How Gen-Z brought back The Piano Man

Katie Fata

Billy Joel, who has spent almost fifty years in the spotlight, is known for his popularity in older demographics. His popularity ceased in the later part of his career, with only his most popular songs being played. TikTok users changed that in 2020.
Credit: Flickr


Gen-Z, or the generation born after 1996, is known for a lot of things, namely things like  activism, being anyone over the age of forty’s go-to tech-wiz and their love of TikTok. In reference to the latter, the generation has also witnessed the rise and fall of several social media platforms due to the young age at which they were handed cell phones. But TikTok is where Gen-Z has found its home.

TikTok, which launched in 2016, is where many individuals in the newest generation have found a community of people their age and a place to make and watch content that is relatable to them. The app allows users to create videos up to a minute long, using sounds that trend on the app and usually come from popular media. 

Aware of some of the cringier content that came from the app’s early years, most of my friends and I were hesitant to download the app and it was known to be pretty embarrassing to share videos from TikTok that you liked until around Summer of 2019. TikTok, as of February 2021, now sits at the #2 spot on the Apple App Store, beaten only by Zoom.

One of the more popular forms of content on TikTok is creators dancing to popular songs using a series of dance moves that have long been associated with the app. Songs routinely “blow up” on TikTok and small artists have exploded in popularity when their songs are used for a dance. “Space Girl,” a song by artist Frances Forever, had only a few thousand streams on Youtube in early 2020. By the end of the year, the song had garnered over 29 million listens on Spotify after being used for a viral dance. 

TikTok is also known for its algorithm, which creates different “sides” of TikTok based on the content you see the most and utilizes hashtags to brand the videos’ side. There’s sides like “straight tik-tok,” meant to be mostly comedy and dancing videos, and the opposite “alt-tiktok,” where “alternative” content can be found. As the app and the idea of “sides” of TikTok gained popularity, sides became more niche and came to label whatever was in the video: “leftist-tiktok,” “art-tiktok,” and more. Music artists’ fan bases also have their own sides. 

A more recent trend on TikTok, however, blends the two. Gen-Z has been returning to their childhood car rides, sitting in the backseat of their family car, listening to their parents’ sing the words to old songs that sound nothing like the music we were used to hearing on the local soft rock radio station. 

It started slowly. Creators began using “Beautiful Boy,” off of John Lennon’s 1980 album “Double Fantasy,” in the backgrounds of videos. Then Elton John songs started to appear.  And, in the final months of 2020, Billy Joel entered the chat. 

As the daughter of a dedicated Billy Joel fan, I was fiercely defensive the first time I heard “Vienna” on TikTok. I associated Billy Joel with my childhood, and though knowing it has been a wildly popular song for years, viewed it as one of the songs that people my age didn’t know. Like most people that have superiority complexes about their music taste, I was proud of the fact that I listened to Billy Joel and was horrified that he was suddenly in the hands of any person who opened TikTok. 

Gen-Z started with “Vienna” but certainly did stop there. “Vienna,” a three minute piano ballad, isn’t the most danceable song and that’s where, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” another song off of the 1977 album “Stranger” came in. A section of “Piano Man” had a shining moment as a dance. After that one, TikTok users reached into the depths of Billy Joel’s discography and pulled out “Zanzibar.” I was scrolling on the app last night and saw someone dancing to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

Gen-Z knew who Billy Joel was before TikTok. Everyone heard “Piano Man” or “Uptown Girl” at some point in their childhood. But songs like “Zanzibar,” one of his lesser known songs, entered the public sphere again for the first time since the 1970s. Google searches for “Zanzibar” were their highest ever after the app started creating dances to the song in January 2021.

Google searches for the song “Zanzibar” rocketed in January 2021 after almost ten years of dormancy.

Gen-Z fell in love with Billy Joel because of the yearning lyrics of “Vienna.” The opening lyrics “slow down, you crazy child,” were featured in the backgrounds of videos about people growing up, their relationships, and almost any video that had an element of nostalgia. But Gen-Z didn’t stop at “Vienna” and kept listening. Joel’s more upbeat songs kept their interest because the lyrics they loved when they heard “Vienna” stayed the same. Billy Joel is able to create a lyrical story to any beat and so Gen-Z made a bunch of silly dances to them. Who can blame them?