Billy Joel and the Cinematic American West

Sean Atkinson, Texas Christian University

Many of Billy Joel's song tell compelling stories about colorful characters and places, leading many scholars to refer to Billy Joel's music as cinematic (Duchan 2017, MacFarlane 2016, and Everett 2000). Though Joel has borrowed frequently from a number of different cinematic genres, this presentation explores two of Joel's songs that blend his rock/pop style with elements of music in cinematic Westerns. "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" (Piano Man, 1973) and "Root Beer Rag" (Streetlife Serenade, 1974) each feature prominent and repeated use of a subtonic half-cadence (S-HC), which has been shown to be a harmonic motion exclusive to Western soundtracks (Lehman 2013). This connection with music typically heard in Westerns helps create a vivid picture of the American West while also sitting comfortably within the rock/pop context of Billy Joel's music.