Every Historical Reference In 'We Didn't Start The Fire,' Explained

Anyone who's heard “We Didn't Start the Fire” by Billy Joel knows it's a song about history. In fact, listen to the lyrics a few times through and you realize just how much history is incorporated into the song. (In 2023, Fall Out Boy even attempted to create a version with events from 1989 to 2023.)

When Joel released “We Didn't Start the Fire” in 1989, it was around the time of his 40th birthday. When it came to writing the song, he told biographer Fred Schruers, “The chain of news events and personalities came easily - mostly they just spilled out of my memory as fast as I could scribble them down.” 

In 2009, Joel told Billboard magazine that the single was “terrible musically.” Even if that is the case, it's an intense, engaging lesson in the history that took place between 1948 and 1988. It's chronological in structure and, from start to finish, references 119 people, places, events, and phenomena. 

With all that history packed into one song, it's difficult to know exactly what is being referenced. Sometimes, it's not clear what Joel is saying at all. Here's a breakdown of every historical reference in “We Didn't Start the Fire."