Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"This Year's Girl" / Elvis Costello

My New Year's resolution: Stop worrying about whether I write too often about the same few artists, and 'fess up to the truth--most of the time the songs in my head are just an endless loop of Nick Lowe, the Kinks, and Elvis Costello. Not that I'm complaining.

Elvis' 1978 album This Year's Model was, is, and always will be one of the Great Albums of My Life. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it, the afternoon when my friend Craig sat me down on the futon in his sublet on East 12th Street and told me he had found a new artist I really had to listen to. I can still hear the needle being set down on the vinyl, the hiss of the stereo before it found the groove. Then, wham! Elvis' frantic half-whispered "I don't wanna kiss you, I don't wannna touch" and an abrupt crash of drums, guitar, and assertive organ, and we were off to the races.

"This Year's Girl"--it's sort of the title track, sorta not. After his out-of-nowhere debut My Aim Is True, on this album Elvis was dealing with his new celebrity, and his violent ambivalence about the ultra-trendy scene. (Violent ambivalence--is that a contradiction in terms? Not with Elvis. Back then Elvis could muster violent feelings about anything.)

"This Year's Girl" gets right to the heart of it, to his disgusted fascination with some It Girl or other. I always imagine her like Julie Christie in that devastating 1960s film Darling: bopping down a London street, her blond hair perfectly bouffant, swinging a tiny purse by a long strap. No matter how horrible she's been to Dirk Bogarde, I still want to be her. Same thing with Elvis' love-hate object: On one level I despise her as much as he wants me to, but there's another side of me that still desires her It-ness. And Elvis does too; he just can't shake it. He hates himself for it. Face it: Who doesn't want to be, or be with, This Year's Girl?

She's the girl you can't get away from -- "See her picture in a thousand places / 'Cause she's this year's girl. / You think you all own little pieces of this year's girl." Elvis, the master of clever almost-rhymes nobody ever used before, scornfully declares: "Forget your fancy manners / Forget your English grammar, / 'Cause you don't really give a damn / About this year's girl." Oh, yeah? Who doesn't give a damn? He may not use the first person, but it's pretty hard not to connect the singer himself with leering images like "You want her broken with her mouth wide open" or "You see yourself rolling on the carpet / With this year's girl." Jeez, with fantasies that vivid, who needs to actually make it with this babe?

He knows there's no there there. "Never knowing it's a real attraction, / All these promises of satisfaction, / While she's being bored to distraction / Being this year's girl." Can't you just see her sullen mouth and vacant eyes? It might be Bebe Buell, might be Paris Hilton; it doesn't really matter who she is. In the bridge, he tries to imagine her perspective --"Time's running out / She's not happy with the cost" -- but he can't identify, not like he can with the sick longings of her admirers. The jerky punk rhythms, those bashing drumbeats, Elvis's stabbing staccato vocal gulps--this goes way past social satire, into self-flagellation. At the end, he spits out rhyme upon rhyme, image after desperate image: "Those disco synthesizers, Those daily tranquilizers, / Those body building prizes, Those bedroom alibis, /All this, but no surprises for this year's girl." And whirling around it all are Steve Nieve's minor-key organ riffs, a funhouse sound that tips from cheesiness into cruelty.

When I first fell in love with Elvis, I was an eager 20-something, freshly moved to the Big City, ready to make my mark on the scene. I wanted to be This Year's Girl, not to see her put down by a skinny English punk in nerdy glasses. But then, I'm an absolute sucker for snarky lyrics and biting wit; how could I resist Elvis Costello?

This Year's Girl sample


uNCLE e said...

Excelent, excellent blog! Thanks for your comment on Nick Lowe. The dude is one amazing songwriter, and the positive effect (I believe) he had on Elvis Costello in particular was substantial. The Similarities between Nick's When I Write The Book compared to Costello's Everyday I Write the Book (which was released a full 3 years AFTER Nick's tune) astounds me. Not taking anything away from Elvis, he's surely one of my favorites, and an original songwriter, but the two are just simpatico to the nth degree!
I hope you don't mind, but I have included a link to your excellent blog on mine. Come back often, it's good to have some educated responses!!

uNCLE e said...

ohohohohoh, and Nick's Little Hitler, and Elvis' Two Little Hitlers from Armed Forces!
Damn, now I'll have to REALLY research this...

Holly A Hughes said...

Plus I think I read that Elvis wanted to name This Year's Model something like Little Hitler, and Nick talked him out of it -- then wrote his own song as an in-joke. Are these guys fun or what?

BTW I love your blog too (follow the link, folks)-- your taste in music is faultless, and anybody who loves both Christopher Guest movies AND Don Martin cartoons must have his head screwed on right.