Friday, May 19, 2006

Billy Joel to Syracuse: I'm Movin' Out

"I'm not here to give you a big song and dance. Maybe a song." Billy Joel

Earlier this week I crowed about the three college grads in our family -- our son and two of his first cousins. I also complained that college commencements have turned into celebrity-driven media events.

Last week's graduation ceremonies at Syracuse University provided a perfect example. The speaker: Billy Joel. Well, wait. Not so bad. At least a celebrity with meat on his bones.

Billy Joel isn't just another rock star, he's a serious composer, a recognized genius, a poet, a muse. One of our generation's top Voices, still going strong. He gives money to colleges, universities, inner city schools. He holds motivational seminars where he speaks honestly and realistically to kids about music, addiction, life.

So what was Billy Joel's motivating message to the Syracuse grads? 'Do it for love.' That was it. Here's the whole quote, "Don't do it for security or status, prestige, money, or, for crying out loud, don't do it for somebody else. Do it for love. Because if you love what you do, you'll always do what you love."

Ookay. Nice sentiment maybe for arts majors, but hardly sage advice in today's highly competitive--and very troubled--world. Especially for kids graduating with degrees in business, marketing, education, forestry, government. And even if you like the idea, he backed it up with Nothing. No personal experience. No hard work, tough love, blood, sweat and tears stories.

Billy Joel spoke for less than five minutes. Admitted almost proudly he'd prepared no speech in advance, had no other words of wisdom he cared to impart.

"I'm not here to give you a big song and dance. Maybe a song," he said. A huge cheer which petered out as people caught his following words, "I scribbled this on the way up here." And became even more half-hearted as he led the crowd in an insultingly puerile paean to Syracuse, to the tune of "Down in New Orleans." Hello? Not even his own music.

Think I'm being too harsh? Some lyrics: "Come on everybody, take a trip with me, up to Onondaga County, that's where I'll be. Oh, you're going to be a lawyer or an engineer, you can even study music in the college here. With any luck, you'll get a Ph.D. at Syracuse University."

This from the man who wrote New York State of Mind ... on a bus??

He also not so subtly implied a college education wasn't such a big deal. With an offhand reference to his fortune, sent a message you can achieve success and get rich without a degree. Made a joke out of it, in fact. "I've got six honorary doctorates and I never finished high school." Then, on being awarded the latest one from Syracuse, "Now I can get out of this dead end job and get a real career going for myself."

Way to go, Billy. Way to bitch slap Syracuse and her new grads for honoring your contributions to the university and to the history of modern music.

The AP reported that Billy Joel received a standing ovation from the crowd. Yes, when he was first introduced. But not after he spoke. He'd given sold out concerts at Syracuse earlier in the year and the students were thrilled to have him back as their commencement speaker. But when he finished, the crowd was literally stunned he'd had so little to say.

After the ceremonies, you heard the parents: What the hell is 'do it for love'? What happened to hard work and ambition? For this we shelled out 200 grand?

Worse, you heard the kids: Why'd he bother to show up? We were dissed. What a crock.

Let's be clear, I'm a bigtime Billy Joel fan. Which is why this struck such a nerve. He's a huge musical talent. Enormously gifted. He's put feelings, experiences, aspirations, emotions and memories into incredibly powerful words and music. He's a devoted father. Not surprisingly, he's also tragically flawed. In and out of scrapes, accidents, rehab.

That's part of my point. To college students, Billy Joel isn't just another droning adult. He's got creds. He has truly Been There, Done That in every possible way. As a commencement speaker especially, he has a vast collection of life lessons to offer.

But for whatever reason, he wasn't motivated to share any of them--or himself--with the Syracuse grads. Instead he seemed bored, disengaged, not in the moment. And the grads felt let down and more than a little disillusioned by his clear lack of preparation or interest.

So did their parents, members of Billy Joel's own generation, dedicated fans for longer than most of their kids have been alive. They felt robbed. Belittled. Frankly, pissed off.

I'm angry too. How dare he accept Syracuse University's honor and honorary degree, then blow off the warmly welcoming, adoring crowd, particularly the graduates. But ultimately I say, shake it off. Four solid years of top notch education can't be wiped out by a few minutes of bottomed out misjudgement.

I wish I had the energy to take on Jodie Foster's less than overwhelming performance at Penn too. A Yale grad. A parent. A serious actor and director. She did come down on the Bush administration for losing international support after 9/11 and for mishandling Katrina. But her final words of wisdom for the grads: a rap from Eminem. At Penn?? Goodbye, Clarice.

I could go on, but it's pointless.

I'd rather spend my time reminding my son, niece, nephew and their friends that what they accomplished in college and will go on to achieve in life counts far more than any celebrity's few minutes of gratuitous bulls*** at graduation.

And when you think about it, Billy Joel gave parents some valuable help in passing along critical advice, "Hey, that's what happens when you spend too much time in rehab."



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