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Billy Joel etymology
February 15, 2008 7:04 AM   Subscribe

What does Billy Joel mean when he sings, “the most she will do is throw shadows at you”?

Ever since I first heard Billy Joel’s Always a Woman from the “The Stranger” album (I was five years old at the time of the release, but probably heard the song for the first time a few years later), I’ve always puzzled over the final line: “...the most she will do is throw shadows at you (but she’s always a woman to me).” For several years, I wondered if he meant that the most she would do (i.e., “the worst thing”) is to leave—that “throwing shadows” is what happens when a person turns her back on you. Eventually I concluded that I was being too literal and that the expression was probably some grown-up phrase about something I was too young to understand. Now, 30 years later, I still have no idea what he means. A friend suggested that it may mean that the woman Joel is singing about is sort of flighty and insubstantial, that she never really gives you anything that you can really hold on to, just smoke and mirrors. Although plausible, this explanation is somewhat dissatisfying. Any other interpretations? (And has anyone ever heard of the expression to “throw shadows at someone,” in any other context?)
posted by dreamphone to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Could be a reference to shadow boxing and throwing a shadow punch, rather than actually punching you in the face for your sexy infidelities?
posted by fire&wings at 7:11 AM on February 15, 2008


My default point of view on this kind of thing is what a puzzling phrase in a pop song means, usually, is that it sounded good and fit in a spot where they needed some lyrics. Vagueness is a virtue in those spots. There is a pretty good place discussion on the matter, though.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:13 AM on February 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sometimes the expression "throw a shadow" is used in a similar way to "cast a shadow over" - in other words to make a situation more gloomy. For example, the in-fighting between Hillary and Obama could be said to be casting a shadow of the Democratic election process.

To me, the line "The most she will do is throw shadows at you" conjurs up an image of a woman standing in the spotlight. A person taking all the attention, which in turn throws a shadow at you.

And this is where I think your friend is right: Joel is saying that this woman will never give anything more than that... never anything of value, never anything of substance, only shadow.
posted by skylar at 7:16 AM on February 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've always interpreted it to mean that, even though (the song says that) women will do all the hurtful things described earlier in the song, all they're really doing is blowing smoke.
posted by cerebus19 at 7:36 AM on February 15, 2008


I always thought the same thing as your friend, that she'll always be insubstantial, never committed.
posted by sweetkid at 7:36 AM on February 15, 2008


Well, if we're going to have a serious discussion about the man who wrote We Didn't Start The Fire...

The "but she's always a woman" implies that it is a bad thing that the "most she will do is throw shadows at you": ie, even though the most she will do is throw shadows at you, she remains, to Mr Joel, a woman. (Always.) This wouldn't seem to mesh with your original interpretation that it means "the worst thing", but rather that in an ideal scenario she would do more than just throw shadows.

Whatever the hell "throwing shadows" is, it seems to be something that falls short of the desired behavior, rather than a bad thing in itself.

Of course, really it just sounds good at that point in the song. (If you like that sort of thing.)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:53 AM on February 15, 2008


(which would make your friend and skylar correct)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:01 AM on February 15, 2008


I get guilt out of it.
posted by bleucube at 8:03 AM on February 15, 2008


Truly, he can't be forgiven for We Didn't Start the Fire, but he could put some clever words together back when he was sane, and some of the early work is pretty interesting, lyrically.

I always read the line in question as turning her back on you. Leave you behind, or subservient, in her shadow.
posted by rokusan at 8:14 AM on February 15, 2008


I had wondered about this too and thought perhaps it meant she wasn't going to do anything really bad; she wasn't going to throw a punch or law down any ultimatums. "Throwing shadows" meant she was kind of wussy.
In retrospect, this might not make much sense ;) Especially since game warden seems to have a good point.
I am glad to know I am not the only one who muses over lyrics to songs I didn't understand as a young person.
posted by pointystick at 8:18 AM on February 15, 2008


I think it means tat she'll never show you who she really is, that all you'll see are shadows, outlines of who she is.
posted by hubris at 8:21 AM on February 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Agreed, on reflection, to game warden's point that the placement of the word "but" suggests that "throwing shadows" would fall short of a good thing (and not be "the worst thing"). Lends further credence (and gives me more satifaction in) the interpretation of my friend + skylar, sweetkid, hubris, et al. Thanks to all for your contributions!
posted by dreamphone at 8:28 AM on February 15, 2008


When my ex-broke up with me, being the overly melodramatic person that I am, I remember quite clearly that the last part of her that would ever touch me would be her shadow, so, that's what it makes me think of.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:32 AM on February 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


As long as we have people discussing old Billy Joel lyrics, I'm going to piggyback here.

In all of his earlier work his lyrics seem very fairly strict about rhyming absolutely - not just being close enough for pop music. There are some minor exceptions (eg. alone/home) but they are uncommon.

But, in the song "You're My Home" there is the line:

If I travel all my life
and I never get stop and settle down
long as I have you by my side

Where "life/side" are mean to be the rhyme. This always seemed very jarring to me. My theory was that he originally had something like "long as I have you as my wife", but changed it either to have a broader appeal as a love song or because he went through one of his divorces after writing it. However, I never really kept tract of his personal timeline, so if anyone knows anything factual about this lyric please tell.
posted by mikepop at 8:36 AM on February 15, 2008


Read the line backwards- She's always a woman to me, therefore the most she'll do [to you] is throw shadows. In the context of the rest of the song, I think he's saying that she is his woman, although she is flirtatious and a bit of a tease with other men. But when push comes to shove, she won't actually engage in anything further; the most she will do is just be there and throw shadows (as opposed to any physical contact) because she's already taken by the protagonist of the song.

The whole song, to me, is your basic love song- in spite of her flirting, her moodiness, all that, he loves her and she loves him.
posted by Doohickie at 8:37 AM on February 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


Ack... and just as I hit Post, it occurs to me that this is a complementary song to "Just the Way You Are" in mood and point of view. A different take on the same relationship.
posted by Doohickie at 8:39 AM on February 15, 2008


For several years, I wondered if he meant that the most she would do (i.e., “the worst thing”) is to leave—that “throwing shadows” is what happens when a person turns her back on you. Eventually I concluded that I was being too literal and that the expression was probably some grown-up phrase about something I was too young to understand.

Your interpretation is not overly-literal, it's actually more sophisticated than the way most adults probably understood it.

Anyway, it's not some well-known grown-up phrase in common usage. I think that it's safe to say that this little bit of pop-poetry can be safely interpreted any of the ways posited in this thread and elsewhere.

I'm not sure how I feel about posting under my own username that I remember most of the lyrics but...he's discussing a woman with whom he's in love whose actions and moods seem incomprehensible to him, with an implied extension of the universal disconnect between men and women. I always read it as "as much as I sometimes want to throw her out the window for being so damn infuriating, I'm powerless to stay angry because she's the woman that I loooooove. Also, women are weird."
posted by desuetude at 8:44 AM on February 15, 2008


I wish my attention span were good enough where I could even notice lyrics like these as I'm listening to songs.

I think the key word here is "throw," rather than "cast" or "leave" shadows. So the first thing that came to mind was empty threats, essentially. It sounds like something more active than just walking away, or failing to live up to promises.

And I'm not as convinced of this, but since "shadows" is plural, it could rule out the walking away idea, ie, it's not her shadow that's in question. But I suppose it could mean her shadow is being cast on multiple occasions...

And if it had been "The best she will/can do is..." that would imply something more on the lines of broken promises.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:14 AM on February 15, 2008


I'm with those who say that her threats are insubstantial, i.e. they are shadows.

The song references the bad things that she can do, but they are all not physical things, they are things which hurt but aren't physical.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:23 AM on February 15, 2008


I see it as a reference to Plato's Allegory of the Cave.
i.e. The woman in question is very good at hiding her true self and making people believe the reality she wants them to see. The naarator (Joel), however, knows her so well that he knows the 'true' woman behind the projected 'shadows'.
posted by rocket88 at 9:24 AM on February 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, I've never heard "throwing shadows," but I've heard people use "throwing shade" in casual conversation. I don't think it's at all related to the song.

Otherwise, I'm with the empty threats/blowing smoke/all bark no bite interpretation.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:25 AM on February 15, 2008


I don't have any fresh speculation on this, buy you may find this post interesting if you didn't catch it before. Who knew Billy Joel was in a heavy metal band? Shocking!!! And lousy. REALLY lousy. Enjoy!
posted by Daddy-O at 9:27 AM on February 15, 2008


I think Doohickie nails it.
posted by jrishel at 9:47 AM on February 15, 2008


Oh, Billy. He wrote this song about me, you know, so I think I can speak with some authority here. ;) *ruins your faith with her casual lies*

I interpret "shadows" to be like passive agressive remarks, or veiled threats. Vindictive behavior, but all bark and no bite.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:48 AM on February 15, 2008


I agree with Ambrosia Voyeur; I think that idea is tied to the metaphor of shadowboxing.
posted by hot soup girl at 9:57 AM on February 15, 2008


Maybe I'm simple-minded, but I think your original thought is correct. To "throw shadows" means exactly the same thing as to "cast shadows." (Just as throw and cast are usually synonymous.) If Joel had written "the most she will do is cast shadows at you," probably most people who agree that she is walking away from the other man, or just passing him by. But he used the lesser known phrase, and people are reading a lot into it that isn't there. (IMHO).
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:39 AM on February 15, 2008


Make that "most people would agree."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:40 AM on February 15, 2008


I always thought it meant that she would always be the one in the spotlight, the number one most important person in her life and the lives of anyone associated with her, thus "throwing shadows" over the gentleman in question.
posted by foxydot at 11:12 AM on February 15, 2008


A friend suggested that it may mean that the woman Joel is singing about is sort of flighty and insubstantial, that she never really gives you anything that you can really hold on to, just smoke and mirrors.

I concur with your friend.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:26 AM on February 15, 2008


I think Metroid nailed it. "Throw shadows, " as in throwing shade...but I completely disagree with the Urban Dictionary reference. Growing up in Brooklyn, "thorowing shade," meant igoring someone, giving them the cold shoulder...Of course, the simple fact that there is an Urban Dictionary only speaks to the utterly idiotic co-opting of the whole culture.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:30 AM on February 15, 2008


I always thought of this as a combination of two ideas. 1) the idea of throwing herself at someone and 2) the idea that a shadow is form with no substance. The meaning I get from it is that she might flirt or make you think she cares about her, letting you see the shadow of a real woman, but she will always be real to him.
posted by slavlin at 12:39 PM on February 15, 2008


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