If We Didn't Start the Fire, Then Who Did?

If you're into 1980s pop music, then I bet you love Billy Joel's song We Didn't Start the Fire. But do you know every word, and the significance of every reference? Let's use SAS software to create an interactive visualization that will help you fully understand this song!

I first saw an infographic visualization about this song on Rachel Lee's design page. It was visually captivating, and the layout reminded me of a couple of my favorite 1980s arcade games (Tempest and Gyrus), or maybe a concentric version of Tetris - how could I not be drawn in?!? ...

In Billy Joel's song, he mentions things in chronological order, and the infographic mirrors that (starting with 1949 at the top, with spokes proceeding 1 year at a time clockwise), with each colored box representing a different thing mentioned in the song. But the placement of the boxes along the rings (outer to inner) seems a bit arbitrary -- they're arranged in the order of the color legend (from outer to inner). This makes for a pretty 'rainbow effect', but isn't really useful for analytics.

You can look at the year labels around the outer edge of the circle, and then find that year at the bottom of the page to see the list of things mentioned in the song from that year. You can then match up the colored circles beside the text, and try to guess which colored box in the graph it corresponds to (but it's difficult to know for sure).

This infographic was so visually captivating that I really wanted it to work, but it just didn't help me understand the song. I spent a lot of time zooming and panning, trying to relate the text at the bottom to the graphic at the top, but it was more cumbersome than rewarding. I even read a page that shows the 8 preliminary versions leading up to the final infographic, but that still didn't help. It was just more of an artistic infographic than an analytic tool.

So, as often happens, I decided to create my own version, and try to make some improvements.

  • First, I wanted to have my version fit on one screen, and allow the user to read everything without needing to zoom & pan.
  • I kept the circular design with each spoke representing a year, but rather than just looking like a cool video-game design, I decided to make it look like a vinyl record.
  • And rather than ordering the colored boxes like the legend, I arranged them in the order they appeared in the song (from the outer ring to the inner ring).
  • Instead of using rainbow colors (which are difficult to distinguish), I chose a nice palette with 7 discrete colors on the colorbrewer website.
  • And rather than trying to fit all the descriptions at the bottom of the infographic, I include them in html mouse-over text (you'll have to view the interactive version to see that). And if reading the mouse-over text isn't enough, you can click on each colored box to launch a Google search on that item.


I invite you to view my full size infographic and simultaneously listen to the song, and mouse over the colored boxes (can you keep up?!?). After that, go back and study it in more detail, reading the mouse-over text for the things you need more info on (and if you're really interested in a certain item, click the colored box to launch the Google search).

I hope you enjoyed this infographic as much as I enjoyed creating it! Feel free to leave feedback and suggestions in the comments.

This content was reposted from the SAS Learning Post. Go there to read the original.

Robert Allison, The Graph Guy!, SAS

Robert Allison has worked at SAS for more than 20 years and is perhaps the foremost expert in creating custom graphs using SAS/GRAPH. His educational background is in computer science, and he holds a BS, MS, and PhD from North Carolina State University. He is the author of several conference papers, has won a few graphic competitions, and has written a book calledSAS/GRAPH: Beyond the Basics.

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Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/28/2016 11:29:02 AM

@Terry: Love it!  As with all such GIFs, I've saved it and marked it for later potential use in online conversation should the occasion arise.  ;)

Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/18/2016 1:09:39 PM


Maryam writes

Another level of analytics and music---would be interesting but I don't know of any songs that did it as well as Billy!


A similar visual analysis of Don McClean's mysterious "American Pie" would be a great service for the world ...




Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/17/2016 3:48:08 PM

Ha! You're making me wish there was an emoji for one of those Pete Townshend-style, windmill-arm guitar licks, Joe.

Couldn't find one of him kneeling, so this will have to do.

Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/8/2016 4:19:53 PM

@Terry: So, wait... Are you saying Paul isn't dead???

Now 'scuse me while I kiss this guy.

Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/7/2016 11:39:12 AM

No kidding about the commercial appeal of ambiguity, Joe! Incredibly, people are still debating the meeanings of Beatles' songs 50 years later.

Me, I'm just happy these days when I can actually understand a song's words. Ambiguous enunciation is not a hit with me.

Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/6/2016 7:13:33 PM

@Terry: I guess one of the lessons here is: Ambiguity sells.

Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/2/2016 6:34:27 PM

Good to hear from you, Joe... I think Janis Joplin fits the bill here better than Karen Carpenter, who's a different animal entirely. But even then, it's not a great fit.

Thanks for the link to the WaPo artile... glad McLean got a good payout for his notes. he wasn't a one-hit wonder, but he never topped American Pie.

Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/2/2016 8:35:17 AM

Maybe gaming by subject matter?

Re: Vinyl record
  • 9/1/2016 1:04:53 PM

Billie Holiday doesn't work as that role from a chronological perspective (going with the "chronology of rock/pop music from Buddy Holly onward" interpretation).

Re: Karen Carpenter... The idea is that "and looked away" refers to Karen Carpenter's death.

Anyway, "Miss American Pie," as per an April 2015 WaPo article on Don McLean speaking about the meaning of the song, isn't a person.  "Miss American Pie" = "the American dream" and the vision of idyllic 1950s America.


Re: Vinyl record
  • 8/31/2016 10:37:26 PM

Joe never thought of Karen Carpenter as the blues interesting interpretation. I always think of Billie Holiday as our great American blues singer. So now we can all ad our interpretation who is Miss American Pie is she the same in every verse or different?

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