April 29, 2007
After watching the “Everyday I write the Book” video, astute occasional commenter Jen asked why Mr. Costello has “African” back-up singers in the video. Although she decided to direct her question in person and not in the comment thread, thus depriving our broader readership of her insights, I’ve decided to say one or two things about the topic. While Mr. Costello’s song is certainly enhanced by the back-up vocals, its unclear why they are attired in African garb. [Note: I don’t want to press this point too much as I know almost nothing about the group, Afrodiziak, who hail from England via Jamaica and may have regularly been so costumed.] However, when we contextualize the song within 80’s pop, it makes more sense.
In the 1980s, Paul Simon performed several concerts with South African musicians, and the Graceland album featured many songs built on African rhythms. A concert video of Simon perform in South Africa was later released. Here’s a video of the titular number.
The 80’s were also the time of the original Live Aid concerts, started as a response to the Ethiopian famine.
While musical interest and awareness of socio-political conditions separately led people to take interest in Africa in the 1980s, without any sort of context these elements just seem like a strange fashion trend. Of course, in many cases it’s hard to tell where social consciousness ends and fashion begins. Causes become fashionable, and those are the ones that have political impact (Or don’t. See the respective fates of global warming and Darfur in American political discourse), and fashion changes to reflect our taste in social causes (see hybrid cars, and green clothing; lots of Che T-shirts). That these connections are sometimes only reflected in the mis-en-scene is a lesson to be better viewers/readers: there is no unimportant part of the text.