Pop Culture Light Bulb Moment

by Kenneth Rayman on December 4, 2018

Even after I was old enough to understand this song and the who and what Billy Joel was singing about it wasn’t until college that it finally clicked with the play on words. “We Didn’t The Fire! No we didn’t light it but we’re trying to fight it…” was just a line until one day when instead of thinking of it as the human experience of time, I realized it was stating events, people or subjects in chronological order and, not only that, each event was “controversial” (for it’s day)… THE FIRE!!! We didn’t light but we’re trying to fight (Light Bulbs going off). I suddenly realized what the song title was an analogy for and my father confirmed it. This made me cue into the lyrics a little more; there were things that I knew more about, some I had heard, and others I hadn’t at all. I wondered about the casual listener, would they get it? Nowadays, you can Google things in an instant but back when the song was first was released all there was was the library. Would someone really want to go to the library and research these things unless they were like me and a history buff?

One of the first things I looked up was “children of thalidomide” finding that it was a drug used to alleviate morning sickness associated with pregnancy but caused birth defects in the children through abnormal development of limbs or organs. It was controversy that saw thousands of babies die and led to stringent drug testing and approval protocols. But there were also others. I heard the name of Bernie Goetz and found that he was a mugging victim that initiated self defense that resulted in deaths of some of his assailants which set off arguments on excessive force, gun control, and criminal law.

Others, I knew from paying attention in history class or my own personal deep dives into subjects. I would highly doubt that anyone my age would know the references to “Dien Bien Phu falls” or references to “Budapest” and “Syngman Rhee.” Dien Bien Phu is a city in Vietnam and the reference to it falling was to symbolize the collapse of the French effort, as a colonial power, to stop the Communist uprising in then French Indochina in 1954, which led to increasing US involvement and marking the end of French operations in the conflict. “Budapest” is referencing the 1956 Revolution against Soviet oversight that was ruthlessly crushed. “Syngman Rhee” was the brutal dictator of South Korea after the country’s founding in 1945. The timeline of the lyrics suggests that it was his removal from power after his own ruthless crackdown on protests to his rule because although he was anti-communist, he was authoritarian and severely dealt with dissent. In 1960 he fled the country after student protests spread after he rigged election results by mass arrests of political opponents which ensured he won the vote.

I would learn the significance of “Ayatollah’s in Iran” and “Russians in Afghanistan” through pop culture and news. Any news story involving Iran might include a short history of 1979’s hostage crisis and history documentaries would talk about the length of the hostage crisis at the US Embassy and Jimmy Carter’s futile efforts to free them. Although through those documentaries I would find that the length of the hostages’ captivity was a final way to destroy the credibility of the US Government at the time as the hostages were released as soon as Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, as a final affront to Carter. As a teen I found about the Olympic boycotts of 1980 and 1984, but not the significance. The movie, “Air Force One” starring Harrison Ford, featuring Russian political terrorists, made reference to the Afghan War of the 1980s when one of the terrorists was killed and the leader exclaimed their shared experience in the Afghan War in frustration at his killing. Movies like “9th Company” and “Charlie Wilson’s War” would show that Russia had it’s own version of the Vietnam War in Afghanistan facing massive causalities and an enemy that was determined to fight unrelentingly.

As I listen to the song now, I think of the impact it may have at the moment. Would people think of the message of the song or would they crank the volume and dance? Would they think of the societal changes, not from an activism point of view, but a social growth standpoint to understand that a child’s toy was once controversial because it debuted at a time when any notion of sexuality was frowned upon and the hula hoop made women gyrate their hips in a suggestive manner (this at a time when Elvis was only shown on tv from the waist up because his dancing was considered risque)? 

I think of them not as a social scientist, but of the evolution of human experience and tolerance. We learn from the mistakes of the past and those events that shaped the identity of the person as well as the society. The saying goes that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it, and this song, for those who are interested, is an opportunity to easily think of the trajectory of the human experience without having to do much but a little critical thinking and some research if they get peaked by something that they key in on.

Dance on, by all means, but take a moment to think about the lessons we learn outside of school.