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Elvis Costello: songs versus op eds

by Shari Graydon

In the course of promoting his newly released album recently, much-celebrated songwriter, Elvis Costello (do you think he ever gets referred to as the spouse of Diana Krall?) was speaking about how he approaches his craft. He said he’d once been inspired to write a song about an “old, now vaguely respectable fascist”, but confessed that in order to do so, he “made up a fantasy” about the guy because it would have been “too tedious and… disgusting” to do otherwise.

A lot of songs are like that. You make some sort of drama or narrative to walk you past the stuff that’s on your mind. Otherwise, you’d just be writing an op-ed.

I like Elvis Costello for his unique voice, eclecticism, generosity and insight. But I think he’s unclear about the creative possibilities of writing an op ed. The best commentaries manage to embed a dramatic narrative into their arguments — to engage readers by demonstrating how an issue affects human beings, sometimes calling out the villains or crediting the heroes in the process. It’s true that op ed pages don’t always sport compelling pieces that combine storytelling in the course of arguing their case. But that’s a failure of imagination, not the form itself.