baby Boomers, nor Generation Z, nor any generations in between, are independently responsible for the world’s problems. In the words of Billy Joel, ‘It was always burning since the world’s been turning.’

Image credit: Drew de F Fawkes // CC-BY-20 via Wikimedia Commons

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