Writing Contest: Runner Up
Song: "Allentown" (Billy Joel)
While singer/songwriter Billy Joel didn't grow up in the depressed city of Allentown,
Pennsylvania, the song of the same name was one of the most important and prolific of his
career. The economic themes and heartfelt emotions in "Allentown" intertwine to make for an
amazing song. With its story of poverty, hunger, and unemployment, Billy Joel helped increase
awareness of the impoverished people of Middle America and proved that lyrics about the
economy could musically rival any song about romance.
The town of Allentown faced severe problems in the early 1980s. Steel mills, factories,
and plants began shutting down in the area, robbing the people of their much-needed
employment. "Well we're living here in Allentown, and they're closing all the factories
down...the union people crawled away," Billy Joel sang in his 1982 hit. The factories that were
once thriving sources of income for the people of Allentown were now shutting down across the
area. Gone were the days when a young man fresh out of high school could secure a well-paying
job at the local factory. The simple life of factory work in the day and bowling or drinking at
night had become a thing of the past.
Jobs became scarce, and the families of Allentown crumbled under the pressure and the
lack of money. The easy family life that they once knew became history. "Well our fathers
fought the Second World War, spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore, met our mothers in the
USO, asked them to dance," Billy Joel sang of the easy times the generation before them had.
Many parents try to provide for their children in hopes that they will have a better life
than their mother and father had. But the people of Allentown were a lost generation. The
financial mishaps cost them everything they had worked for: "Every child had a pretty good shot
to get at least as far as their old man got. But something happened on the way to that place, they
threw an American flag in our face." The children who had grown up in hopes of living as well
or better than their parents were let down by the system. The hearts of both the children and the
parents were crushed when they saw the broken futures their children were going to inherit.
When he sings about the flag thrown in the people's faces, he's criticizing the capitalist system
that America has embraced so openly and defended for years. These market failures are inherent
in our free economy, but they had cost the people of Allentown everything.
"Allentown" is not just about the economic failures of a single Pennsylvania town but
about the changing times and economy of America in the early 1980s. The world was a much
different place than the one the singer of the song grew up in. The song's universal emotional
and economic themes are masterfully used to depict a town in ruins and its financially and
emotionally depressed people. Who would have known a song about the economic cycle could
be such a musical masterpiece?