Behind the Meaning of the Carpe Diem Song “Vienna” by Billy Joel

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Slow down you crazy child/ You’re so ambitious for a juvenile, Billy Joel sings in the opening lines of “Vienna.” 

“Vienna” was written by Joel and released as a part of his 1977 album The Stranger, but it wasn’t the hit then that it is today. In fact, “Vienna” was released as the B-Side to “Just the Way You Are,” indicating that Joel likely believed the song’s destiny was to remain a deep cut, buried in his discography. Today, however, the tune is one of Joel’s most streamed songs. On Spotify, for example, “Vienna” is the second most played song from the Piano Man. How did this happen? “Vienna” simply grew on people; it aged well. And with a boost from the wide-reaching influence of social media and streaming platforms, “Vienna” has become one of Joel’s most beloved tunes.

“OK,” you may be saying, “but why is this New York City-hailing artist singing of Vienna? What’s going on there?” Well, slow down you crazy child, and read below for the meaning of “Vienna” by Billy Joel.

The Meaning of “Vienna” 

Most broadly, “Vienna” is a metaphor for growing older. It is, though, an unusual carpe diem-styled song. Rather than encouraging its listeners to grab the bull the horns, “Vienna”  suggests that everyone take the time to smell the roses. 

Slow down you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be before your time
Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight (tonight).

So, Joel’s opinion of aging is a positive one as he proclaims that there is so much life to live in quote-unquote old age. Further, the literal place of Vienna stands to represent the decades that many have to make the most of this crazy thing called life. 

But you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want
Or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through (Oooh)
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

Inspired by Joel’s Father 

In this song, Joel’s perspective on getting older almost entirely stems from hearing his father’s take on aging. His father, born Helmut Joel in Germany (he later adopted the name Howard), was a pianist and businessman who felt out of place in the United States. When Joel was a child, his father and mother split with Helmut, returning to Europe—Vienna, Austria to be specific.

“He went back to Europe and I pretty much never heard from the guy again,” Joel said in a 2008 interview. “I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. When I did my first tour of Europe, I was in my early 20s, and I was looking for him… I got word that my father was working in an office in Vienna, Austria. I said ‘Oh my God, he’s alive.'”

Upon hearing this news, Joel went to visit his estranged father in Vienna. Soon after, during a walk around the city with him, Joel was struck with the inspiration for his song of the same name.

“We were walking in the city and I remember seeing an old lady sweeping the street and I said, ‘Dad it’s kind of sad that that poor old woman has to do that kind of work.’ He said, ‘No, she has a job, she feels useful, she has a place in our society,’” Joel recalls.

“I realized they [Europeans] don’t throw old people away like we tend to do here in the States. They allow for people who are aged to have a useful place in the scheme of things, and I thought, ‘ya know that’s a good metaphor for someone my age to consider.’ You don’t have to squeeze your whole life into your 20s and 30s trying to make it, trying to achieve that American dream, getting in the rat race, and killing yourself. You have a whole life to live. I kind of used ‘Vienna’ as a metaphor, there is a reason for being old, a purpose.”

All in all, “Vienna” sounds like a pretty nice place to be.

Photo Credit: David Gahr/Sony Music Entertainment

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