Thursday, July 21, 2011

Indoor Fireworks




This fan video of Elvis Costello's beautiful song "Indoor Fireworks"  was posted on Facebook the other day, and there came along a dissenting voice in the comment stream that Costello was anti-women. Not an atypical response to Costello's work, his early albums especially, and none too subtle either. The conversation got to the point where the Costello critic remarked that the intensity and persistence of songs about anger, rage and hatred revealed a homoerotic tension.

Indoor Fireworks

We play these parlour games
We play at make believe
When we get to the part where I say that I'm going to leave
Everybody loves a happy ending but we don't even try
We go straight past pretending
To the part where everybody loves to cry

(chorus)
Indoor fireworks
Can still burn your fingers
Indoor fireworks
We swore we were safe as houses
They're not so spectacular
They don't burn up in the sky
But they can dazzle or delight
Or bring a tear
When the smoke gets in your eyes

You were the spice of life
The gin in my vermouth
And though the sparks would fly
I thought our love was fireproof
Sometimes we'd fight in public darling
With very little cause
But different kinds of sparks would fly
When we got on our own behind closed doors

(chorus)
It's time to tell the truth
These things have to be faced
My fuse is burning out
And all that powder's gone to waste
Don't think for a moment dear that we'll ever be through
I'll build a bonfire of my dreams
And burn a broken effigy of me and you


Elvis Costello is not anti-woman, as any number of love ballads from his prolific pen attest; one might as well say that Dylan is anti woman, or John Lennon  (for "Run for Your Life") for that matter. People seem to have a hard time when a lyricist goes beyond the usual ABC's of love songs and explore the darker issues, the sources of anger, the true sting of friction between two people. The point is not to make the listener comfortable with some warmed over platitudes about true love and the heartbreak of it all, but to have the listener recognizes the conflicting passions in themselves and to grapple with their own demons. His aim is true. You are ignoring huge swaths of Costello's work which, although noted for its anger and recrimination of failed relationships, has also shown a plentitude of emotional perspectives. I don't know about homoerotic tensions as it applies to his work--it is a reach (and not a reach around) to say that his aggressively male viewpoint in his early tunes hints at a gross case of denial and submersion. It is more accurate and more coherent and less obfuscating to say that his anger is the product of a young man who nursed his hurts , as young males are won't to do.

I would offer up that Costello doesn't sugar coat the emotions that most of us are prey to with the contrived resolutions that make discussing this things acceptable in mixed company. This is not Ricky Nelson's neighborhood; Costello, following no less an example than Dylan (and Lennon) creates another metaphorical system over the ache and anger, something closer to the truth. Art is meant to create catharsis, to raise the first thing we garner from an introductory aesthetics lecture, and catharsis is something that Costello creates more often than not.

But we have to examine the work further in light of an accusation that Costello is a misogynist by default. He, or his narrators, indicts himself/ themselves in a good many of the songs from the period, and as his career progressed and he got older, his lyric stances in terms of relationships became broader, more nuanced. The song in question, "Indoor Fireworks", shows this, as he speaks in terms of "we", "us", et al. Costello's narrative concept of problematic relationships became much more subtle, centering on the notion that relationships/unions/marri​ages work out or fail on the energies, talents, expectations and willingness (or lack of willingness) on the part of two people.

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