You Write the Reviews: American Life, by Elvis Costello

New York
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:10

"Affect everything, effect nothing" might be our motto. Indignation, piety, sympathy or outrage are all interchangeable postures in the Commedia dell'Arte of television. Thank heaven for the off switch.

Mornings are stained by morality plays and parables of eugenics, cynically promoting the idea that poor people are inherently stupid and breed without any discretion. Evenings are haunted by tragic, self-publicising freaks, clinging to any whiff of infamy in a funhouse version of "reality". It is at times like this that any human voice becomes valuable. Some are very well known but come in disguises, others are more unexpected.

Now here is Madeleine Albright, talking to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. She's being wonderfully indiscreet about a recent White House gathering of past Secretaries of State and Defence. Apparently, Junior's response to this assembled resource of experience and differing perspectives was to stick his fingers in his ears and hum.

Two weeks ago, I was side-stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, watching a set by the contemporary gospel singer Yolanda Adams. Irma Thomas, the "Queen of New Orleans Soul", is also there listening. When Yolanda begins her sensational closing number, "Victory", Irma jumps to her feet, shadowing every line. It is hard to know which performance is more joyful.

A small plane flew over the festival site trailing a banner. It was greeted with cheers of approval from the citizens of that abandoned city. It said, "Impeach Bush". Now here is Neil Young, singing a similar sentiment on Living with War. He uses the same pattern of chords and fuzz-tones that he has applied to any sentiments he has needed to deliver with swift force. It's just another kind of folk music. Yesterday, I watched Heart of Gold, Jonathan Demme's wonderful concert film of Neil , recorded following the release of Prairie Wind. The film catches the quiet dread and hopefulness of the songs and illustrates the deceptive complexity of this largely acoustic music. It also captures an invigorated artist who has recently confronted the actuality of his own mortality.

Now here is Bob Dylan on his Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Satellite radio. Sunday brought a special show for Mother's Day (celebrated on 14 May in the US), but this is no sentimental journey - he is playing everything from Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" to L L Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out". He delivers a listener's e-mail with the cadence of one of his own songs. The correspondent requests a record for his "hammerhead of a mother-in-law", who, he writes, "disparages me, depreciates me, downgrades me, dismisses me".

Dylan cues up Ernie K Doe's "Mother-in-Law".

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