October 15, 2012


Billy Joel Teaches History


South Pacific

I’ve been on sick leave from Professor Joel’s history class but now, mostly recovered, I’m back into the swing of things.  Today’s lesson is ‘South Pacific’ which is a big one.  There are a lot of possibilities to explore here.  If only the lyrical rhythm of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ allowed for slightly more exposition to clarify precisely what was meant by each reference so I wouldn’t have as much homework to do.  Though what would be the challenge in that, am I right? 

Inexplicably and entirely at random, I’m listening to ‘It’s a Sin’ by the Pet Shop Boys. 

The South Pacific is a geographical area in the Pacific Ocean comprised of island nations in three major regions: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.  Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and New Zealand are among the many nations included in the South Pacific descriptor.



The South Pacific was a region of significance in World War II.  Popularly it is remembered that war in the Pacific was launched by the Japanese attack on US soil at Pearl Harbor.  Several events precipitated the attack, however.  Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and attacked China in 1937.  Then in 1940 Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy which initiated the military alliance known as the Axis.  The US responded to the escalating aggression by imposing economic sanctions on Japan.  Wanting to replace the US as the dominant power in the Pacific and facing oil and natural resource shortages, Japan subsequently launched the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Pearl Harbor prompted the US to declare war on Japan.  And after Germany declared war on the US, America also declared war on Germany which is how World War II came to be fought in two distinct theatres - Europe and The Pacific - simultaneously. 


Marines landing at Guadalcanal in WWII

Steven Spielberg produced the miniseries Band of Brothers in 2001 and The Pacific in 2010 and the two, though nine years apart in release dates, are two sides of the same coin, examining the twin conflicts of World War II in similarly gritty and wrenching styles.  Rather than recount the entirety of the war in the Pacific here, I will instead direct you to watch ‘The Pacific’ or to visit a concise but thorough timeline here

Back to Billy Joel and ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’.  Remember in lesson one when we discussed Harry Truman?  (You can scroll if you missed that one.)  This is Truman-era conflict we’re talking about.  Harry Truman is partially remembered as being the president tasked with ending the war with Japan which he did by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In yet another pop culture aside, if you have ever wanted to watch a film about the secret Manhattan Project in New Mexico where the atomic bombs were built (and also have ever wondered if Dwight Schultz of The A-Team fame, Paul Newman, and John Cusack have ever shared screen time in the same film), then you should rent 1989’s Fat Man and Little Boy.  Fat Man and Little Boy were the code names for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.

Where was I?  South Pacific.  Billy Joel, you need to narrow down these references.  We’re only 2/3 of the way through this lesson.  To be fair, though, all three of the potential meanings are related - region, conflict, and pop culture rendering.


Which brings us again to pop culture.  South Pacific is also a highly regarded and popular Broadway musical that premiered in 1949.  It is one of the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and it spawned three London productions, five New York revivals, a Carnegie Hall concert, a London tour, a 1958 film starring Mitzi Gaynor and John Kerr, and a 2001 made-for-TV film starring Glenn Close and Harry Connick Jr.  As well as literally thousands of high school and amateur theatre productions, I’m guessing.  The story takes place on a South Pacific island during World War II where US Navy nurses and officers are stationed.  It directly explores themes of racial prejudice, most notably in the controversial number ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’, and also includes such Broadway standards as ‘Bali Ha’i’, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, and ‘I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy’.

Six degrees of Billy Joel and South Pacific, can it be done?  In 2008 Billy Joel performed his Face2Face tour with Elton John in Australia and New Zealand to rave reviews.  Billy Joel and Glenn Close (who played South Pacific’s Nellie in 2001) have both voiced animated Disney characters - Billy Joel was Dodger in Oliver & Company and Glenn Close was Kala in Tarzan.  Additionally both attended the glitzy 2006 re-opening of New York’s acclaimed Le Cirque restaurant.  (No word on whether they sang a duet of ‘Bali Ha’i’ at the time.  In my imagination they did and it was glorious.)