Whatever Elvis Costello's talent as an artist, his real cultural importance right now is that he's the only New Waver to achieve broad and lasting popular success outside the punk subculture. My Aim Is True has been hanging on the charts for months, and if it hasn't been certified gold yet it will be soon. This Year's Model will probably do as well or better. Has recent American tour has been an unqualified success. Yet for all that, his actual impact on the mass audience is unclear, and Costello himself remains obstinately opaque. Despite lavish press attention as the "acceptable" version of the New Wave, no one has been able to really pin him down. His obsessive, alienating personality, coupled with a continuing refusal to do interviews or participate in any of the media baggage by which a performer becomes "known" to the public, have made him the rarest of beings: a Seventies star who is also, at the same time, a total mystery — who insists on being one, in fact.
In terms of persona (and Costello almost demands that kind of language), enigma may be the thinnest ice an artist can skate on — like a Lewis Carroll fable, the mystery has to be consistent, and yet never identify itself. One false step or over-explicit statement can sink the role completely; everyone is itching to catch the one hint of phoniness which can call everything he’s done into question. To complicate matters, the character Costello is presenting plays on images which are commonplace and even trite: the angry young man, the embittered intellectual, and — the root of them all — the ugly kid who never got laid in high school. The only thing that’s prevented him from becoming a total cliché is a startling, fast-paced wit and manipulative dexterity by which he manages to make his pose seem always exciting and fresh. Like a carny barker, he moves you through the landscape too quickly to allow any pauses for reflection.
On This Year's Model, he kept his momentum by placing himself squarely in the middle of a cultural junkyard of transient, flashy pop images. He was attacking the superficiality and deceit of that atmosphere, but he was also declaring himself to be part of it — saying, in effect, that this was the environment in which an artist had to work if he wanted to succeed, and damn the consequences. The paradox comes through most clearly in "This Year’s Girl." If anyone fits that part, it’s Costello himself, and he almost (but not quite) admits it: though most of the song is done from the point of view of the alienated outsider, the line, "Time’s running out" is his most urgent and deeply-felt singing on the whole track, and it applies to the girl, not her audience.
Such moments were rare — they had to be — but still, on that album, the emotional territory had grown more complex and ambiguous that the anger/redemption schematics of My Aim Is True. The least interesting passages on the record were the most directly, familiarly hostile ones; Costello’s misogyny had an almost automatic, knee-jerk quality — he seemed to hate his girls before they even had time to betray him. When the hate was tempered with uncertainty, however, as in the coda to "Lip Service" ("But if you change your mind/You can send it in a letter to me"), which virtually dismisses everything the song’s been saying up to that point, his pose took on all sorts of unexpected nuance — but you still couldn’t outguess him. He was still, almost coyly, ahead of the game.
While that kind of ambiguity is artistically exciting and stimulating, it also raises questions — questions which Costello isn’t about to answer. At a party recently, a critic I know was arguing that Costello was basically another celebrant of "the me decade" — of the kind of self-indulgent solipsism, both militant and smug, which runs the spectrum all the way from "self-help" book such as How To Be Your Own Best Friend to the archly preening wit of a literary winetaster like Gore Vidal. While I think he was wrong — that is what Costello comes out of, but I don’t think he’s really complacent about being fucked-up, or that he glorifies it as good in itself — it may help to explain Costello’s startling popularity, especially among the literate, pseudo-hip bourgeoisie who get off on all that neat intellectual bitterness but don’t think they’re supposed to do anything about it.
But when Costello celebrates himself, it’s as an artist — the one realm where he’s in control, where he’s no longer the neurotic, impotent "little man" being beaten up by the big bad world. Even when he’s using his art to get back at people, the neurosis and bitterness which motivate him are just taken for granted: what occupies the foreground is his sense of triumph at finally being able to stand up and fight back — to tell them off with so much power that everyone sits up and takes notice. That’s all well and good, and far preferable to the let’s-wallow-in-our-own-sensitivity of a song like "Fire and Rain" (which sentimentalises the Seventies just as much as "Woodstock" sentimentalised the Sixties, and in terms of mythic kitsch is the decade’s real beginning). But it’s also exclusionary; Costello doesn’t ever invite the audience to share in his victory. Even in the most humanly embracing songs of This Year's Model, the "I" is always separate, proud of its uniqueness — that My Aim Is True camera is still click-click-clicking in Costello’s head, perhaps nowhere so much as when he puts himself into the picture.
That’s probably perfectly all right with Costello, too; maybe he doesn’t want to have followers — maybe to have followers would be a travesty by definition of what he’s all about. But it’s hard to reconcile the elitism of that style with the moves toward solidarity suggested by the anti-Fascist polemic of "Less Than Zero," and explicitly stated in "Radio Radio." "Less Than Zero," particularly, couches its protest in such idiosyncratic terms, and interweaves it with so many purely personal images, that Costello’s emotions wind up being a lot more vivid than the political horrors which motivate it: you don’t hate Oswald Mosley because he’s a Nazi, you hate him because he pisses Costello off. I’m not saying that makes the song a lie, just that it exposes a paradox; "Less Than Zero" is a brilliant piece of work, but you’d have to know all the background data before you could appreciate it as a protest song, which is supposedly its reason for being.
Add that Costello is on a major label, Columbia, which obviously thinks of him as enough of a commercial proposition to lay on a high-powered and classy promotional campaign — not just for This Year's Model, which is only good business sense, but for My Aim Is True, when Costello was still unproved as a popular commodity. (Both Costello and Nick Lowe recently left Stiff Records in England. Lowe claims that it was because Stiff had become too much of an insular, insiders’ scene, but this sounds a little disingenuous when Stiff’s biggest commercial success and its most apolitical — most potentially reactionary, in fact — artists are also on US CBS/Columbia, which has its own British subsidiary, and thus will be able to provide them with much better promotion, distribution, and marketing. That’s not a sell-out, either, but it does deserve at least a raised eyebrow.)
Why CBS/Columbia — the same company which is releasing the Clash album nine months late, and only under pressure — should bet on Costello to make it (and have the bet so dramatically confirmed) is a tricky question. Part of the reason, the most obvious part, is Costello’s ability to distance himself from the rest of the New Wave while aligning himself with most of their objectives — since that kind of distance is intrinsic to his art anyway, he can do it fairly easily without corrupting his integrity. Some of his biggest fans are people who would hate the Ramones or the Sex Pistols on principle, without ever having heard one of their songs. And despite Costello’s circumstantial affinities with the New Wave, the real "crossover" of his career wasn’t bringing punk into the mainstream, but bring a kind of sensibility and attitude which had previously existed mostly in literature into the bright, bouncy context of commercial pop. Taking their cue from that — and from his looks, too — CBS was able to market him over here almost as a novelty, an intellectual weirdo, and a lot of people bought his records for exactly that reason.
If Costello continues in the didactic, activist vein of "Radio Radio," it’s possibly that he’ll lose some of that audience, and maybe he wants to. But it’s just as likely that they’ll go on cheerfully misunderstanding him. As for "Radio Radio" itself, a lot has been said of the daring and defiance of the song’s attack on the music industry — it’s even been called intentionally self-destructive, as if it could end Costello’s career. Of course, this is ridiculous. Only a decade ago, record companies were taking out ads promoting "the Revolution" — they had discovered that it was marketable. "You could shit on the page," a publisher once told Lou Reed,, "and we’d print it." In the same way, record companies don’t give a damn what’s actually on the vinyl so long as an album sells. As for the radio stations, they can either play it or not play it; it’s their own choice, and there’s lots of other Costello they can put on anyway. (Only a couple of weeks after its release, This Year's Model was already high on the playlists of most FM stations.) And, although "Radio Radio" is more direct (and sensuously powerful) than almost anything else Costello has done, no doubt many of his fans will listen to it, and enjoy it, without feeling in any way implicated by its message. When Costello sings, "They don’t want to hear about it," he could be referring to his audience — or the mass audience in general — just as much as the men in control.
Because Costello has chosen to work in the pop world — in broad strokes on a large, shifting canvas — he loses control of the resolution; but that’s actually fitting, because he doesn’t claim to have any answers. It’s quite possible that the implications of the issues he raises are as mysterious to him as they are to us; it really does hurt him to know that he isn’t a miracle man. But to have brought such questions into the broad, accessible context of popular art and commerciality is itself a huge achievement, and the enigma and ambiguity are just the price of admission. Ultimately, the contradictions are inevitable; the difference is what he makes of them.