Billy Joel made an historical hit in 1989, with pop song We Didn’t Start The Fire. Historical pop songs are a small genre (I can also think of One Week and Big Bang Theory, both by the Bare Naked Ladies), but mighty catchy to listen to, try as you might to catch all the cool references.
Listening to We Didn’t Start the Fire on my Alexa unit (my favorite home robot), I noticed a few entertainment related mentions, set between the political and and pop culture refs. The song moves fast, so you have to listen carefully. (Or at least check the internet for the rapid-fire, rap-like lyrics.)
The lyrics cover major events set between 1949 through 1989.
Here’s what I caught that have even the tiniest relationship to entertainment…from the top, using the Wikipedia to keep me honest: (Feel free to tell me what I missed!)
- Doris Day enters the public spotlight with the films My Dream Is Yours and It’s a Great Feeling as well as popular songs like “It’s Magic“.
- South Pacific, the prize-winning musical, opens on Broadway on April 7.
- Television is becoming widespread throughout Europe and North America.
- Marilyn Monroe soars in popularity with five new films, including The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve.
- Marlon Brando is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire.
- The King and I, the musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, opens on Broadway on March 29.
- The Catcher in the Rye, a controversial novel by J. D. Salinger, is published.
- Liberace has a popular 1950s television show for his musical entertainment.
- Sergei Prokofiev, the composer, dies on March 5, the same day as Stalin.
- Arturo Toscanini is at the height of his fame as a conductor, performing regularly with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on national radio.
- Rock Around the Clock“ is a hit single released by Bill Haley & His Comets in May, spurring worldwide interest in rock and roll music.
- James Dean achieves success with East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, gets nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and dies in a car accident on September 30 at the age of 24.
- Davy Crockett is a Disney television miniseries about the legendary frontiersman of the same name. The show was a huge hit with young boys and inspired a short-lived “coonskin cap” craze. (Also, during the late 1950s, the US Army was developing a small tactical nuclear weapon which was given the official nickname Davy Crockett.)
- Peter Pan: A year after Walt Disney Animation Studios released an animated adaption of the play by J. M. Barrie, the 1954 stage musical of the same name starring Mary Martin is broadcast on NBC live and in color.
- Elvis Presley signs with RCA Records on November 21, beginning his pop career, going on to earn a reputation as the “King of Rock and Roll”.
- Disneyland opens on July 17, 1955 as Walt Disney‘s first theme park.
- Brigitte Bardot appears in her first mainstream film And God Created Woman and establishes an international reputation as a French “sex kitten”.
- Princess Grace Kelly releases her last film, High Society, and marries Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
- Peyton Place, the best-selling novel by Grace Metalious, is published. Though mild compared to today’s standards, it shocked the reserved values of the 1950s.
- Boris Pasternak, the Russian author, publishes his novel Doctor Zhivago.
- Jack Kerouac publishes his first novel in seven years, On the Road.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai, an adaptation of a the 1954 novel, is released and receives seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
- Buddy Holly dies in a plane crash on February 3 with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, in a day that had a devastating impact on the country and youth culture. Joel prefaces the lyric with a Holly signature vocal hiccup: “Uh-huh, uh-huh.”
- Ben-Hur, a film adapted from Lew Wallace‘s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ starring Charlton Heston, wins eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
- Payola, illegal payments for radio broadcasting of songs, was publicized due to Dick Clark‘s testimony before Congress and Alan Freed‘s public disgrace.
- Chubby Checker popularizes the dance The Twist with his cover of the song of the same name.
- Psycho: An Alfred Hitchcock thriller, based on a pulp novel by Robert Bloch and adapted by Joseph Stefano, which becomes a landmark in graphic violence and cinema sensationalism. The screeching violins heard at this point in the song are a trademark of the film’s soundtrack.
- Ernest Hemingway commits suicide on July 2 after a long battle with depression.
- Stranger in a Strange Land, written by Robert A. Heinlein, is a breakthrough best-seller with themes of sexual freedom and liberation.
- Bob Dylan is signed to Columbia Records after a New York Times review by critic Robert Shelton.
- Lawrence of Arabia: The Academy Award-winning film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence starring Peter O’Toole premieres in the United States on December 16.
- British Beatlemania: The Beatles, a British rock group, gain Ringo Starr as drummer and Brian Epstein as manager, and join the EMI‘s Parlophone label. They soon become the world’s most famous rock band, with the word “Beatlemania” adopted by the press for their fans’ unprecedented enthusiasm. In 1964, their tour of the United States would mark the beginning of “the British Invasion“.
- Woodstock: Famous rock and roll festival of 1969 that came to be the epitome of the counterculture movement.
- Punk rock: Backlash against the progressive rock of the early 1970s leads to the emergence of newly formed bands such as The Ramones (founded in 1974), AC/DC (which switched from glam to blues/punk with the hiring of Bon Scott as lead singer the same year) and the Sex Pistols (founded a year later).
- Wheel of Fortune: The hit television game show, on air since 1975, underwent several changes in the early 1980s, including the hiring of Pat Sajak as host in 1981, Vanna White as hostess in 1982, and a move to syndication in 1983, all three of which were still in effect by the time of the song (and remained through the 1990s, 2000s and much of the 2010s as well.
- Heavy metal suicide: In the 1970s and 1980s, heavy metal bands became popular. Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest in particular were sued for fans’ suicides after listening to their songs “Suicide Solution” and “Better By You, Better Than Me“, respectively.
- Rock-and-roller cola wars: Soft drink giants Coke and Pepsi each run marketing campaigns using rock & roll and popular music stars to reach the teenage and young adult demographic.
It’s a pretty impressive song, squeezing events from five decades of world news into only four minutes.
A case could be made to include a lot more relating to entertainment. For example, Richard Nixon featured in the 1999 teen buddy comedy Dick, starring Kirsten Dunst. Malcolm X and JFK also have eponymous movies. “Moonshot” refers to the moon landing project recently popularized in the film First Man.
Here’s the official video for your amusement:
What other pop culture and historical allusions do you think would we should include on this list?
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Co-Creator of RunPee, Chief of Operations, Content Director, and Managing Editor. RunPee Jilly likes galaxy-spanning sci fi, superhero sagas, fantasy films, YA dystopians, action thrillers, chick flicks, and zany comedies, in that order…and possesses an inspiringly small bladder. In fact, that little bladder sparked the creation of RunPee. (Good thing she’s learned to hold it.)