We Didn’t Start The Fire

You listened to this song in class today. I played it for no other reason than that I liked it and wanted to share it with you. The lyrics cover all the major events and icons of Billy Joel’s life, and you may not recognize many of them, but I guarantee that if you trace each one of them you will learn a lot about American history by the time you reach the end of the song.

Most of you have heard Hosan Leong’s parody of this song, and say that you identify with it because it deals with concepts and events that you are familiar with. This is understandable, especially since Leong’s version is humorous, while Joel’s original is serious and makes a very strong statement.

My personal observation is that in Singapore we tend to use humour as our main form of expression- defence, stress-relief, self-expression and even political viewpoints. I am not sure why this is, or how it evolved, but I think at the root of the phenomenon may be the general lack of language ability of Singaporeans. There are a few people with a good command of English, but the vast majority do not achieve any significant level of intellectual competence in the language. (Note- I am not referring to fluency, which many do have.) This naturally limits the ways in which ideas can be conveyed by them and to them.

Here is a link that you can check out to find out more about Billy Joel’s song:



There is even a list of parodies of the song, and Leong’s ‘We Live in Singapura’ is listed there. I guess it is true then- imitation must be the sincerest form of flattery. The fact that so many have copied the style and tune of ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ is testimony to the universality of the song. Perhaps one day, instead of just parodying and copying other people’s work, Singaporeans will be able to produce something original. Maybe one of you… 😛

4 thoughts on “We Didn’t Start The Fire

  1. I’m telling you- there’s a cosmic connection!

    What did you think of the song? I find it a little disturbing- like a drug-induced rant! On the other hand, it’s amazing how you have almost a century of American history crammed into a 5-minute song.

  2. I found it very stream-of-consciousness-ish. Like sleeptalking or something. A mad rant that somehow makes sense.

    I agree it’s amazing that a chunk of history was covered in that small song, but the way it was done…it kind of seems like all those influential people and incidents were just…thrown in in an effort to set a world record of The Most Number Of People/Events Mentioned In A Song. But despite that I think it’s original and nice!

    (What I like about songs is that often, musicians take on a subject that weighs so much, so full of meaning, and wrap it up in about 3-5 minutes, encompassing it in various combinations of chords and some verses. And when you listen, at home or on the bus or in a queue, you’re not just listening to the music; you’re listening to ideas and strories and sometimes strong opinions.)

  3. Perhaps so many things being thrown in emphasizes the idea that all of them are ultimately unimportant in the overall scheme of things. So often when we are going through something we feel it is very important, very significant. But once it is over it becomes compressed in our past and the focus shifts to the next big thing in our lives.

    When I was in JC I studied two areas of history- Southeast Asian history and modern history. I found the former easier, because over time, details get compressed and summarized, so we have easily digestible information and established perspectives. With the modern history though, because it was current events that we were dealing with, there was an overwhelming amount of information. Every newspaper article, every editorial became important. The details were stretched out and magnified. At the end of the course, if not for the teacher imposing some kind of structure over the material, I think I would have been lost in the trivia.

    So I think when Billy Joel mashes everything together, he is making the point that all that is over- and it’s time for a new generation. What makes it controversial is that his song did not come that long after some of the events he mentions. So it is like he was sweeping aside events that some people still considered important at the time.

    I wonder what the reaction to his song was at the time- perhaps the people it was aimed at did not even know it existed!

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