Sunday, January 18, 2009

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Party Girl" (1980)



"Heartfelt" relationship songs are generally the stuff of high-grade solipsism and the finest boredom reinforcement; Elvis Costello is an exception because he is--was, at this point--so acutely, painfully aware of the politics of sexual discourse. Armed Forces, his 1980 record with the Attractions, is notable on two levels: it introduces, in a putative and still acerbic form, the fixation with Phil Spectorism and Motown-inspired production that would later lead him down some fairly dodgy avenues (Bacharach joints and hiring out gospel backing singers, the latter of which may be the single surest indicator that a White musician has become middle-aged), and it presents a rumination on the conceptual similarities between romantic infatuation and the rise of neo-fascism.

Since the criticism of the Frankfurt School, the ideological links between philosophical Romanticism, with its Germanic mythos and English naïveté, and the totalitarian have been well established, but Costello's shift in focus from capital letters to those allegedly more intimate small-r "romances" marks his best work as something conceptually new as well as exciting, vibrant, vicious. If This Year's Model dealt with relationships in terms of the culture industry, Madison Avenue, film clichés, and a gleeful exhibition of the spite and self-interest underlying them, Armed Forces moves directly to the State as a seducer which travels very much the same byways and makes use of the same mechanisms as do its "party girls"--dissipated pseudo-Bohemian rich kids, to be sure (Denton in the house), but also capital-P Party Girls who encourage the leap into desire-association and wish-fulfillment that fuels both the fascism of MTV and the fascism of Mussolini's brigades. As he puts it on another of the album's standouts, "Green Shirt,"

Theres a smart young woman on a light blue screen
Who comes into my house every night.
And she takes all the red, yellow, orange and green
And she turns them into black and white.

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