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I have a phrase I like to use. By now, you should know it, but I’ll repeat it anyway: Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. There’s a meme running around . . . okay, going viral that completely misses this point. I’d like to trash the meme, but it goes all “sociopolitical,” and I’ve already done my annual sociopolitical post for the year. Instead, I’ll address another meme that reimagines the story told in Billy Joel’s fantastic song, Piano Man. The song is actually about Joel during his early days playing seedy bars filled with alcoholics and underachievers. The meme could be said to be sociopolitical too, but I don’t see it that way, so here it is.
Now, there’s a problem with the theory of this meme: Paul never had time for a wife. This means that if would have had a wife if his priorities are different. Also, not everyone who’s an alcoholic, failure, underachiever, or sailor is gay. That makes the statement at the end, “yep, it’s definitely a bar full of gay dudes,” to be rather arrogant, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t fairly infer that it’s at a “gay bar.” It still fits, and you just ignore the imperfections in the spirit of having fun with the lyrics.
Another Theory: They Still Live
Well then, it’s no less legitimate to instead imagine that Piano Man takes place in the They Live universe, but in a sequel called They Still Live in which a few surviving aliens have recovered their ability to hide their true selves. Joel is playing to bunch of extraterrestrials and doesn’t know it. Why can’t Billy tell they’re aliens?
Because those sunglasses are just ordinary ones. Instead of a bunch of homosexuals having a betting pool, it’s a bunch of aliens wondering when he’ll figure out that they’re aliens in hiding. They’re reluctant underachievers because they must remain in hiding until they reclaim control over the Earth. Is this a perfect inference? No, but remember, neither was the “gay bar” interpretation. This interpretation also has no clear contradictions within the lyrics, so it’s just as good. So would any interpretation in which people, extraterrestrial or otherwise, we’re in hiding. I’m sure the song could be put to use in a pretty good Al Qaeda recruitment video, and I doubt Joel would approve.
Revenge of the Sith
Let me give you another example. This one’s more on point with the meme I don’t want to discuss. In Revenge of the Sith, Mace Windu, et al. attack Emperor Palpatine, a.k.a., Darth Sidious. The others fall, so it’s just Mace and Sidious going at it, and Mace gets the upper hand. He starts to reflect Sidious’s force lighting back on him. According to the dialogue, as wells as a (long-lost) interview with George Lucas, the reflection disfigured Palpatine.
I never bought that, and I think Kessel Junkie and I have discussed it.
My interpretation from the moment I saw it was that Sidious was already disfigured from his long term use of the Dark Side. Within the movies – I don’t concern myself at all with the Expanded Universe – there’s nothing in canon to contradict that. With Mace Windu’s attack, Sidious’s power was being tasked, so his veil dropped. Everyone was seeing him for what he really was. He initially lied to Anakin to complete his turn to the Dark Side, then maintained the lie to convince others of the treachery of the Jedi. That in turn meant that he no longer had to use a portion of his power to maintain that veil. Win-win as far as he was concerned.
Am I wrong? Not according to me, so why do I care whether George agrees? Why would he care if I disagree with him?
The point is that you can interpret art, especially good art, in a way that suits you, even if it contradicts the intent of the creator. Unless you’re way off base, your interpretation is as legitimate an interpretation as anyone else’s. Whatever makes the art work for you is fine.
As long as you’re buying it, the creators won’t mind.