Billy Joel

By: Jamie Kanter

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Billy Joel was born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949 in The Bronx, New York. He grew up in Levittown, a predominantly Catholic neighborhood on Long Island even though both of his parents were Jewish. Joel took piano lessons from ages 4-14 before quitting. In 1960, his parents divorced, and his father returned to Europe and remarried. Joel’s mother supported him and his sister Judith. He attended Hicksville High School. The late night hours at his job in a piano bar interfered with his schoolwork, leaving him a credit short of graduating. He left high school sans diploma in favor of a music career.
Billy Joel was a member of many bands throughout the years before finally signing his first solo recording contract in 1971 and releasing his first album Cold Spring Harbor. Due to contractual issues, Joel fled to Los Angeles and played in piano bars under the name Bill Martin. In 1972, a radio station in Philadelphia obtained a copy of “Captain Jack” before performed live on Joel’s tour to promote Cold Spring Harbor. The song became a hit on the east coast. Columbia Records was able to track Joel down, and Clive Davis signed him in 1973. Billy Joel released his album Piano Man where the title track went on to become his signature song. In 1975, he recorded his second album with Columbia Streetlife Serenade. Two years later he released The Stranger which became Columbia Records’ biggest selling album for the next eight years. In 1978, Joel received his first Grammy awards for “Song of the Year” and “Record of the Year” for “Just the Way You Are” and released his first album to reach number one on the charts, 52nd Street.
Billy Joel’s career has spanned almost four decades. Through this time he released thirteen albums as well as a few greatest hits CDs. He won six Grammy Awards and was nominated for eighteen others. He has married a three times, including his notable marriage to model Christie Brinkley. He had one child—daughter Alexa Ray Joel with Brinkley. His Broadway show with Twyla Tharp Movin’ Out received two Tony Awards and was nominated for seven others. He has been awarded several honorary degrees. Despite all the success, Joel suffered from depression and had a substance abuse problem.

Psychoanalytical Perspective

When looking at Billy Joel from the psychoanalytical perspective, we can see that he utilizes many defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are ego processes that distort reality to protect an individual from anxiety. As a musician, he is able to use sublimation, which transforms dangerous urges into positive, socially meaningful motivations, to battle his inner demons in a more positive way. “Piano Man,” one of Joel’s best known songs, tells the stories of the people Joel saw regularly during his job in a piano bar. These people came to the bar to escape their troubles, which can be seen in lines such as “[John] says, ‘Bill, I believe this is killing me’/ As a smile ran away from his face” and “they're sharing a drink they call loneliness.” Being constantly surrounded by others’ sadness can really take a toll on a person, but Joel used the experience to write a hit song that would eventually propel his career forward. He uses this same method to deal with the aftermath of his attempted suicide by writing the song “Tomorrow Is Today.” Not all of Joel’s uses of defense mechanisms have had positive outcomes. While on tour in Moscow in 1987, Joel had a temper tantrum during one of his concerts. He flipped over an electric piano and threw a microphone stand when the camera crew chronicling his tour turned to film the audience. This is an example of displacement, which is when the target of someone’s fears and desires is shifted onto a safer target. Joel displaced his anger onto the equipment on stage. Stress from being on the road for eleven months also led Joel to yell at fans in the front row for not being emphatic enough for his liking. Once the stress and anger had built up, it was impossible for him to contain himself, unleashing on everyone in the vicinity. Finally, Joel exhibits repression—which is when a person pushes threatening thoughts into their unconscious—with his use of alcohol. During the 2000s he was in and out of rehab for an addiction to alcohol. Joel tried to push his bad feelings out of his mind by drinking them away.
We can also look at Billy Joel by using Freud’s idea of psychosexual stages. These stages occur during the development of the psyche, which progresses when the libido is redirected to different body parts. Using this method, it can be said that Joel did not successfully make it through the phallic stage. He has fixations that typically occur from not successfully completing the stage. He is vain and narcissistic—which is evident from his outbursts in Moscow—and could arguably have the inability to love when considering he has been married and divorced three times. Freud would say that since his father left his mother, Joel has been harboring feelings for his mother that were never suppressed by castration anxiety, or the fear of castration that results from a boy’s struggle to deal with his love for his mother while knowing he cannot overcome his father; this is why his marriages have all failed.

Trait Perspective

Through the traits perspective we can get more insight into his personality, especially when using the Big Five. The Big Five traits are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Joel is low on extroversion. He tends to kept to himself and is not one of the more attention-seeking celebrities out there. Joel wrote his memoir, which was set to be released in June, but recently decided against publishing it because he realized he did not want to publicly recount the events of his past. His attempted suicide and later substance abuse problem all point to his high levels of neuroticism, or emotional instability. Joel is also low on conscientiousness which can be indicated by his three car crashes within a two year period, sometimes accompanied by alcohol consumption beforehand. His outbursts at the Moscow concert lend to the fact that he is low on agreeableness as well. He is, however, high on openness. Being a talented artist who writes his own music shows he is very creative and imaginative.
We can also assess Billy Joel using Henry Murray’s needs. According to Murray, a need describes a readiness to respond in a certain way under given conditions. He has four major needs: need for achievement, need to affiliation, need for power, and need for exhibition. Joel has a need for achievement. With a career that has spanned about forty years and included many different types of musical projects along the way, Joel’s ultimate goal has been to succeed in his musical endeavors. Murray would also say Joel has a need for affiliation, as he has been married three times. Despite all his marriages eventually ending in divorce, he seems to continuously seek out companionship. Joel does not seem to have a need for power, but he has a moderate need for exhibition. As a performer, his goal in life is to entertain people through his music. However, he tries to avoid the public eye in other aspects of his life and enjoys his privacy, making his need for exhibition to be situational.


Looking at Billy Joel from the psychoanalytical and trait perspectives gives us more insight into personality of one of rock and roll’s superstars. Through the psychoanalytical approach, we see that Joel is hiding from many problems in his childhood through the use of defense mechanisms. Freud would say Joel is mainly controlled by the id, which can be seen through his tendency to give in to his impulses. The traits perspective helps us analyze his character through his current actions as opposed to through his childhood. With this view, we see Joel is low on all major personality traits unless they coincide with his musical ability. Using the psychoanalytical perspective with the traits perspective gives us a well rounded view of Billy Joel. Despite the fact that he is a fairly private person, he still gives us enough to define his personality using these approaches.


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