Shortly before midnight Wednesday, March 11, Brittany Barkholtz, a therapist in St. Paul, was having trouble sleeping. By the time she’d gone to bed, Donald Trump had attempted to reassure the country with a sullen prime-time address, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had announced they’d tested positive for the coronavirus, Harvey Weinstein had been sentenced to 23 years in prison and the NBA had suspended the rest of its season after a Utah Jazz player had also tested positive for COVID-19.
Unable to sleep, Barkholtz popped onto social media and saw a tweet in her feed: “Today was like if ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ was a day.” The author was TV writer Matt Warburton, whose credits include The Simpsons and The Mindy Project.
Today was like if “we didn’t start the fire” was a day.
— Matt Warburton (@MCWarburton) March 12, 2020
Barkholtz, who also teaches piano and is Billy Joel fan, took him up on his idea and, within a half-hour, had posted to her account a new verse for Joel’s history-chronology 1989 hit: “Schools close, Tom Hanks, trouble in the big banks/No vaccine, quarantine, no more toilet paper seen/ Travel ban, Weinstein, panic COVID-19, NBA, gone away, what else do I have to say?”
“I was born in 1990, and the song ends at the end of the Eighties,” Barkholtz, 30, says. “I said, ‘We need a part two because everything in my life came after that song.’”
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Schools close, Tom Hanks, trouble in the big banks, no vaccine, quarantine, no more toilet paper seen.
Travel ban, Weinstein, panic COVID-19, NBA, gone away, what else do I have to sayyyyyy https://t.co/N86qx9wZxq
— The Caffeinated Therapist (@bellabee13) March 12, 2020
While Barkholtz was inspired by Warburton’s tweet, others may have seen a similar post by another veteran comic and TV writer, Mike Royce (“Billy Joel should do a new version of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ that covers just like the last 10 minutes.”). Whatever triggered the trend, over this weekend, dozens of people on social media — from professional writers to amateurs to music fans — wrote their own updated stanzas for a hypothetical remake of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Billy Joel should do a new version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that covers just like the last 10 minutes
— Mike Royce (@MikeRoyce) March 12, 2020
“Tom Hanks is infected, flights from Europe re-directed/Quarantine, nowhere clean, panic in the U.S.!” (Danielle Lerner on Twitter)
“Flights from Europe banned from map/Sarah Palin tries to rap/They just shut down the NBA/What else do I have to say?” (Alex Hirsch on Twitter)
“Stocks and markets all derailed, Harvey’s gonna rot in jail/Donnie’s telling lies & tales/Cover up another fail” (Gav on Twitter)
“Coronavirus, CDC/No one goes to Italy … Cruise ships stuck, There’s no TP/Private flights, no NBA” (JonBenet Lennon on Twitter)
To Barkholtz’s shock, her post wound up being retweeted more than 68,000 times over the next two days, thanks in part to unexpected retweets by George Takei and Patton Oswalt. Oswalt even weighed in with his own idea for a chorus: “We didn’t stop the virus/Could have been prevented/But our leader’s demented.”
During national tragedies, certain songs have been elevated in the culture; after 9/11, Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” became the impromptu soundtrack for footage of the World Trade Center rubble and rescue workers. While it’s too early to gauge which pop songs will become the reassuring accompaniment for this unnerving time in the country and around the world, an early contender is “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — more specifically, these unauthorized additions.
🎶We didn’t stop the virus/Could have been prevented/But our leader’s demented…
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) March 12, 2020
If any song is ripe for an update, it’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” First appearing on Joel’s 1989 Storm Front album, the song grew out of a conversation between Joel and Sean Lennon, then a teenager and anxious over events of the late Eighties, including turmoil in the Middle East and Europe. “He said, ‘Nothing happened in the Fifties and early Sixties,’” Joel later recalled. “And the history teacher in me went, ‘Whoa, didn’t you ever hear of the Korean War, the Suez Canal, the Hungarian Freedom Fighters?’”
Starting with “Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray,” Joel began scribbling down events from the previous 40 years, which, he said in a 1990 interview, “started looking like a rap song.”
It wasn’t quite hip hop — Joel later called the melody “horrendous … like a droning mosquito.” But the song wound up name-dropping political and cultural touchstones from the end of World War II to the end of the Eighties: the Cold War, the blacklist, Elvis, the space race, Disneyland, JFK, up to “Woodstock, Watergate, punk” and the “rock and roller Cola wars.” It was almost a cry for help from someone overwhelmed by the onslaught of news and change in the post-Sixties world.
As Joel told biographer Fred Schruers, “What does the song really mean? Is it an apologia for the baby boomers? No, it’s not. It’s just a song that says the world’s a mess. It’s always been a mess, it’s always going to be a mess.”
At the time, it struck enough of a chord to score three Grammy nominations, including Song and Record of Year (both of which it lost to the Bette Midler-sung “Wind Beneath My Wings”). The song has since been parodied on The Simpsons (“They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons”) and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (by cast members of Avengers: Endgame).
But “We Didn’t Start the Fire” hasn’t had quite a moment like this since early 1990, when Joel’s label, Columbia, distributed 40,000 cassettes of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in issues of Junior Scholastic magazine. Soon enough, kids around the country were writing school papers about some of the historical events mentioned in the song.
Bruce Handy, an author and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, had a similar experience to Barkholtz. He too woke up in the middle of the night, popped onto Twitter, and saw either Warburton’s or Royce’s tweet. Soon enough, he had also dashed off and shared his own new verse: “Harvey jailed, White House failed, Travel ban Jared’s plan?/No tests, Be best, Call your doctor, Where’s Ivanka/NBA, NDA, CDC, OMG/Tom Hanks, Dow tanks, Bernie Biden, Death Toll risin’, Sarah Palin MASS CONTAGION!!!”
White House failed
Call your doctor
Death Toll risin’
MASS CONTAGION!!! https://t.co/B4vilYUNS0
— Bruce Handy (@henryfingjames) March 12, 2020
“It’s become the most retweeted and most viewed thing I’ve ever done,” Handy says. “Usually I get about 50 likes, but this was in the thousands.”
Barkholtz, whose verse is among the most popular, says she’s been overwhelmed and amused by the response. “Plenty of people have said I should do a whole song, which could be fun,” she says. “It’s wild to me because I’m not an entertainer or a humorist. I’m just a boring normal person who made a Billy Joel joke. People are requesting ‘content’ from me now. It’s hilarious.” (Joel himself was unavailable for comment. None of the social-media writers have been contacted by Joel’s camp.)
But as a trained therapist and social worker who deals with those coping with depression and anxiety issues, including college students and teenagers, Barkholtz thinks there’s more behind the trend than just fun.
“There’s so much uncertainty and anxiety now, and humor is a solid coping mechanism,” she says. “Everything now is very overwhelming and stressful, and this is a way for people to say, ‘I can cope with it by making a joke on Twitter about it, and not an insensitive joke.’ It defuses the tension while acknowledging that these things are still going on.”