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Growing up with, and outgrowing, Elvis Costello

Two writers discuss their mixed feelings ahead of Costello’s November 24 show at the Orpheum. (Photo by Stephen Done.)

Ahead of Elvis Costello’s November 24 show at the Orpheum, two of his longtime fans here at Tone Madison wanted to talk about how their relationships with his music have changed over the years. There’s no doubt that Costello runs deep for a lot of people who care passionately about music, or that he’s a formidable songwriter with an uncanny grasp of the inner workings of rock, pop, and country music. Holly Henschen’s been thinking a lot about how Costello writes about women, and Scott Gordon is wondering how you listen to the guy when you’re not angry anymore (or less angry). The two writers went back and forth about why they’re feeling ambivalent.

Scott: The first time I saw Elvis Costello play live, he opened up with “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” from his 1986 album Blood And Chocolate. I think I was 18, and the song’s fast-paced skewering of a “fine figure of a man” who is clearly dating the narrator’s ex mostly just struck me as darkly funny at the time. “He’s acting innocent and proud still you know what he’s after / Like a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter,” Costello sputters over a whirring Steve Nieve organ part. It’s a fine example of the abundant bitterness and sexual jealousy Costello’s songs often directed at women. Bitterness and jealousy are understandable (if usually pretty unproductive) emotional states. I can’t tell someone else how to express those feelings, but I don’t know where to put the anger and spite of this song, if I ever did.

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There’s also a fair bit of sexual jealousy in “Alison,” which is kind of the reason you and I ended up having this conversation. Usually people think of “Alison” as one of Costello’s more empathetic songs, one in which the narrator tries to offer some form of kindness to a woman who’s seen her share of disappointments and setbacks. Can we talk about why this song is souring you on Costello in particular?

Holly: Well, I hope you like feminist rants because they’re kind of my thing. But first, I must salute the musical catchiness of this song. It’s pop gold garnished with Costello’s signature velvety vox. That cannot be denied and is undoubtedly a good part of its popularity. Up until this rift, I had the utmost respect for Elvis Costello. 

But over the last few years of unprecedented women and other non-men being treated more like full-fledged human beings, “Alison” changed that for me. Right off the bat, the line “But I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress” is just stomach turning and loaded with innuendo. He’s slut shaming this woman he has claims to have “true” feelings for, negging on her a la The Pick Up Artist. And the heteronormative phrasing of “let that little friend of mine take off your party dress” is super gross. Would anyone ever say a man “let” a woman remove his clothing? It’s a sexual double standard that absolves men of responsibility. And, while I’m sure adding “little” to “friend of mine” was at least partially in support of vocal cadence, it can also be seen as a derogatory term, particularly for a man, particularly in a sexual situation. Thus begins a song-long barrage of condescension. “Alison” is a bitter, unrequited male ex making light of the life of a woman who doesn’t love him under the guise of romanticism. He downplays her marriage, he refers to “the silly things you used to say.” He’s heteronormatively infantilizing this adult human being. It was obviously socially acceptable at the time, but from 2019, I’m gonna have to say your aim is not universally true here, dude. 

When a song opens with a statement like, “I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress,” I have a hard time assuming a trustworthy narrator. Is the world really killing Alison? Or is he just projecting that on her because it validates his feelings — the idea that he could somehow “save” her if only she would allow it. That he knows better than her how to live her life. Would you really talk this way to someone you truly cared about? I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t talk that way to someone I disliked. Costello is “not going to get too sentimental.” He’s just going to shit-talk your life. Hot. 

Scott: And especially in his early work, there’s a frequent sense that Costello is raining down judgment on the world and everyone in it who’s wounded him or rubbed him the wrong way. (“You may see them drowning as you stroll along the beach / But don’t roll out the lifeline till they’re clean out of reach,” he sings on the spectacularly caustic “Waiting For The End Of The World.”) It’s angry-young-man music, and there’s a place for that. There was a time where it resonated with me really deeply, not because the world had been particularly harsh to me (it hadn’t, like it really really hadn’t), but because anger and cynicism felt like a defense against my uncertainty about myself and the world. 

As I said, people tend to think of “Alison” as one of the more generous and grown-up songs on his debut album, My Aim Is True, which came out in 1977 when Costello was just shy of his 23rd birthday. I think even Costello has admitted that he was kind of a callow shit back then, but by this point he was also married with a kid, and he was clearly capable of better. There are a few tracks on the record where he does much more to turn the gaze inward and let himself be vulnerable, rather than wearing his suspicion and woundedness like armor. On “Sneaky Feelings” and “Miracle Man,” he’s at least grappling with his own feelings of inadequacy. I think “Blame It On Cain” is one of his best early songs, capturing how working-class frustration boils over into dangerous resentment. “Less Than Zero” and especially “Night Rally,” which came out a year later on This Year’s Model, are two of the best songs about fascism ever, hands-down, using all of Costello’s lyrical gifts to indict the bizarre realities far-right movements construct. 

Then again, that political consciousness combines with emotional immaturity on his third album, 1979’s Armed Forces, whose working title was Emotional Fascism, and he’s admitted that things went a bit awry thematically, telling one interviewer that “Personal and global matters are spoken about with the same vocabulary; maybe this was a mistake.” I don’t think either of us are suggesting that Elvis Costello is canceled—he survived a near-canceling while touring behind Armed Forces, actually, and he has since reflected on that incident. It’s just that some things don’t age well with us. Does it help that Costello, now older and with more pork-pie hats to his name, seems at least aware of some of the issues with his earlier work?

Holly: How easy it is to dissect the work of a talented celebrity nearly twice our age and who came up in less awakened times and places. God forbid anyone judge me now by the writing and music I was creating at age 23. (A grateful nod to MySpace for crapping out.) There’s immeasurable value in creating art — basically a combination of your skill, life experience and hormones — that helps the artist express and gives others an outlet for like energy. I definitely respect so many of Costello’s political and apolitical songs. Notably,  in “This Year’s Girl,” he disparages a vapid, trendy attraction to an “It Girl.”

By no means am I out to delegitimize Costello as a musician or human being. The man has released records with musicians as genre-spanning as Burt Bacharach and  The Roots, for God’s sake. So accomplished and admirable. What a marvel. 

Yet, my Elvis Costello vibe is this: Have you ever had someone you know and feel safe with do something bizarre or creepy? I have. My whole feeling about them changes. They don’t feel safe anymore. I might want to like them, but the memory of the way I felt in that instance can’t be erased. Now, I’ve listened to and sung along with “Alison” for years, but over the last few, particularly while rewatching New Girl,  the song hit me in a different way. So, while I respect Costello and his impressive and expansive oeuvre, he lightly creeps me out. And for that reason, I will not be seeing him play at the Orpheum on Nov. 24. I won’t settle for less than the choicest vibes. I’m sure it’s no skin off his back. 

On the same note, I’m actively ridding my record collection of what I refer to as “creepy old man music,” like recent castoff Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. (The title track is atrocious.) There were scant options not to identify with angry young man music at that precious point in my life. (Nod to the Riot Grrrl movement for throwing me a life preserver.)  And in identifying with an overtly masculine zeitgeist at a tender age, I felt I also had, in some way, to excuse the depiction of women as inferior humans, glorified or reviled through the male gaze. Granted, my origins are far from feminist, so I can’t pin this solely on creepy old man music. But many people — particularly women (“girls,” in the nomenclature) — don’t get a peek outside of this limiting and oppressive perspective. For that, I can’t bring myself to participate in the misogynistic, problematic charade any longer. Not for all the catchy nostalgia in the world. 

Scott: I think what’s also really hairy here is that if you get into Costello in your teens or early 20s, his work often feels like an escape from, or at least a counterpoint to, the machismo you expect from male rock musicians like the Stones. It’s nerdy, it’s sardonic, its anger feels like the anger of the underdog, at least until you scratch the surface. Of course, we know it isn’t that simple, that a man doesn’t stop playing his role in broader societal imbalances just because he strikes a goony pigeon-toed posture or credits his guitar playing to “the little hands of concrete.” We’re hardly the first to ask what role misogyny plays in Costello’s music, and he has written that he finds that line of critique “bewildering.” 

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It’s interesting that you mention “This Year’s Girl,” because that song by itself has been pretty central to the debate over how Costello’s music portrays women. He addressed this in his memoir, even, asserting as you do that the song targets not the woman but the man’s way of looking at her. He also claims in the same passage that maybe some critics and listeners were just projecting their own misogyny onto him. Which, I mean, come on, we know he can look inward a little harder than that. It’s a bit of a dodge. The question here isn’t necessarily whether Costello is a particularly odious misogynist, but whether he can grapple with the assumptions and worldviews and blind spots he carries into his work. I think it’ll still be a great show and I’ve had four very good experiences seeing him live, but I can understand feeling icky enough to stay away.

Holly: Good point on the machismo front, Scott. Elvis Costello’s a cool rock guy, right? Not some hair metal schmuck or like stereotype. Similar to Rivers Cuomo—who probably picked up some style, if not lyrical, tips from Costello. Nerdy Cuomo wrote “No One Else” and “Across The Sea” in the mid ‘90s. The former’s about wanting a girl who lives her life essentially for his enjoyment. The latter? A sweet tale of yearning to put the moves on an 18-year-old Japanese schoolgirl who sent him fan mail, admitting “it would be wrong,” yet creeping out all the while. 

It comes down to context. Cuomo was a non-macho rock guy for his day, as was Costello. At the time, the kind of sentiments in “Alison” and the aforementioned Weezer songs were accepted as sweet, relatively emotionally mature alternatives to songs that blatantly objectified women. Look, these nerd rock songs say, I have a mind and a heart. And that’s great. Rock music needed that. Yet toxic masculinity has come across as progressive on many fronts.  

It’s much easier to sweep this subject under the rug and bask in nostalgia. So thank you for having this discussion. In analyzing these instances of misogyny and heteronormativity, we can focus on untangling problematic ideas, rather than vilifying the artists who expressed them 20-40 years ago—regardless of whether the artists have changed their minds. Freedom of expression is a right and fuck ups are inevitable. Learning from the past is what’s important. If more young people and musicians are exposed to ideas about how these kinds of songs oppress others, they’ll be better equipped to write more empowering—and sexy!—songs about relationships. Music by women expressing themselves with little concern for the male gaze definitely had a lasting impact on me, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

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