The term "guilty pleasure" has become the blanket defense used by status-conscious critics for uncool acts they secretly love but can't admit to in print. But in an era when even Kelly Clarkson gets good press, perhaps the guiltiest pleasure of all is boring old Billy Joel. Unlike other punching bags such as Neil Diamond or hair metal, Joel's self-serious songwriting mostly lacks the chewy kitsch factor that renders it lovable in retrospect -- his hits strain so hard for our approval they make you feel slightly icky. Famously ending his concerts with the parting phrase "Don't take any shit from anyone," Joel has always been a hard-charger -- even his ballads go for your throat. Not having released a proper album in 13 years, he still occasionally tours, but mostly he seems to have been swallowed up by addiction and his own pretensions. Rarely has a major pop artist made pop seem like such work.
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