Three decades have passed since Billy Joel released his hit single “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a song that chronicled cultural and historical events from 1949 to 1989. Its rapid-fire lyrics took listeners through a time machine, with references to figures such as Harry Truman and Marilyn Monroe and events such as the Korean War and Woodstock. Now, Fall Out Boy has picked up where the song left off with an updated cover version.
The single’s cover art reads “A Fall Out Boy cover of the Billy Joel song ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ covering newsworthy items from 1989-2023,” and the new lyrics refer to Myspace, the Mars Rover, Jeff Bezos and the deaths of Prince and Queen Elizabeth.
“I remember hearing the song when I was a kid,” Pete Wentz, the bassist, wrote in an email. “The ‘J.F.K. blown away’ line always stuck out to me. I would always start the verses but get kind of lost a few references in.”
He continued, “This song was omnipresent in that era, but in a way where it crept through the cracks of pop culture. I remember talking about the lyrics in history class.”
According to Mr. Wentz, instead of a straight cover of the song, the band wanted to amend the lyrics to reflect the 34 years that had passed since its release.
“I listen to Billy Joel’s and so many of the things in it are either massive moments or just kind of shoulder shrugs within history now,” he wrote. “It’s interesting to see what he referenced from the ’50s and ’60s and what he didn’t. And in some ways it’s just etchings inside of a cave — documentation that we existed and these things happened, both triumphant and terrible. We made this song for ourselves and then we hoped our fans would have fun with it.”
Brady Gerber is a rock music critic who contributes to New York and Pitchfork. As a fan of the original, he is quite fond of Fall Out Boy’s take.
“I think every generation gets their own ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’” Mr. Gerber said. “I still think the melody is really catchy and fun. And I remember that the initial reaction to Billy Joel’s original version wasn’t really great. I think a lot of people actually hated the song at the time. So it’s funny, because I’m also seeing a lot of people criticizing the song thinking it’s ridiculous, but it’s also just a ridiculous song to begin with.”
While it’s hard to capture every historical moment, the song mimics the original in that its references span a wide range, covering climate change as well as Pokémon and the “Twilight” films.
Fall Out Boy did, however, leave out one of the most recent historical events: “I think our biggest omission was a Covid reference,” Mr. Wentz said, “and we debated it, but we leave that to the next generation’s update!”