Billy Joel pays tribute to the music of his childhood, and so inevitably there’s something childish about “Uptown Girl”: its instant singability makes it sound like a Grease outtake, except there was more sex and chemistry in Grease’s flirtatious goofery. The street music – doo-wop and rock’n’roll – that “Uptown Girl” draws energy from was able to speak so powerfully to sexual and social codes partly because the act of addressing those codes head-on was itself a breach of them. There’s nothing at stake in “Uptown Girl” – how could there be? Rock and roll moved uptown long ago.
Of course Billy Joel is smart enough to realise this, and “Uptown Girl” works because it’s history written by the winners. It isn’t a record about bedding an uptown girl or wanting to bed an uptown girl, it’s a record about remembering wanting to bed an uptown girl, and boasting to your blue-collar buds that that’s what you were gonna do, and wanting to have blue-collar buds to boast to! The video makes this explicit with Christine Brinkley as pin-up come to life, but it’s in the song too, in the husky, hearty interplay of those cascading backing vox, whose prominence makes it obvious that the guys – not the girl – are the chief audience for Joel’s talk. Those endless runs of “oh-oh-whoas” are the main reason to listen to the song, and they’re a tip off as to where it’s really coming from, in spirit if not in music: not the street heat of Frankie Valli but the lusty lads-together innocence of the Beach Boys.