Meaning Behind “Vienna” Song By Billy Joel

Billy Joel released a lot of hits, and surprisingly, his second-most popular song today was initially released on the B side of The Stranger. He likely thought Vienna didn’t have too much potential, but it has apparently aged well and become one of his best tracks. Fans and critics alike look back and point to the song as being the epitome of his talent and a major turning point in his career.

In this article, we’ll go over the meaning and inspiration behind Vienna by Joel. 

The Meaning of “Vienna”

Billy Joel - Vienna (Audio)

In the clearest way to explain it, Vienna in the song is a metaphor for growing older. The track itself serves as a sort of “carpe diem” song, one that makes you want to seize the day and make the most of the present without worrying over the future. Where other tracks inspire listeners to go for it, push, and always keep looking forward, Vienna tells us to take the time to enjoy the present or “stop and smell the flowers.”  

Another contrast in the song—at least when it comes to most mainstream music—is Joel’s opinion of aging. Where being young is typically sold as the best part of life or that growing up is the coolest, he has a completely positive opinion on actually growing old. His experience in Vienna really put his mind at ease about growing older and helped him find peace in taking things slowly. 

Slow down, you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart
Tell me why are you still so afraid, hmm?

In the opening of the song, Joel sums up a lot of what people feel in life. When you’re young, you’re always looking ahead to the future, dreaming of achieving goals, and trying to make the time pass as fast as possible. But, in the back of most people’s minds is fear. Fear of old age, fear of the end, and fear of not having enough time in life.

Slow down, you’re doin’ fine
You can’t be everything you wanna be
Before your time

He is really telling the listener to have patience and enjoy their time now instead of looking to hurry through life. 

It’s all right, you can afford
To lose a day or two, ooh
When will you realize
Vienna waits for you?

One of the final portions of the song is more of a reassurance than anything else. This section is Joel telling the listener it’s okay to not be rushing for a few days. In the end, we all end up in the same place.  

The point of the track is to give peace to people who have those fears about getting older. You don’t just end up useless because you’re old, and it isn’t time wasted if you stop and enjoy yourself now. His experience in Vienna and the culture shock he had in regard to old people really opened his eyes, and through the song, he hopes to open his audience’s eyes as well. 

Many people become dissatisfied with their lives and try to rush through things. It’s a massive myth among young people that you have to “make it” by a certain age or you’re a failure. There’s always some pressure accompanying your achievements or milestones the people around you make it to. Plus, it’s a general thought that life only goes downhill after you reach a certain age

Joel is reminding us with Vienna that there’s no reason to be afraid of growing older. We can still find our purpose, and it’s best to not kill yourself trying to make it because you’ll just end up missing out on some of the most amazing times of your life.

Next: Our list of Billy Joel’s best and most popular songs

Why Choose “Vienna” As a Metaphor? The Inspiration

Joel did an interview with the New York Times in 2008 and discussed the inspiration behind the song. When asked why he chose Vienna to use as a metaphor, he simply referred to an experience he had after visiting his father there. 

While he hadn’t seen his father for well over a decade, he tracked him down to the capital of Austria. The two were walking on the street, and Joel spotted a very old woman sweeping up the road. When asked why she was doing that, his father—according to Joel—said that she had a job, felt useful, and was therefore happy.

It was a big shock for him since in America old folks get sent away to homes and largely forgotten, while in Vienna, they’re treated more as valued members of the community. 

Overall, the encounter led him to the realization that growing older wouldn’t be so bad if Vienna—and the culture in the region—was what was waiting for him after all his youthful adventures. 

In his own words, his thoughts were: “This is a terrific idea—that old people are useful—and that means I don’t have to worry so much about getting old because I can still have a use in this world in my old age. I thought ‘Vienna waits for you…’”

In the same interview, he was also quoted as remembering thinking, “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.”

During numerous European conflicts, from World War Two to the Cold War, Vienna had served as the crossroads between nations. It’s the place where people from vastly different cultures mingled and brought things together.

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