On the Beauty of Elvis Costello (Or, Why Ibiteyoureyes Needs to Move to Boston)

April 28, 2007

In On Autobiography, Philip Lejeune, after a lifetime spent trying to discern the self driving the autobiography, shifts his perspective on the genre, turning his definition of the form from one based on authorship into one based on the production of reading.

“Autobiography can be considered a collaborative genre involving several people behind the writing persona. The test of authorship can be shown to fail as a marker for the generic identification of some autobiographies.” (Review, Poetics Today, 11:3)

Elsewhere, Lejeune has written about autobiography told in the third person, or what it means when fiction uses a first person narrator. Once Lejeune felt the author needed to engage in linguistic flights of fancy in order to direct the reader with these other voices. But now his point of view has changed. For the author, all the voices mean much the same thing: its up to the reader to determine how they read the text, how they want to experience the world related by the narrator.

For whatever reason, I think about these questions most whilst listening to music (I also think about Tiddlywinks and girls with shiny noses). I think its the immediacy of the form; just you and the music, you and a singer, someone who, unlike an author, can emote, can direct my emotions. I can chose how to read a book, and claim to know how a character really feels; I can control the reading. But a musician has a much greater power in determining my experience. Despite what later Lejeune says, this is especially true since so much modern music is told in the first person, in the natural autobiographical form. We enjoy “Gin and Juice” because of the way it captures Snoop Doggy Dogg’s life (or, perhaps, creates his life in our minds).

More than other modern musicians (I guess, now that I’ve introduced the doubt, with the possible exception of Snoop), Elvis Costello seems to play with the autobiographical elements of songwriting, moving his listeners away from straight interpretations. Of course, when we consider or subject using paratext theory (care of Genette, the essential idea is that all the material surrounding the text shapes our understandings) we shouldn’t be too surprised that Costello would play with identity; after all, Elvis Costello is not his real name, and he frequently employed other pseudonyms.

Here’s an example (from “Tokyo Storm Warning”) of the way Costello plays with narrative:

“The black sand stuck beneath her feet in a warm Sorrento sunrise
A barefoot girl from Naples or was it a Barcelona hi-rise”

The lyrics are evocative. We’re at once transported to the rich moment and taken back. Our narrator gives us details, and then changes them. We have one poetic moment, and then another. Adding to our troubles, Costello repeatedly changes perspective. Sometimes the song is first person, other times second, and often in the third. There’s a story told, one that seems to be Erlebnis, but that story is repeatedly re and decontextualized.

“Every Day I write the Book” is another great example. In a song about text, Costello expresses his love for a woman in an atypical fashion, using an elaborate writing metaphor.

For me, the most important part comes at 2:23, when he sings, “Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal/ I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel.” The line expresses his desire to control the world around him, to tell the story as he wants it to go. The song is still the standard love song, but the conventional tropes are gone (Fun Genette fact #2: we have him to thank for the word “trope” being back in common discourse), replaced with new images.

And yet still, the emotion directs our reading. We know its a love song even with the twists. Perhaps this is the beauty of songwriting: the ability to play with lyrics and still control the audience’s response via the power of voice, of oral and aural persuasion. Or maybe not. This isn’t too well thought out, and it’s really more of an appeal to Ibiteyoureyes to burn me more Elvis Costello than (semi) serious literary analysis.

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