What does white-frat-rapper-cum-everyman-crossover-star-cum-Earl-Sweatshirt’s-heady-bro Mac Miller covering a ‘70s Billy Joel B-side with a demonic, pitched-down vocal say about the future?
I’m not totally sure. But the fact that Billy Joel resonates with Mac Miller — and his recent choice to do a mournful cover of one of his most introspective songs — signals that, for the Pittsburgh-born rapper, the struggle for acceptance and stability continues to be an uphill battle.
Like Miller, Joel has been an object of excoriation well beyond the critical realm — with Joel, the stigma came with plenty of Long Island mockery, to boot. This prevailing dismissive attitude at Joel has persisted for decades, but in an age when Just Good Pop Songs are more likely to be treated with respect, the cult of Joel seems to be strengthening, or at least given its due. Recently, his legacy was interrogated in a length New Yorker piece and his catalogueranked in full— all this around the time that it became clear that his monthly gig at Madison Square Garden was going to be a indefinite staple.
Is it as simple as calling Billy Joel awful, or is there more to the story? This is in essence, the same question people have been asking about Mac in the past two years. People love Billy Joel, a lot of people love Mac Miller — and gradually, everyone seems to be becoming less and less ashamed, or at least reassess whether or not they are missing the point.
Miller’s piano-and-vocal cover of “Vienna” is totally unlistenable — a bit of studio foolishness attributed to his production alias Larry Fisherman. But underneath the effects rack, it sounds like the guy is delivering this as sincerely as you’d expect Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to. The likeness is enhanced by the fact that somber and simply chorded is the only way Mac can do it, clearly being unable to hack the cabaret piano crochets of Joel’s original version.
But somber is the right way to do it, if you have to err on one side. The song itself is not really a joking matter. Joel described it in a 2008 interview as one of his two favorite songs of all time, inspired by a visit to meet his estranged father, who lived in the titular city. So it’s about the odd feeling of being in that situation, and the odd, gently cynical perspective of old age; it’s kind of Joel’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” or “Love Story.” He’s assuming the perspective of an old person, looking at — perhaps — the real-life ‘70s version of himself and thinking “What in the fresh hell are you thinking? Slow down, stroll these Vienna streets. Life looks different from here.”
Does Mac feel like an old soul? Does he feel misunderstood? “You’re so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need” — what is it you need, Mac Miller? Or is it just Mac continuing rap’s long love affair with Billy Joel’s music in his own more direct way? I stand with Joel, suggests Miller.
Whatever else is true, the 23-year-old rapper’s career has already reached an awkward plateau. He’s several high-profile LPs in with modest and ever-decreasing sales to back them up. This year’s GO:OD AM sold 100k its first week, well over 150k less than his previous album, 2013’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off, and its singles didn’t clear #100 on the singles charts. Today, Miller is still not viewed as either a major “serious” hip-hop force or the crossover pop star it once seemed like he would inevitably become in the days of Blue Slide Park. Miller might want to get beyond teenager Tumblrs and Odd Future fan forums, but you still don’t hear him much on the radio.
In the critical world — and for a healthy portion of the rest of the music-listening population — being a white rapper is a big Sisyphean boulder you have to carry on your back, and everything you do while being a white rapper is, in some sense, in conversation with the fact that you are one. People are rooting for you to lose, just like so much of the world wanted that cocky asshole from Long Island to stop dispensing catchy, accessibly condescending Top 40 character studies. It was bad enough in the ‘70s — now, all through the damn ‘80s too?
Is Mac gearing up to make a pseudo-singer/songwriter album, and for it to be a dead-on-arrival vanity project? Or does he want to make fat hits the size of the stuff Joel was just crapping out for laughs in the tail end of the roaring ‘70s, and this is his small way of doffing his cap directly to the guy that inspires him to keep going?
It’s hard to know. Miller’s “Vienna” cover feels like a sad riddle — the metaphor for a career in crisis, and the perennial plight of the irreducibly corny white man, who — he’d like us know — is not as simple as all that.