Fall Out Boy may not start the fire, but they do a great job of extinguishing it with this withering modernisation of a Billy Joel classic. Energetic upgrades to a song which had no trouble holding its own in the modern day. Date-checking We Didn’t Start the Fire is the equivalent of retrofitting It’s the End of the World as We Know It by R.E.M. to include Donald Trump, Wetherspoons and the rental crisis. It is not needed. Compartmentalising a time and place in song is a wonderful experience. Billy Joel does not continue singing this piece for the relevance of the events but for the tune he created to go along with it. We Didn’t Start the Fire is the coddled protest song of its time and has survived because of it. Longevity comes from inspiration of the time, not from updating the lyrics and passing off this flaccid cover.
Reference after reference is not the same as taking a look at how culture has formed your work. Billy Joel did exactly this on his original, taking the topical and irreverent moments in modern history so far and working them into place as a culture crash. We Didn’t Start the Fire no longer holds true to the notion of history in the making, instead trudging through reference after reference, the post-2020s Marvel movie equivalent for songwriting. Writing is perhaps too far a push to describe this. Copy and pasting the topical events of the day is not the life-altering experience Fall Out Boy were expecting when lazily piecing this together.
Even when it adds and adds to the pile-on of starting fires, half the references are dated and half-remembered. There is no trouble with this for Joel, who, again, has a cemented foundation of key references to bridge off into what made him the musician he is. For Fall Out Boy, the topical relevancies come from a sense of being politically relevant but also musically inclined. Why else would LA Riots, Kurt Cobain and Fyre Fest be mentioned? It is as soulless as it is potluck ordering of relatively memorable moments. Perhaps it is the tide of culture which changes and leaves Fall Out Boy abandoned on the shore. It does not pop as strongly when the new era brings “Keaton, Batman, Bush v Gore” as a replacement to “Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland”.
Beyond reference points, the playing style is sluggish and loud in a way only Fall Out Boy can manage. An inclination to drown it all out with percussion-heavy problems and a half-hearted attempt to play faithful with the Joel original. They cannot help themselves though and attempt to improve on a song already culturally stuck in the minds of millions. Doing so is a strange move, though the “say what you see and hope it takes you through a whole chorus” determination of topics is as desperate as it is dull. Much of the trouble is how the song is paced, deeming the SpongeBob Golden Gate Killer captured by police in one straight line. A messy, unnecessary pocket of forgettable horror. The Imagine by locked-down celebrities of 2023.