Revisiting Billy Joel’s Marilyn Moment

Singer Billy Joel’s 1989 hit, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ – an earworm if ever there was one – mentioned Marilyn in its first verse, as he looked back on a half-century of American history. (There are several Monroe connections in this verse alone – she would visit Korea in 1954 with husband Joe DiMaggio. Later that year, she would star in There’s No Business Like Show Business with Johnnie Ray, and on the fateful September night when she filmed the ‘subway scene’ for The Seven Year Itch, Joe was in the crowd with reporter Walter Winchell …)

“Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe …”

In an article for Far Out magazine, Tom Taylor digs deep into the song’s intricate timeline, noting that Joel’s nod to Marilyn comes in at the 1950 mark – a breakthrough year in her career, with films like The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve setting her on the path to fame. (Khrushchev and Kennedy, the two world leaders she would later meet, are mentioned in the fourth and sixth verses, respectively.)

“Throughout the lyrics, Joel makes his way through a whopping 118 historical events, traversing a rhythmic course through life from 1948 to 1989, never once straining to rhyme, breaking stride or losing any momentum on its way to a searing guitar solo — and what’s more, he wraps it up in under five minutes.

It’s a singalong classic like absolutely no other and we’re delving into every single reference made in the sui generis maelstrom below.

1948

  • Harry Truman – The song begins with a reference to Harry Truman winning the US presidential election following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • Doris Day – Doris Day made her film debut with Romance on the High Seas, launching her to stardom and making her a feminist trailblazer.

1949

  • Red China – The Communist Party of China is victorious in the Chinese Civil War, establishing the Red China regime and the formation of the People’s Republic of China.
  • Johnnie Ray – Rock ‘n’ roll luminary Johnnie Ray signs to Okeh Records and revolutionises pop culture.
  • South Pacific – The music South Pacific opens on Broadway and soon becomes one of the biggest of all time.
  • Walter Winchell – Journalist Walter Winchell makes a public decree denouncing communism as the ‘biggest threat to America.’
  • Joe DiMaggio – The baseball star Joe DiMaggio changes the world of professional sport by signing a record-breaking contract of $100,000 with the New York Yankees.

1950

  • Joe McCarthy – The US senator Joe McCarthy makes Lincoln Day speech launching an anti-communist crusade.
  • Richard Nixon – The future president Richard Nixon is elected to the US Senate.
  • Studebaker – The automobile company Studebaker falls into liquidation.
  • Television – Television ownership encroaches on 10% for the first time, by the close of the decade 85.9% of American households will own one.
  • North Korea – North Korea invades South Korea, and the Korean War ensues.
  • South Korea – See above.
  • Marilyn Monroe – Marilyn Monroe appears in five films in a single year (All About Eve, The Fireball, Right Cross, The Asphalt Jungle, A Ticket to Tomahawk).”