Prostitution isn't an easy subject to discuss at the best of times, much less write a song about. Let's stand as far away from the subject as possible, and sidestep for a moment the argument that it exploits and objectifies woman. Wearing our most rose-tinted glasses and with our romantic hearts pinned firmly to our sleeves, there is something about the lonely, shamefaced man and the beautiful, remote woman that stirs the soul. Yes, the man can be an object of pity, disgust or censure. Yes, the woman can be an object of pity, disgust or censure as well. But for every encounter there's a back-story, and I ask you to suspend your cynicism for just four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
Why can't a man fall for a prostitute? Why can't he see in her something akin to fulfilment, happiness or even pride? And anyway, how many men do in the real world? Ask yourself: how did they meet? How did they manage to transcend the dark shadows of the netherworld in which prostitution is forced to exist?
Maybe they listened to this song. "Roberta, you say you know me/But I see only what you're paid to show me," sings Billy Joel. "Roberta, how I've adored you/I'd ask you over but I can't afford you/It's tough for me/It's tough for you."
Maybe Joel believes in something that's so powerful, so ultimately redeeming, that the circumstances in which it flourishes aren't relevant. But maybe he also believes in the Real World, the one that comes crashing through the door at the end of the night. How else could he have written a love song so tender, so confused but still so doomed? "Roberta, I really need you/But I suppose that my small change won't see you through."
The wretchedness of a man trapped by his own heart to follow a path that leads only to disappointment was never captured so sweetly as here. In between the verses, Joel conjures a requiem, a lament for something damned to fail, and as his desperation and disappointment grow the song gently sheds some of the sweetness so that by the end, you're almost tasting the bitterness of loss. Sheer magic in the real world.