Elvis Costello was, in the late ‘70s, one of the most notable representatives of a new sort of rock star. He not only eschewed the bare-chested adulterated-blues-mojo of such swaggering ladies’ men as Robert Plant or Jim Morrison, but also actively represented the opposite. He was a bespectacled, skinny man who sang about his own insecurity and unattractiveness; about feeling unable to compete with other men and unable to impress women. He was a dork, a loser, and he was pissed about it. In short, he was the kind of songwriter teenage boys and young men could relate to.
And he wasn’t the only one. During the late 70s and early 80s, across a number of genres, most notably the new wave to which Costello nominally belonged, recording artists with little to no machismo and a jaundiced view of romance were exploding onto the scene. In the new wave was a young Joe Jackson (underrated one-hit wonder of “Is She Really Going out with Him?” fame), among the pub-rockers were Graham Parker (recently featured as a depressing archetype of aging in Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40”) and Wreckless Eric (another one-hit wonder, whose “Whole Wide World” opens with the scene of his mother telling him “There’s only one girl in the world for you/ and she probably lives in Tahiti.”), and across the pond in LA’s hardcore punk scene were The Descendents (whose “I’m Not A Loser” remains a perfect fuck-you to a rich popular kid from a working-class schlub, in spite of it’s 80s-locker-room use of “gay” as catch-all pejorative).
However, in many cases, while the work of these songwriters captured male insecurities and vulnerabilities with Caravaggio-like precision and realism, their representation of the women in their lyrics was considerably less masterful, akin to clumsy sketches at best and sinus infection mucus on canvas at worst.* If that last image disgusts you enough to forget everything else I just wrote, then you know why I hesitate to recommend to certain friends (many, but not all of whom are women) certain albums that hold treasured places in my collection.
What sets Elvis Costello apart from these other writers is that, more often than not, the women in his songs get a fair shake. Rather than projections of male insecurity, unattainable and unknowable, they are compelling characters in their own right, often as insecure, screwed-up, bitter, and ultimately sympathetic as his own “avenging dork” persona/protagonist.
Early on in his career, it was clear that Costello was somewhat savvy about problematic attitudes toward women. ‘This Year’s Girl’, the quasi-title-track to sophomore album This Year’s Model (1978), takes on the idea of the starlet-as-desirable-object. While it has elements of a straightforward ennui-of-fame song (which, for obvious reasons is a common theme in popular music), the fame it portrays is of a pointedly gendered sort. The song addresses the fans of this unnamed celebrity directly, calling them out on being suckered into buying into the fantasy of this empty cipher of sex appeal. If “you think you all own little pieces of this year’s girl” is insufficiently hard on this notion, “you want her broken with her mouth wide open ‘cause she’s this year’s girl” drives home the, for lack of a better word, creepiness of the notion of celebrity-woman-as-sex-object. The alienation of this year’s girl is brought up after this, and could be read specifically as expanding on the song’s message to her fans, saying, in so many words ‘This sexy young thing you desire is a real person, and she doesn’t even enjoy her job.
(The video also captures performances of ‘No Action’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea, which, while irrelevant to this article, might be worth a listen)
It’s not the only song Costello has written that addresses issues of objectification, either. “Tear off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” (2004) is a ready-made (if late) candidate for a Riot Grrl cover, with it’s potent juxtaposition of feminine signifiers and the pronoun he, and the imagery of turning a human literally into a pretty plaything. “All This Useless Beauty” (1996) gives a character sketch of a trophy wife walking through a gallery of classical Greek and Roman artwork, and contemplating a parallel between her situation and these pretty objects. The line that gives the song its title is a fiercely bitter sentiment this protagonist directs at her own life, by way of the sculptures—“What shall we do/what shall we do/with all this useless beauty?”
(The studio version is a piano ballad, but the lyrics are the important bit here.)
On further inspection, several of Costello’s female protagonists are, in some way, women who get mistreated by men in some way connected to sexuality. From 1994’s ‘stone-washed damsel on a junk-food run’ who gets impregnated and abandoned by a soldier in ‘Kinder Murder’ to the universal she facing the anxiety of dirty old, or simply unfamiliar, men’s gaze (‘every smile that would turn into a leer) in 2008’s ‘Mr. Feathers,’ his work is savvy to the issues with woman-as-object-of-desire. But this raises the question of whether this is too narrow a view—whether these songs simply create damsels in distress for a more quote-unquote-enlightened era. In many cases, while sympathetic, one might argue that the passivity of these characters is still somewhat problematic. Passive victim, after all, is still a stereotype of women. I would address this objection in two ways.
First, is that there do exist numerous counterexamples, insofar as Costello’s songs depict non-passive women with a frequency that the damsel-in-distress reading would be one that does not stand up to a wide view of his work. There is the mysterious traveler of “Sulky Girl,” (1994) who has left behind some past that she keeps well hidden. The songs chorus is a message to anyone who tries, in a state of ignorance to figure her out, to put her in some mental box: “I think you’d better hold your tongue/although you’ve never been that strong./I’m sorry to say that I knew all along/you’re no match for that sulky girl.” Similarly, while the teenage protagonist of “You Little Fool” looks to her father, mother, and boyfriend’s opinions of her in the song, it is her actions that drive the story. While the chorus is in the voice of the decidedly unsympathetic father, the point-of-view character is this teenage girl trying to figure out the messy and often selfish world of adults. In this, she is a counterpart to the teenage boys doing the same that narrate many of the songs on Costello’s earliest albums.
(The official music video is a laughable bit of 80′s cheese, and seems to run counter to my own reading of the song. But wow, how about casting Costello as the headmaster! Talk about a perfect fit for the part!)
Second, if one theme recurs throughout the whole of Costello’s work, it is a jaundiced view of romance. In his songs exists a running portrayal of the actual people that engage in romantic relationships, frequently at their worst. While the insecure, often young, man dealing with desire and real or imagined rejection is a common figure (no doubt in part because of Costello’s own experience), he is not the only viewpoint Costello’s songs have. For example in 1986’s ‘Poor Napoleon,’ he takes on the persona of a woman cutting loose her unfaithful boyfriend. The title is an expression of mock pity, and the song as a whole takes a similar tone (e.g. “So good night, little school boy/you’d better learn some self control/Did you mess up your hairstyle?/Pour scorn in your begging bowl.) for a witty and scathing extended putdown.
(This song was written for an album that dealt heavily with Costello’s divorce, and if the absence of any live performances on Youtube is any indication, it was close enough to home to not show up in concert very often)
Even on the songs not written with a clear narrator, he paints a more complex picture than just one of fickle or inexplicable women, such as in 1977’s ‘No Dancing.’ It’s a story of a failed, awkward date that gets inside the woman’s head as “he’s telling her/every little thing he’s done,” and gives us an impression of why she’s turned off by him: “He’s such a drag/He’s not insane/It’s just that everybody/has to feel his pain.”
(This live version really gets to the retro sound the studio recording was going for, too.)
The upshot of this is twofold. First, the damsel-in-distress objection fails to address Costello’s own authorial focus—if women done wrong by the men that desire then crop up often, it is because this is a real element of the segment of human experience about which he writes. Second, the various perspectives beyond his own portrayed in his songs are to his credit, and the broader awareness they indicate is to be seen even when he writes from his own perspective. He has more to say about failed and rejected relationships than “But I’m such a nice guy.”
Ultimately, the answer to that title question — Is Costello a Feminist? — is a resounding “It depends on how you define feminism, but it’s plausible.” It is arguable whether his is work that furthers any anti-sexist cause, or merely steers clear of problematic narratives of ‘woman.’ What Costello’s writing about women undeniably makes him is a good writer. If, as said by British suffragist Rebecca West, feminism is the radical notion that women are people, then he “passes the test.” His songs lack the blind spot regarding women present in a great deal of writing from the perspective of the insecure male. One can, if one wishes, interpret this as meaning he is on the right side of a social movement, or one can simply say that he is an astute observer of the human condition. Whether you see art primarily as socio-political phenomenon or as distillation of truth and beauty, Costello is well-served in either respect by his ability to write his women as the complex, and relatable people that real women are, rather than as stock female types.
*In service of the thesis, I may have somewhat disserved a few of the artists I cite as Costello’s contemporaries. For example, while Graham Parker’s 1988 album ‘The Mona Lisa’s Sister’ does contain the condescending (even if it was going for sympathy) ‘The Girl Isn’t Ready, it also boasts “Get Started, Start A Fire.” This song is a portrayal of unconventional women, including Joan of Arc and the Mona Lisa’s Sister that gives the album its title, paired with the literally incendiary demand in the song title. While the song is atypical of Parker in a way that the Elvis Costello songs cited herein are not, I still feel I ought to give him some credit.