Scrolling through the Instagram feed on one lazy morning, I stumbled upon a short video of two dolphins swimming aggressively towards the shore seemingly trying to ashore themselves. I don’t know what the dolphins were trying to do, but the background music hooked me in with only two sentences. It went “Slow down, you crazy child / You’re so ambitious for a juvenile.” The lyrics matched perfectly to the context of the video and after doing a little research, I found out that this was exactly what Billy Joel intended to convey through his masterpiece “Vienna.”
Very rarely are there many songs that can hook you in from the first line and keep you glued all the way through to the end. “Vienna” by Billy Joel does just that. The soothing vocals, serenading piano, the hymn of the acoustic guitar, and slow drums complement perfectly what Billy Joel wants to say. It comes as little surprise that Billy Joel himself wrote the entire song, sang it soulfully, and also played the piano for the music track. We expect nothing from the legendary “Piano Man.”
“Vienna” is about enjoying the ride before the destination. Life moves on in the blink of an eye and you might be missing ‘life’ itself while chasing your dreams. God forbid, if you don’t reach your dreams, you would have missed the journey, too.
The Real Story Behind “Vienna” by Billy Joel
The song was inspired by Billy Joel’s father, who left for Vienna, Austria when Billy was eight years old. As a teenager of 23, Billy traveled to Vienna to reconnect with his father. They did. One afternoon while they were sipping some coffee at a shop by the street, Billy Joel sees an elderly woman sweeping the street. Billy feels bad for her and expresses the sentiment to his father. Hi father, Helmut Joel, explains that elderly people, too, still can provide something of value to society, as opposed to making them feel like useless people, as does America’s culture. Billy explained the story to New York Times in 2008;
Why did I pick Vienna to use as a metaphor for the rest of your life? My father lives in Vienna now. I had to track him down. I didn’t see him from the time I was 8 ‘till I was about 23-24 years old. He lives in Vienna, Austria which I thought was rather bizarre because he left Germany in the first place because of this guy named Hitler and he ends up going to the same place that Hitler hung out all those years! Vienna, for a long time was the crossroads. During the Cold War, between the Eastern Bloc, the Warsaw Pact nations and the NATO countries was the city of Vienna… Vienna was always the crossroads – between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. So the metaphor of Vienna has the meaning of a crossroad. It’s a place of inter…course, of exchange – it’s the place where cultures co-mingle. You get great beer in Vienna but you also get brandy from Armenia. It was a place where cultures co-mingled.
So I go to visit my father in Vienna, I’m walking around this town and I see this old lady. She must have been about 90 years old and she is sweeping the street. I say to my father “What’s this nice old lady doing sweeping the street?” He says “She’s got a job, she feels useful, she’s happy, she’s making the street clean, she’s not put out to pasture”. We treat old people in this country pretty badly. We put them in rest homes, we kinda kick them under the rug and make believe they don’t exist. They don’t feel like that. In a lot of these older places in the world, they value their older people and their older people feel they can still be a part of the community and I thought ‘This is a terrific idea – that old people are useful -and that means I don’t have to worry so much about getting old because I can still have a use in this world in my old age. I thought “Vienna waits for you…”
In an interview with the Howard Stern Show, Billy Joel further explained the meaning behind the song lyrics;
“It was an observation that you have your whole life to live. A lot of people in their 20s think they have to get it all together by their 30s and they kill themselves trying to get the golden ring. You have an entire life to live. The lyrics, ‘slow down you crazy child’ – in other words, you have a whole life. We tend to put older people away, and it’s all about young people. Well, wait a minute, why do I have this whole lifespan? What’s the point of it? Some people will get there sooner, and some people will get there later. Slow down, you’re going to be fine. No matter what you do, be good at it, and whenever you get there, you get there.”
“Vienna” was released on the Side-B of “Just the Way You Are” single on November 29, 1977. The song was part of Billy Joel’s iconic album ‘The Stranger’ from 1977. Throughout the years, the song has sold over a million copies in the United States alone and stands as the fifth most played Billy Joel song on Spotify. Regardless, the song continues to be a fan-favorite after half a century later!
Listen to “Vienna” by Billy Joel
Download ‘The Stranger’ Album on Apple Music & Amazon
Billy Joel “Vienna” Lyrics Meaning and Song Review
The first two lines of the song should be enough to convince you of the meaning of the song as well as to take a step back.
Slow down, you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
It is pretty crazy to think that this song grows in relevancy as time passes by. If Billy Joel thought the 1977 youth were in a rush, he would be amazed at what the world has come to 45 years later. People have become busy in the truest sense of the word, and not for good measure either. People are in a rat race just to survive. Most of us miss the true purpose of life – to live!
Babies of the 21st Century come out of the wombs having a roadmap scheduled for them to become doctors, scientists, engineers, actors, actresses, athletes, computer wizards, and so on. Most of them do reach these goals thanks to a world full of opportunities in the world right now. But they do end up missing what is more important – childhood and relationships. The kids of 1977 did not have the same opportunities we have today. They had to fight for the limited opportunities. Growing up fast was the only way to ‘make it’ in the world.
Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?
You’d better cool it off before you burn it out
Billy Joel (or rather his father) wants to know what’s all the rush about. At the time of this song, Billy Joel himself was a teenager in his prime and actively pursuing his lifelong dream of becoming a musician. Billy, eventually, did reach this goal, but as his “Piano Man” tells, he was burnt at one point in his life.
Sure, there is so much to do in life – achieve goals, maintain relationships, have fun with friends, study, travel, hobbies, cook, clean, and so much more. But there’s also so much time on the clock for a day. You absolutely cannot do everything that you want to do in a lifetime. Does this mean giving up? Absolutely not! Prioritize. Do what you love the most. Pursue what makes you the happiest. Dream on, but be realistic.
The first chorus beautifully sings the harsh realities of life. At the end of the day, there’s so much one man can do in a lifetime. It is quite amazing that we all have free will to pursue whatever we want in our lives and try to immortalize our names in the history books. You don’t need to do ten things to achieve this. You only need to do one thing, masterfully, to get your name into the hall of fame. This is if you work hard and some luck plays in favor of you. Most people don’t get this combo. Most people wither away nameless.
When will you realize
Vienna waits for you?
The capital of Austria, Vienna, and the largest city in the country houses approximately 2 million people. Life in Vienna is supposedly the exact opposite of the hustle and bustle of a city like New York City, USA. The people of Vienna are supposedly free from the engines that propel them towards a hundred goals in their lives. This was in 1977, at least. We cannot vouch for the reality of 2022 Vienna, but ‘Vienna’ stands for an idea rather than the actual city (despite being inspired by the real city).
Vienna is life and what happens in life when you are chasing your goals. Vienna is that scenic route you take to reach a destination. It stands for the beauty of life – something you are bound to miss if you only look at your goal in front of you. The beauty lies on either side of the road, not in front.
Sometimes, we all need the calming voice of Billy Joel to whisper;
Slow down, you’re doin’ fine
You can’t be everything you wanna be
These two sentences are packed with emotion. The first line feels like you are dropped on a cloud. The second line feels like you are dropped on a rock. Unfortunately, in life, we need both these wake-up calls. We need people around us to say that we are doing fine. But we also need people to remind us to stay in our lanes. We cannot do it all. We can do a few things successfully. And we can hope to do one or two things masterfully. It is okay to fail at some things. You aren’t supposed to fix everything and excel at everything.
The second verse ends with a very important message. Oftentimes, we do realize the times when we fail at something. Failures often tend to look obvious and we beat ourselves down for them. But wins in life are subtle. Because that is how life was supposed to go – winning at everything. If you completed school, that is not just another mundane routine – you actually accomplished something. Take time to label that as a ‘win’ and celebrate.
The second chorus of the song is full of wisdom.
You’ve got your passion
You’ve got your pride
But don’t you know
That only fools are satisfied?
The problem with goals is that they never seem to be in your grasp. Even if you do reach a goal, another appears in front. And our pride does not let us stop at the last milestone. It feels as if human nature is to keep on chasing dreams, which is not a bad thing. Goals and dreams give us a sense of purpose in life. But when will you stop? Are you able to stop? When will you have enough money, enough fame, enough love, or your fill of happiness? Is this even possible in the modern world? It almost seems foolish to be satisfied with something in life because we are so used to seeing goalposts that move forever.
But don’t imagine they’ll all come true, ooh
As mentioned earlier, it is not a bad thing to dream. Hopes and dreams are two of the most potent drivers of human progress. But they are equally dangerous. So, keep your dreams grounded. Learn to be happy with small wins. These small wins surely will add up to be much more than what you can think of when your journey comes to an end.
Slow down, you crazy child
And take the phone off the hook
Billy Joel might be singing about the land phones that were connected with cables back when the song came out. Cellular phones have started their presence in the market by this time but were not at all as popular and affordable as they are today. Back then it was “take off the hook” to disconnect the phone, but today it should be ‘disconnect to the Internet.’ Either way, Billy Joel sounds like a prophet with these lines. He foresaw what was to come – not necessarily only pertaining to phones. These lyrics are to do with everything that connects us to the world – be it technology or machines or even your goals that keep you up at night. It is okay to have a rest day. The world will wait for you. Vienna waits for you!
“Vienna” by Billy Joel seemingly has very simple lyrics with a soothing melody, but they pack a lot. The lyrics contain a deep meaning that only grows in relevance each passing day. This is probably one more reason for this song’s longevity.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.