Becoming a Blue-Collar Musical Diplomat
Billy Joel and Bridging the US-Soviet Divide in 1987
Billy Joel's 1987 concert tour to the Soviet Union was a major inflection point in the cultural transference from West to East during the waning years of the Cold War. A native of Long Island, New York, Joel's working-class upbringing and personality are channeled into his original songs, like »Allentown«, in a way that references the universal role of working class struggles in the global human experience. The spread of uniquely American music-rock and roll-to the Soviet Union represented a pointed statement about the similarities between the average American and Soviet citizen. The tour facilitated Joel's role as a cultural ambassador of the people of the United States, rather than the upper echelons of government. This type of direct cross-cultural engagement separated the politics of the Cold War from basic human survival and the common search for self-representation in music. Based on an analysis of the public and press reception of Joel's Soviet tour, and testimony from Joel and figures affiliated with the tour, this study posits that the export of Joel's music to the U.S.S.R. was an effective model for soft diplomacy. The model benefited both the U.S. government and the Soviet Union's glasnost policy, and its use continues when American culture is exported to the East, though the range of artistic genres has expanded significantly to include forms like hip hop and spoken word, in accordance with the strategic goals of U.S. foreign policy. This study finds that connecting nations through popular music can effectively promote cultural harmony, when complementing bilateral or multilateral diplomatic negotiations. Joel's brand of blue-collar popular rock songwriting, which emphasizes the power of lyrics, transcended the iron curtain and helped improve U.S.-Soviet relations from the perspective of the mass populations of each nation.