Adding Our Own Kindling to the Fire
Sometimes a song hits you in just the right moment. The weather might have the perfect conditions, or the feelings of the day might strike just so. But when you hear one of those perfect songs for the first time, it’s like a flash of lightning, and it feels profound.
The funny thing is, when I encountered this profound musical experience this week, I was hearing a song for the first time…and the thousandth. Because this week, Fall Out Boy released their cover of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and it was excellent. From the perfect pop-culture references to the harmonious balance of the classic song with FOB’s alternative rock style, it captured the essence of what a good cover does: take an original and breathe a different life into it.
But the history of the song struck an even deeper chord. Because the way we record the past is evolving. What might have been a poem or a play a thousand years ago would today be a YouTube video or a podcast. The way we document human events has remained much the same as we have always found a way to use words to tell stories. Yet the modalities of how we deliver that message expand to places our ancestors could never have imagined.
I remember in middle school getting to learn the history of the world in the second half of the 20th century because of Billy Joel’s original song. My teacher let us each pick a different concept from the song and give a presentation on that historical event. I got assigned Joe DiMaggio, and being a huge baseball fan, I got an introduction to the ways that earlier baseball eras had shaped the game I so desperately loved. To this day, I’ll learn about something in a book or documentary and remember that I had heard of that thing before, because Billy had taught me.
Now, as a Millennial, the song certainly tries to inspire a degree of nostalgia. My generation is just old enough now to have the context of the era in which we grew up and the era in which we are shaping the world for ourselves. We encountered the world through the lens of these artifacts, and now that it’s time to express our own reality, we go back to our creative roots.
As a rabbi, I’ve seen this kind of evolution before. Because this is a text having a stylistic conversation with a previous generation. This is the ever-expanding concentric circle of time allowing us not only to see the past, but also how the subsequent generation reacted to it in real time. A Talmud-page of scholarship, using the artistic style of the day to render a profound distillation of the moment.
Every generation learns from the wisdom of the past. Every generation lays the path for an ever-more sophisticated future. In “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Fall Out Boy, like Billy Joel before them, expresses what we’re all feeling: that there is a time to inherit the torch, and a time that you pass that torch along, reflecting on where it’s been along the way.