Billy Joel's 'Uptown Girl' was released on his 1983 album An Innocent Man, two years before I was born. It's hard to imagine that I never heard it on the radio growing up, but the first time I remember hearing it was in the 2015 movie Trainwreck. On first listen, it appears to be a happy-go-lucky and extremely catchy pop confection - perhaps as far from a tragedy as music can get. But hear me out: After careful study, I think it is. And it begs an interesting question: Is it a tragedy if the narrator refuses to recognize and accept his own failure?
It all started yesterday when I found this YouTube video discussing the song's interesting key changes.
Many people who attempt to analyze and explain music on YouTube have no idea what they're talking about, but this guy actually knows his stuff. I found his insights so compelling that I decided to study 'Uptown Girl' myself. And what a fascinating piece of work it is!
The first thing that stands out as unusual is the structure.
0:00 Intro (4) instrumental
0:09 Verse 1 (8) "... uptown world..."
0:24 Verse 2 (8) "... white bread world..."
0:39 Bridge 1 (12) "... she knows what she wants..."
1:01 Verse 3 (8) "... I've seen her..."
1:16 Break (8) "Oh"
1:30 Verse 4 (8) "... I can't afford..."
1:45 Bridge 2 (12) "... when she's walking..."
2:08 Verse 5 (8) "... white bread world..."
2:23 Break 2 (8) "Oh"
2:37 Coda "... My uptown girl..."
Notice the presence of both a bridge and a break. I'm not familiar enough with Joel's work to know if this is common in his music, but I know The Beatles only did that in five (2.4%) of their 211-song official output. 'Only A Northern Song', 'Lady Madonna', 'Blackbird', 'Piggies', and 'Honey Pie' all use both bridges and breaks, but in those cases the breaks are simply instrumental iterations of the verse. The breaks in 'Uptown girl', by contrast, are musically independent from the song's other sections. And it turns out there's a good reason why Joel employs a musically independent break - it has to do with the lyrics.
The song is about an affluent, high-class (uptown) woman with whom Joel is smitten. The problem is that the singer is from a less-wealthy, lower class (downtown). Reflecting this musically, the verses are all in E major, representing that higher-class, while the bridges and breaks attempts to woo her away from E major.
At first, Joel tries C major ("she knows what she wants" and "when she's walking").
When that fails to get her attention, he tries A major ("she'll see I'm not so tough"). But that fails, too, as the music reverts to the uptown E major in the next verse.
Not one to give up, Joel then launches into the break ("oh"), which is tonally ambiguous but contains clear tonicizations of B minor (F#7-Bm in the first ending) and B major (F#7-B in the second ending).
But, once again, the attempts to overthrow the primary tonic of E major (and thus seduce this uptown girl away from her stale high-class environment) fall short as the music reverts once more to E major. Judging from this tonal conflict, Joel does NOT sweep this uptown girl off her feet. Thus, the song is a tragedy - in the end, despite his efforts, he doesn't get the girl.
And yet the music video tells a different story.
In this version, the woman at first walks away, rejecting Joel's advances (at 1:45, 1:58, and 2:28 - note that the timings are different for the video). But by the end of the song, she capitulates. She joins in the dancing at 2:41, and rides off with Joel on his motorcycle at 3:10.
So we, the listening audience, are given mixed signals. We hear that he doesn't get the girl, but we see that he does. Is this intentional on Joel's part? Was he trying to make an artistic statement through this conflict between what we see and what we hear? I doubt it. More likely he was just writing the best music he could, not paying much attention to the tonal narrative and entirely unaware that he had built this discrepancy into his work.
Aaron Krerowicz, pop music scholar
An informal but highly analytic study of popular music.