Billy Joel’s “Vienna”: his most Popular Song, is a Melancholic Ballad with a Timeless Message and Heartwarming Backstory

Billy Joel’s “Vienna”: his most Popular Song, is a Melancholic Ballad with a Timeless Message and Heartwarming Backstory

Billy Joel’s “Vienna” remains his most popular song, even though the song was never released as a single or became a hit.

“Vienna” is a melancholic ballad that is widely regarded as one of Billy Joel’s signature songs. The song features a piano-driven melody and introspective lyrics that speak to the idea that life moves quickly and that youth and innocence are fleeting. Joel sings about the importance of appreciating life’s beauty in simple moments, such as “waiting for the rain to fall.” The song’s title, “Vienna,” is used as a metaphor for the elegance and sophistication one can find in the simpler things in life.

The song was well-received by fans and critics alike and has been a staple of Billy Joel’s live performances over the years. It has been included on numerous compilation albums and remains one of his most popular songs. “Vienna” has also been covered by various artists, including most Australian singer and songwriter Gretta Ray’s most recent release, and continues to be a beloved classic of Billy Joel’s discography.

Why has Billy Joel’s classic Vienna recently become so popular on Tick Tock?

The song is currently undergoing a resurgence on Tick Tock.  It’s newfound popularity with the younger generation is attributed to various reasons. One factor is the song’s catchy melody and nostalgic feel, making it appealing to a new generation of listeners. Another reason is the creative freedom that TikTok offers its users, allowing them to create short videos set to the song’s music, often incorporating lip-syncing, dancing, and other visual effects. Additionally, the song’s themes of appreciating life’s simple pleasures and enjoying the moment have resonated with many TikTok users, who are using the platform to share their perspectives and experiences.

A final reason for the recent popularity of Billy Joel’s Vienna on Tick Tock, most notably with a young female following, may be the movie “13 going on 30”. The romantic comedy film, released in 2004, stars Jennifer Garner as Jenna Rink, a 13-year-old girl who wishes to be 30 years old. After her wish comes true, she wakes up as a successful magazine editor in New York City, but realizes she has lost touch with her childhood friends and family. The film follows Jenna as she navigates her newfound adulthood and learns important lessons about friendship, love, and the importance of being true to oneself.

The film was directed by Gary Winick and co-stars Mark Ruffalo as Jenna’s love interest, Matty. It received positive reviews for its charming performances, catchy soundtrack, and uplifting message, and has since become a cult classic and a staple of romantic comedy films. “13 Going on 30″ was a commercial success, grossing over $100 million worldwide, and remains a popular film among fans of the genre, as evident on Tick Tock to date.

The popularity of  Billy Joel’s “Vienna” on TikTok has also contributed to the songs broader resurgence in popularity and has helped introduce it to a new generation of fans. Billy Joel’s music continues to have a strong following, and “Vienna” remains one of his most beloved and enduring classics.

What are Billy Joel’s ties to Vienna?

I came across Joel’s 1977 track “Vienna” a few years ago. I had never heard it before.  I wondered what would prompt somebody from the Bronx to write an enigmatic tune about Vienna. I started to dig and was fascinated with what I unearthed. When I think of Billy Joel, I think of the picture image of a New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx, with the accent to prove it. Joel consciously rejects the edifying of celebrities and the rampant elitism in the industry. He is well known for his music and his lack of allure.

Instead, preferring to stress his humanity. He likes to make himself the bunt of his jokes on and offstage and chooses to parade his blue-collar roots and reject any trace of a pop-star persona. Thankfully, his time in Los Angeles failed to jade him. Billy Joel remains as down-to-earth and human as ever.

“Most people aren’t pop stars; most people aren’t celebrities, and there’s this deification of people like that, which I think is totally misplaced. I have a real cynicism about this whole star thing. I don’t think I’m so special — I just do what I do. I put myself down onstage, I kid around. I’ve read where that ‘cheapens my persona.’ But I do it because I want to de-myth-ify myself. ‘Hey, I’m a human being, just like the rest of you.”

-Billy Joel in The Times

As it turns out, Joel’s roots lie across the Atlantic Ocean in the heart of Europe. Billy grew up in a house filled with Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. His father, Howard, was born in Nuremberg in 1923. Being of Jewish descent, he had to flee Germany with his family to escape the Nazi regime. In 1942, while working on a New York production of The Pirates of Penzance, he met and married Billy’s mother, Rosalind. Billy arrived in 1949.

View of the Vienna State Opera by day.
© Yolanda Reischer Bohanec

Howard was a trained classical pianist and a true musician at heart. He was devoted to the classics and held little regard for pop culture. He firmly believed that nothing that held any real value had been composed after Big Band. Billy idolized his father.

“My father was my idol as a pianist as a kid because he was classically trained and could read music,” Joel once said. “He would come home from work at General Electric and take Chopin and Bartok pieces and work through them laboriously; this was his entertainment. He could interpret them and make them sound as good as anything that was being played on WQXR radio or the records. But he thought he was never good enough; he never gave himself any slack. He said, ‘I’m a hack, I can’t play, I’m just doing it for me.’ And he’d say, ‘This is how I make my living in America: I work for G.E., and everything is plastic, American plastic.’”

-Billy Joel in The Times

The marriage was not to last. The couple divorced in 1957 when Billy was eight. His father headed back to Europe. Father and son lost touch. In his early twenties, Billy discovered that his father, now living in Vienna, had remarried and had a new family. Eager to meet his newly found brother and reunite with his estranged father, Joel headed to Vienna.

But what does the message, “Vienna waits for you.” actually mean?

Billy Joel’s “Vienna” is said to have been inspired by Joel’s European experiences, particularly in Vienna, Austria. He was struck by the city’s beauty and its slow-paced, relaxed lifestyle, which he saw as a contrast to the fast-paced nature of life in the United States. The song reflects the idea that one should slow down and appreciate life’s simple pleasures rather than always rushing to the next thing.

Joel has said that the song is about the passage of time and the inevitability of growing older, and that it is a reminder to appreciate the things that truly matter in life. “Vienna” is widely regarded as one of Billy Joel’s most introspective and personal songs and has become a fan favorite for its catchy melody and poetic lyrics. The song’s enduring popularity is a testament to its timeless themes of youth, aging, and the importance of living in the moment.

The city became his muse. Vienna, and its spirit, impressed itself deeply on Joel. The encounter was pivotal. It was to prove a crossroad.

Why did I pick Vienna to use as a metaphor for the rest of your life? My father lives in Vienna now. I had to track him down. I didn’t see him from the time I was 8 ‘till I was about 23-24 years old. He lives in Vienna, Austria, which I thought was rather bizarre because he left Germany in the first place because of this guy named Hitler, and he ends up going to the same place that Hitler hung out all those years! 

Vienna, for a long time was the crossroads. During the Cold War, between the Eastern Bloc, the Warsaw Pact nations and the NATO countries was the city of Vienna… Vienna was always the crossroads – between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. 

So the metaphor of Vienna has the meaning of a crossroad. It’s a place of inter…course, of exchange – it’s the place where cultures co-mingle. 

You get great beer in Vienna but you also get brandy from Armenia. It was a place where cultures co-mingled.

-from the Times

Café Museum in Vienna at night. This may well be the café where Billy Joel drank coffee with his father while in Vienna. I can imagine this as inspirational for Billy Joel's Vienna.
©Yolanda Reischer Bohanec

While drinking coffee with his father, he witnessed an elderly woman sweeping the streets. Joel found this demeaning for an elderly woman to be degraded to cleaning the road. Joel’s father replied that there was no shame in the act. The woman was demonstrating that the elderly can also add value to society instead of being pushed away and made to feel useless.

A shift in thinking led Joel to write the “Vienna” track. In Joel’s song, written and composed, Joel expresses the value of allowing your life to unfold instead of rushing to live it all at once.

Billy explained the story to New York Times in 2008

So I go to visit my father in Vienna, I’m walking around this town and I see this old lady. She must have been about 90 years old and she is sweeping the street. I say to my father “What’s this nice old lady doing sweeping the street?” 

He says “She’s got a job, she feels useful, she’s happy, she’s making the street clean, she’s not put out to pasture.” 

We treat old people in this country pretty badly. We put them in rest homes, we kinda kick them under the rug and make believe they don’t exist. They don’t feel like that. 

In a lot of these older places in the world, they value their older people, and their older people feel they can still be a part of the community, and I thought, ‘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.”

Billy Joel further explained the meaning behind the song lyrics in an interview with the Howard Stern Show,

“It was an observation that you have your whole life to live. A lot of people in their 20s think they have to get it all together by their 30s, and they kill themselves trying to get the golden ring. 

You have an entire life to live. The lyrics, ‘slow down you crazy child’ – in other words, you have a whole life. 

We tend to put older people away, and it’s all about young people. Well, wait a minute, why do I have this whole lifespan? What’s the point of it? 

Some people will get there sooner, and some people will get there later. Slow down. You’re going to be fine. No matter what you do, be good at it, and whenever you get there, you get there.”

The lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Vienna”

(sung from the perspective of an older person advising a young listener)

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? (mmmmm)

Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?

You better cool it off before you burn it out

You got so much to do and only

So many hours in a day (Ay)

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?

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)

Too bad, but it’s the life you lead

You’re so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need

Though you can see when you’re wrong

You know you can’t always see when you’re right (you’re right)

You got your passion, you got your pride

But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?

Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true (Oooh)

When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?


Slow down you crazy child

Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while

It’s alright, you can afford to lose a day or two (oooh)

When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?


And 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)

Why don’t you realize… Vienna waits for you?

When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?

Remember, Vienna waits for you!

When you listen to Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” you can easily dismiss the lyrics as overly simple. But, if you take a closer look and listen intently, you will hear a profound message. The message is more relevant today than in 1977 when the track was first released on the iconic album, The Stranger.

It urges us to take time, slow down, and enjoy the journey. It also perfectly showcases Vienna’s spirit as a city that allows you to do just that.

Vienna is a city where life is still livable. It is a haven where you can slow down and appreciate the beauty of life. Vienna has been called an island of the blessed within a country of the blessed.

Why not heed Joel and shift down a gear? Slow down, enjoy the ride, and remember that wherever you are, “Vienna waits for you.”

Vienna waits for you! Billy Joel's Vienna could have been inspired by this view of the Vienna State Opera from the Albertinaplatz at night in the city of Vienna.
© Yolanda Reischer Bohanec

The hidden message in Billy Joel’s Vienna from my perspective.

  • Slow down and enjoy life. Remember to live in the moment.
  • Life is not a race. Don’t rush it.
  • Allow your life to unfold naturally.
  • No matter what you do, be good at it.
  • You will reach your goal in time. Whenever you get there, you get there.
  • Value every stage of life, not just your youth.
  • Everyone is valuable, no matter their age. Make room for them.
  • View your life as a series of crossroads and interchange.
  • Each crossroad is there to teach a life lesson.
  • You learn according to your decisions.
  • Contemplate your choices.
  • Remember, Vienna (life) waits for you.

While you are here, read more about Vienna in The World of Yesterday.

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