Feed Daily, 1999-06-02
- Gavin McNett
J U N E 0 2, 1 9 9 9
ONE THING strikes you immediately when you look through early top-40 charts: popular music was once made for grownups, with sops thrown to the younger crowd, rather than the other way around. In what can now be called the Pleasantville Hypothesis, rock 'n' roll came around one day and turned that black-and-white world young and sexy, and in Technicolor. But is that really the case? Tony Clayton-Lea's new Elvis Costello biography has appeared right in the middle of a tidal wave of avantified teen-pop -- a weird, topsy-turvy confluence of grade- and grad-school enthusiasms, where the little kids spend grownup-sized entertainment sums on stuff like Britney Spears CDs, and their big brothers set to work cutting out paper fig leaves to heroicize the trend in the media. The Costello biography suggests that there'd be more vitality and color in popular music if mature artists would start acting their age, and if listeners would grow up a little.
Costello's defining characteristic is a near-inveterate capacity for stubbornness -- a constitutional inability to play up to the expectations of the public and its stewards of taste. That's led to an evil reputation among journalists and an uneven album catalogue, but it also put him on a trajectory towards a spiritual enlightenment of sorts: while other rock stars of his generation remain childish, the Costello of later years appears childlike -- possessed of an abiding curiosity of the sort that some ruffled-shirt once called "the seed of wisdom," as well as a certain egoless quality that speaks of craft done for craft's sake. Costello doesn't seem to care what the world makes of him, which sets him free to get old and (occasionally) nasty-looking, and to stick his thumb into every pie he encounters. And not for the taste of his thumb, like former Angry Young Schmuck Billy Joel (oddly, now one of his closest cognates), but for the taste of the pie.
Such "artistic maturity" is so rare an achievement for a pop musician it's sometimes hard to recognize it. And while maturity doesn't necessarily lead to great rock albums, or even sure-shot good ones, it does lend the artist a certain eminence spread over time. This may be hard to see when every new record gets a star-rating against flashier, more disposable products, and no single means no radio play, but it's the key to understanding Costello Eminent. Clayton-Lea recounts that when a 38-year old Costello hooked up with the Brodsky Quartet, for 1993's The Juliet Letters, he decided that the collaboration process would be easier if he learned to read and write music. According to the Quartet, "he completed in a couple of months what some people take years to achieve." "I found out, well, this isn't a bad system," Costello deadpanned. "No wonder we've been using it for 700 years." The Juliet Letters is a B+ album, but it remains nonetheless uniquely valuable as the fusion of pop and non-avant classical that succeeds on both sides of the divide. Many artists are capable of turning out such interesting work, but few do -- or are ever expected to.
The question, however, is whether there's enough of an audience to support enlightened codgerhood as a genre (rather than Costello, himself, as a single well-established oddball). He's not the only ascending fogey in the business. Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg have a left-populist tag-team going, Springsteen weathering like fine leather and Bragg's Mermaid Avenue suggesting that the Essex Muppetmouth could be the finest roots act in America. But while roots-mongering remains the surest way towards dignity, audiences of all ages prefer the old youth-oriented hits to new, bold statements. Costello's revival tours sell out; Costello with Brodsky plays smallish sit-down venues. In his pirouetting adult exegesis, Lead Us Into Temptation, Paul Twitchell ugres older consumers to wrestle entertainment culture from the teenage crowd by buying discretionary consumer items (like toothpaste) by sheer, random impulse, thereby forcing advertisers into a panic over catering to their whims. But let toothpaste be toothpaste: if even one-fifth of the people who bought Born To Run (or Costello's Armed Forces) had bought The Ghost of Tom Joad (or Costello and Bacharach's Painted From Memory) -- and not randomly, but because they're good -- there'd be a renaissance of adult pop in America.
Gavin McNett is a writer based in rural New Jersey and a regular FEED contributor.