Letters to the Editor about article from Salon, 1999-09-21
Letters to the Editor
In defense of Elvis Costello
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Letters to the Editor
Sept. 28, 1999
BY BILL WYMAN
Bill Wyman's piece on Elvis Costello is typical of the treatment Costello has received from rock critics over the past 10 years; once the electric guitar and the snide putdown ceased to be the focus of his work, their adoration turned to ridicule. Costello's ambition and sophistication should be welcomed as relief from the witless, one-dimensional rubbish that passes for popular music in 1999, but instead the media has cast him as a poseur and has-been. The prevailing critical wisdom that rock 'n' roll must be loud, simple and angry has consistently discouraged the kind of stylistic experimentation that would keep rock alive as an art form. Wasn't rock 'n' roll about freedom once? It has now become the most conservative music there is, and that's why Elvis Costello has outgrown it.
-- Neil Oliver
Bill Wyman's brief emotional sketch of Elvis Costello's career was quite on target. Most music of the '70s forgot that music is more than an outlet for hedonistic impulses (I can still hear those Giorgio Moroder synthesizers imploring me to dance, dance, dance). Rock was supposed to be about rebellion, whether real or not.
Costello and the punksters gave new life to the rapidly dying medium called rock music. To this day I can feel Elvis Costello's rage as he sang, "I want to bite the hand that feeds me" in "Radio, Radio." That rage can never be captured again. Costello was more than brilliance, more than a shining moment in rock history -- he was a savior just when we needed one.
-- Robert Salti
Bill Wyman loses interest in Elvis Costello midway through Costello's career and somehow that's a betrayal on Costello's part? Bill, he's not dating you, he's just writing and playing music in close enough proximity to you that you can hear it. Try not to take it so personally.
Elvis isn't the 23-year-old punk prodigy he used to be. We all have to grow old; the worst thing is to pretend we don't. We should be thankful that Costello is, unlike some in the rock pantheon Wyman mentions, growing, not just getting, old. Each Costello album, even the ones Costello himself dislikes, contains at least a few pieces of brilliant songwriting that put him head and shoulders above so many of his contemporaries and others putting out music today. The songs on "Trust" are meaningless, you say? Compared to what?
As long as we are overanalyzing Elvis Costello's music instead of just enjoying it, it's worth pointing out that Costello has been one of the most consistent male voices addressing gender issues with any sort of complexity. It was clear to anyone who really listened that all those scabs picked over in the first few albums were from self-inflicted wounds. His nerd pose was a reaction against the overstuffed, overripe testosterock of the '70s. And his song "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone" (from "All This Useless Beauty") is one of the most poignant commentaries on the subject ever set to music.
As for Costello turning up at the Fleadh and Woodstock, he is, you know, a performer. Sometimes performers like audiences. So sue them.
-- Jeff Hagan
Although I'm his contemporary, I'm not "in the punk generation," as Bill Wyman is, and so can appreciate Elvis Costello from a far different, and perhaps more rewarding, perspective. I cherish Costello's work as music, often exceptional music, and I've found a rare pleasure in hearing his work age just as I have, expressing views that are in tune with my own sympathies which change and mature through the erosion of time and experience. "This Year's Model" was the perfect record for my high school years, just as "All This Useless Beauty" and "Painted From Memory" fit with the life and concerns I find myself with 20 years later.
Wyman seems trapped in a place that I find so many other music critics in -- the past. Whether it's a 60's-era oldies tour, or a Sex Pistols reunion, stasis is stasis. While looking at pop from an avowed punk perspective can be interesting, it limits the quality of the criticism. Wyman actually lodges a complaint that is essentially hypocritical -- that Costello dared to change, to realize that the punk era, like the '60s, is dead and gone. His attitudes, ideas and music changed, and, contrary to Wyman's assertions, that was always reflected honestly in his work -- which is why he took chances with things like "The Juiet Letters." I say that's to Costello's great credit.
-- George Grella