The BEST: Billy Joel’s “Vienna”

Isaac Selter Tradition Online | October 14, 2021

Summary: Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” off his 1977 album The Stranger, is written as a monologue of a parent or mentor concerned for a young adolescent whose intense aspirations for fame or grand achievement have jeopardized his own well-being. Joel uses the image of “Vienna,” a city symbolizing cultural or musical excellence (listen to him discuss this here), to represent the child’s ultimate goal. The boy’s overwhelmingly ambitious personality permeates his whole existence. And thus, the boy tirelessly toils to fulfill his dream—to finally get to Vienna. But in his pursuit to concretize his future, the juvenile has become blind to the present and forgets to take care of himself. Moreover, fear and anxiety settle in as he recognizes that, despite his endless efforts, his dreams remain just that—dreams. The song’s narrator attempts to repair the child’s work ethic, warning of the harm the boy is causing himself and his own aspirations. 

Why this is The BEST: Ambition is a powerful force that can lead one to accomplish the unthinkable. For the religious individual, aspiration is necessary for avodat Hashem, Torah study, and fulfilling one’s unique role or potential in this world. Yet, a dreamer runs the risk of his ambitions turning against him and harming his progress. Often the moment we contemplate the grandness of our goals and the intensity of our efforts, we become impatient with our slow advances, deem ourselves fools for striving towards the impossible, and toss up our hands in defeat. Joel’s narrator warns of this impending danger:

Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?
You better cool it off before you burn it out…
You’re gonna kick off before you’re even halfway through…
Don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?

These themes are also found in our own tradition (see, e.g., Deut. Rabba 8:3): Torah demands we dream big, but we cannot expect immediate satisfaction. Torah study, in the midrash’s example, requires a lifetime’s worth of patience and perseverance. Only after laboring for years can we look back and see how far we have come.

In the very same breath, however, “Vienna” also imparts a seemingly contradictory message. The problem of the song’s protagonist is not only that he is on the verge of giving up on his dreams, but that his intense work ethic itself is damaging:

Too bad, but it’s the life you lead
You’re so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need
Though you can see when you’re wrong
You know you can’t always see when you’re right…
Slow down you crazy child
Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while
It’s alright you can afford to lose a day or two.

In theory, ignoring all but one’s goals should prove the most efficient path to success. In practice, however, tunnel vision can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical well-being, diminish self-confidence and self-worth, and harm one’s relationships.

In life generally, and in avodat Hashem specifically, the apparent mutually exclusive themes of “Vienna” are difficult to inculcate. How often do we—even momentarily—put our dreams on hold to be present in our relationships, thankful for what we have, and occasionally pat ourselves on the back for what we have accomplished? On the other hand, were any hopes for growth exhausted when we graduated yeshiva, midrasha, or college? Are we simply content basking in the here and now? Billy Joel’s “Vienna” articulates this fundamental but unsolvable tension that many of us feel in everyday life. 

The most essential lesson appears in the refrain of the song, “When will you realize? / Vienna waits for you.”

As ovedei Hashem, dreams and aspirations are essential. And yet, as much hishtadlut as we place into fulfilling our dreams, we must know that the true recipe calls for more than a few cups of Divine help. Bitahon, in this context, means trusting that God will help translate our effort into success. If your dreams are noble and genuine, then, “When will you realize? / Vienna waits for you.”

Isaac Selter is a graduate of Yeshiva College, a Semikha student at Yeshiva University, and an editorial assistant at TRADITION.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.


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