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We Didn't Start the Fire chronicles a middle-class husband and wife and their goal of the American Dream: a home, careers and children. This is juxtaposed with the tumultuous social times of the second half of the 20th century. The singer acts as an omnipotent observer. The chorus shows Joel beating on a table while a backdrop of famous photographs (Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination and Nguyễn Văn Lém's execution, among others) are consumed in flames.
The song and the video have been interpreted as a rebuttal to criticism of Joel's Baby Boomer generation, from both its preceding and succeeding generations. The song's title and refrain imply that the frenzied and troubled state which others were criticizing had been the state of the world since long before his generation's time, but that this was being ignored by their critics.