Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Billy Joel and The Stranger Within and Inside of You

A man in a suit is sitting on a bed looking at a mask
Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone”

Billy Joel

One of the questions that often remains unasked and underexplored is the one about who we really are versus who we think we are. This is a matter of great importance, especially when we are encouraged, motivated, and even driven to be ourselves often without acknowledging the unknown, often hidden, and sometimes repressed aspects of ourselves. Naturally, and most likely for good reason, there are parts of ourselves that we hide from others or rather choose not to reveal to them but there is also a stranger within us that we fail to look at and who may suddenly and unexpectedly lurk its head from the shadows and kick us right between the eyes.

To delve further into this, I am going to look at a musician who despite his fame and glory is in my view still underrated especially when it comes to his lyrical and poetic qualities and propensities. In fact, I believe that his repertoire, which includes numerous hits and catchy but meaningful and impactful tunes, has become part of our global psyche no matter where we live and regardless of what generation we may be from and what our belief system is.

This particular post represents a trilogy of sorts vis-à-vis this rather interesting and versatile singer-songwriter by the name of Billy Joel, and in this cyberspace and blogosphere, I have previously discussed his song “Honesty” in the context of a professional and personal lack thereof and his rocking “Room of My Own” with the background of re-creating, refurbishing, and re-decorating your very own place and creative headspace.

For our purposes here, I shall discuss The Stranger. This iconic song starts off with about a minute of a purely musical and melodic introduction that includes soft dreamy piano combined with melancholy whistling both of which are filled with yearning and longing. This song made an impact on me during my youth. The youth in question was interested in existential philosophy while cautiously dipping his toes into the deep waters of depth psychology but with limited knowledge and much less experience in these fields, let alone the minefields of love and romance.

Although The Stranger is mainly a song of self-discovery and the revelation or realization of hidden aspects and dimensions of oneself, it provides an additional layer of complexity by considering and looking at interpersonal romantic relationships, an area in which I had practically no experience whatsoever at the time. In fact, my first encounters with this song occurred during a bittersweet period of youthful idealism and constant and continuous yearning and longing for desire and romance.

And yet this song not only appealed to me but also spoke to me, albeit in a language and in terms that I did not and could not consciously grasp at the time. Yet the overall message is that there is a stranger in each of us, a part of us that we intentionally hide from others and that others hide from us – as the singer finds out to his surprise when he tries to seduce his partner. In fact, he used to consider himself a “great romancer,” i.e. skilled and adept at the art of seduction but his loved one bluntly and unexpectedly rejected his advances without even giving him a reason (ouch!).

(Incidentally, in a rather hilarious mishearing and misunderstanding of lyrics, something which I am not immune against and which was more prevalent during my youth when I was not as fluent in the English language, for the longest time I had assumed that she refused him and gave him the slip for the western Bonanza, a fact that would have been a much funnier and even more shocking line and reason had this indeed been true!).

Interestingly, the first time I encountered Billy Joel in my youth was via an interview he gave about his most recent album at the time. In that program, he was wearing shades and looked cool but then he said something that made an impact on my youthful ears. He said giving a concert was like having sex; the louder they are, the better one gets, and the more he would enjoy his performance on stage. I was immediately intrigued by this artist and have been listening to his music ever since.

Yet this specific song appealed to me back then and continues to do so throughout the years. With 20/20 psychoanalytic hindsight, this may not be so strange after all because I was a triple stranger myself, at home with my family, as a foreigner in a country that often reminded me in no uncertain terms that I did not belong while also being a stranger to myself or rather misrepresenting me to myself.

Hence, my fascination was not just based on its catchy tune but moreover the lyrics and the theme of The Stranger, which strongly resonated with and within me. We all have a face that we hide from the purview of others, it told me. As a teenager, these words are most soothing because you feel misunderstood by your parents and sometimes also your peers. So you start wearing a mask with which you decide to please others or hide aspects of yourself that you think they do not appreciate, or a combination of both. The more you wear the mask, the further you move and remove yourself from your true self and identity.

Essentially, this comes down to a case of authenticity versus putting on an act, and that is certainly part of the song’s appeal as it points to the fact that we intentionally and intently hide facets of ourselves and bring to the foreground parts that have little if anything to do with who we really are deep inside. Everyone is so untrue.

And yet, seen from my current perspective, this lack of connection also includes parts of ourselves that are lodged in the unconscious and that we do not have currently access to. In fact, there is a stranger that we have never met but resides within us. It can be a dark side of our nature, but it could also be the amalgamation of repressed desires and wishes or even realizations. In that sense, we are strangers to ourselves and may find ourselves at odds with thoughts and feelings that seem to come out of the blue and supposedly have nothing to do with who we are.

This gets more complicated when another person becomes involved and entangled with it, especially since they also bring their own stranger and emotional baggage with them. And if neither side knows themselves, we can find ourselves in deep waters and much bigger trouble. This then comes in addition to and on top of the secrets we willingly withhold and conceal from the eyes and the ears of the other.

This should not be a source of worry and concern because we all make mistakes and we hold mistaken assumptions both about ourselves and others. A relationship that is filled with secrets cannot be authentic but a relationship with no secret whatsoever may not be realistic or even commendable either.

Moreover, there are parts that we hide because we feel others will not appreciate or tolerate and accept them. But in a truly loving relationship, you should be as close to who you really are deep inside and as much as is possibly possible. Put differently, the fewer secrets you have the better. It also reduces your stress level because if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Nothing can be revealed if all has been already exposed, whereas no dirty laundry means no washing is needed.

In that sense, your relations can be your home, not only literally but also figuratively. Home is not merely where your heart is but where you yourself find yourself and reflect who you are, warts and all. And it is this whole package where you need to accept yourself first and then have the other accept it in the same way that you accept them with all their flaws and glories. All this time, perfection and/or idealism can be the enemy, the hidden poison to any real life-and-blood relationship.

To sum up, do not ignore the voice of the stranger. Listen to it. It wants to communicate something to you, and you may not understand it immediately, but it does have something important to say to you. As Billy Joel sings, he is not always evil nor is he always wrong and all your good intentions will not quench its desires while the fire will keep burning deep inside. 

And if you are not aware and careful enough, don’t be surprised to be kicked right between the eyes. Instead, it is best to listen, make amends with him or her, and get to know your stranger better. Because in the end, the stranger is not merely a part of you, it is you.

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