The Inspiration Behind Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire

In 2023, millennial emo rock band Fall Out Boy covered Billy Joel's' hit "We Didn't Start the Fire" with updated lyrics, relevant to their generation. On the surface, Joel's 1989 chart-topper is essentially a recitation of every news-worthy, traumatic, or pivotal event for baby boomers, with references to Harry Truman and Doris Day, among other generational touchstones, good and bad. In Fall Out Boy's version, those are replaced by Kurt Cobain, Rodney King, Michael Jackson's death, and so on.

It might seem, then, that Joel, born in 1949, intended "Fire" to teach young people a lesson about how much better things were in the old days, but the real story of how Joel's song came about shows that couldn't be further from the truth. As Joel revealed in the liner notes to "Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel," his original inspiration for the song was a conversation he had with a 21-year-old friend of Sean Lennon, John Lennon's son, who said nothing bad ever happened in the 1950s.

Joel was 40 years old at the time, and his objective was not to glorify his own childhood, but show Sean's friend things were no worse for young people in 1989 than they were in the past. "What does the song really mean? Is it an apologia for the baby boomers? No, it's not. It's just a song that says the world's a mess. It's always been a mess, it's always going to be a mess," Joel said (via Songfacts).

Start the Fire is not Joel's favorite Billy Joel song

Despite all the success Billy Joel had with "We Didn't Start the Fire" — and the evidence it will live on among successive generations with Fall Out Boy's recent cover — the "Piano Man" songwriter never really liked the song, nor did everyone else. In 2004, Blender put Joel's hit No. 41 on their list of the 50 worst songs ever (via University of Waterloo).

Joel's song has also been parodied on a number of occasions and was not entirely well-received by critics, as Songfacts points out. In the 1993 Joel documentary "Shades of Grey," Joel called it "not much of a song. ... It's a terrible piece of music ... like a dentist drill."

And in a 2009 Q&A with Billboard, Joel said, "I think the one time I didn't write the music first was 'We Didn't Start the Fire' and I think it shows, because it's terrible musically. It's like a mosquito buzzing around your head."

Fall Out Boy's version is also divisive

Fall Out Boy announced the release of their updated version of the Billy Joel classic "We Didn't Start the Fire" on Instagram. In their post Fall Out Boy wrote, "I thought about this song a lot when I was younger. All these important people and events — some that disappeared into the sands of time — others that changed the world forever. So much has happened in the span of the last 34 years — we felt like a little system update might be fun. Hope you like our take on it."

Like Joel's version, Fall Out Boy's update was met with mixed reactions, as one user tweeted, "This might, in fact, be the very worst combination of words in the history of human language." The mix of ups and downs in the lyrics — Brexit and Columbine alongside "Stranger Things" and Taylor Swift — does seem in keeping with Joel's original intentions, though. The new version is available to hear now on YouTube, so you can decide which rendition — if either — you like the best.