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Welcome back to the Elvis Costello Song Of The Week®, our ongoing attempt to drive you ever-deeper into the catalog of the musician who most embodies the Trunkworthy mission. Elvis has spent almost 40 years using every means at his disposal to turn his fans on to the artists, songs and genres that inspire him. For that reason (and, well, because we can’t think of another artist who has written 500 songs as good as the 500 he’s written), we’re making this our humble attempt to return the favor to an artist who’s inspired us so much for so many years.
This week’s pick: “Worthless Thing” from Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
Gary Stewart: I come back to “Worthless Thing” often, not just because I love the song, but whenever I need a mission statement about fighting cynicism and the commodification of art, it’s right there. It’s about taking music—or dare I say art—seriously, and it questions and scorns people who aren’t moved by it and treat it as a distraction or as product (especially those in control of the “means of production”). Written at the peak of the MTV frenzy, when video, fashion, and visuals often subsumed musical and emotional content, it feels both prescient and scarily relevant. That chorus: “I wish you could see quite how much could mean to me”—I think of it whenever I hear someone say, “Oh, it’s just music, just a movie, just a TV show. . .” And it’s one of his angriest songs, not because of any overt venting, but because it pursues a greater good—the need to keep the audience for music, movies, books and all art forms honest, serious and passionate.
David Gorman: Yes, it’s an angry song, but presented in a very pretty way. You get that acidic lyric set to an upbeat and unforgettable melody, and that’s why it works so well for me. The result isn’t an ironic tension, but more of a complete statement . . . and Trunkworthy’s battle cry: Pop art is still art. This song is proof. It’s also proof that “production” isn’t a dirty word and that serious music shouldn’t be afraid to sound sweet. People (including Elvis) knocked the poppy production of this entire album at the time, but I lean toward this sound over the stark, stripped-bare style that so many singer/songwriters embrace. “Worthless Thing” has that ’80s U.K. Motown revival sound that I’m a total sucker for, tambourine and all, and it makes me wish more songwriters made records as beautifully decorated as this one.