I usually don't buy into the "don't meet your heroes" myth. But there are exceptions.
Revisionist History Indeed!
Pompous Ass Malcolm Gladwell Has Elvis Costello Theory On New Podcast, Backs It Up With Zero Research, Fails Gloriously. EC Listens, Masturbates Furiously.
Recently a friend tipped me off to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell. The subject is Elvis Costello’s song “The Deportees.” If you want to suffer through the podcast, it’s called (un-ironically, one assumes) “Revisionist History” and the episode is titled “Hallelujah” (#7 of - mercifully - only 10).
Gladwell mostly focuses on the differences between the album version and a demo version economically titled “Deportee.” He also shoehorns Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah", in too.
The Costello song in question is from EC’s first truly horrible album, 1984’s “Goodbye Cruel World,” a record so bad even the most hardcore, blinders-on EC fanatics have given up trying to manufacture an argument in its favor.
The inexplicably self-assured artist himself has said GCW is "really just getting it as wrong as you can in terms of the execution of what are basically a bunch of really good songs."
Despite this being a rare (perhaps the only?) exception to EC’s inability to admit anything from his brain is less than stellar*, note EC qualifies the statement with misdirection, introducing the idea inappropriate production ruined the album. In EC's world, behind the veil of shit production, his songs on "Goodbye Cruel World" are still “really good.” Quel surprise!
To give him credit, the production IS ass, but the GCW songs still blow by comparison to say, even the worst tracks from “Get Happy!”
Full disclosure, I find EC to be an absolutely terrible example of a human being, but cannot fault the undeniable brilliance of 8 early albums. It’d be refreshing if he’d take a similarly unsentimental perspective on the other 22 records in his catalog. His constant re-packaging of early albums and resurrecting touring conceits (the Attractions! The Spinning Songbook!), while crapping out mediocre new records, pointless compilations and one of the worst “talk” shows of all time tells me he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel on all fronts.
For the record, both versions of the song Gladwell references appear on the mid-90’s Rykodisc version of the GCW, with “Deportee” making its first official appearance.
Who is Gladwell, and why should anyone care what he think? Good question! Gladwell is a writer for the New Yorker and the author of many books. He has a Trump-eque legacy of saying anything he thinks will back up his unimaginative theories, and therefore, voila!, making them true and sound.
In his defense, Gladwell is only trying to strip your pocketbook with anecdotes, but this kind of reckless playing with facts is, at worst, dangerous and, at best, self-serving.
As Donald has shown, there are people willing to believe anything, depending on how it’s said and how closely it relates to their own thinking.
In Gladwell’s case, it’s delivered in the pompous tone of a precious douchechill NPR wannabe – exactly the delivery system a certain segment of self-appointed intelligentsia will eagerly accept without question.
We used to call this type of product “value porn” – akin to selling conspiracy theory books to X-Files fans; there’s a proven audience eager to be exploited via third-party validation. Gladwell’s real smarts are in seeing this gap in the marketplace and being the first guy to the table.
After listening to his podcast all I could think was “who is fact-checking this shit?”
Before I tear him apart, please note my “WTF?” response to Gladwell’s work is hardly new business; dig these excerpts from his Wikipedia entry:
“The New Republic called the final chapter of Outliers, "impervious to all forms of critical thinking" and said that Gladwell believes "a perfect anecdote proves a fatuous rule."
“Gladwell has also been criticized for his emphasis on anecdotal evidence over research to support his conclusions.”
“Referencing a Gladwell reporting mistake in which Gladwell refers to "eigenvalue" as "Igon Value", Pinker criticizes his lack of expertise: "I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer's education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong." (lots of this going on in this podcast, with interview subjects as victim in a larger scheme of Gladwell’s)
“The Register … commented that Gladwell has an "aversion for fact", adding that, "Gladwell has made a career out of handing simple, vacuous truths to people and dressing them up with flowery language and an impressionistic take on the scientific method."
“The New Republic has called him "America's Best-Paid Fairy-Tale Writer."
And finally, my favorite:
“His approach was satirized by the online site "The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator".”
Okay, sorry for so many quotes, but that’s pretty hilarious for a guy whose book “The Tipping Point” was voted amongst the ten best of the last decade by Amazon readers.**
Anyway, Gladwell starts off stating he's a “massive” Costello fan.
He admits an intense dislike for the album version of “The Deportees”, saying it's too "loud" and "angry" (uh, have you heard ANY of EC's prior work?), but then rails on forever on the genius of “Deportee" (keep in mind this is the demo version).
I’ll concede “Deportee” IS superior to the Langer / Winstanley credited production***, but it’s still a shit song, just a less shit version.
Gladwell uses the "Deportee" example to extoll a theory of the reworking auteur. He cites Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne, who is known to have frequently revised his paintings. Gladwell contends this kind of creator is most effectively exemplified in the world of music, where songs are re-worked over time, frequently by third parties who had nothing to do with writing the original.
For laughs, let’s accept his premise, even though Costello is probably the worst possible example of slow, methodical musician Gladwell could've chosen. Having spit out 3 albums and another's worth of b-sides in just over two years, whilst touring the world, I'd hardly call EC an unhurried, precision, fine-tuner type.
Gladwell recalls Leonard Cohen's five year gestation of “Hallelujah” and how it took many more years to refine to its best (by Galdwell's standards, anyway) version.
Gladwell accepts the theory Cohen’s version of “Hallejuah” is turgid (!), while seemingly applauding Walter Yetnikoff as a visionary for rejecting it. Meanwhile Gladwell praises Yetnikoff’s astute ability to release crap like “Thriller”, which Gladwell calls “pop polished to perfection,” as if Yetnikoff had anything to do with the record being made other than signing off on the budget.
Gladwell clearly has a very different idea of perfection than I do – perhaps his copy of “Thriller” is missing “The Girl Is Mine,” Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady In My Life” - three songs that make up a third of the album, all undeniably “by the numbers” shit filler.
And while Cale and Buckley’s versions of “Hallelujah” have their merits, fuck Gladwell for shitting on Cohen, who is, at minimum, as important a figure as Cale and arguably twice as successful artistically, still touring and meticulously making records at HIS pleasure and pace - not others - well into his 70’s (he’s passed now, but was still active at 81, when I wrote this).
Anyway, Gladwell asserts Cale, and Buckley came back to Cohen's "Hallelujah" and re-worked it into something far better.
But he singles out Costello specifically, calling him a modern day Cezanne, an artist who “reworks his past” to superior results, specifically referencing “Deportee.”
And that’s where Gladwell falls flat on his smug face.
If, per Gladwell, “Deportee” is superior to “The Deportees,” his argument is null - “Deportee” came first.
The version Gladwell dislikes is the re-worked, over-wrought, produced to death, "Cezanne" version.
What a dope.
Perhaps Gladwell thinks Château Noir might’ve benefitted from some Erik Johansson photoshopping.****
In any case, this is a perfect example of Gladwell's lazy thinking and lack of research that justly draws criticism.
For a “massive” EC fan, he sure wasn’t paying attention to his beloved artist’s career, since he didn’t hear “Deportee” until a friend (tough gig, one imagines) put it on a compilation tape, years after the Rykodisc release.
I can certainly understand not re-buying “Goodbye Cruel World” in the mid-90’s, although the promise of the album’s redemption in its 10 bonus tracks was pretty compelling for all of us who were still wondering what the fuck went so completely wrong back in 1984, myself included.
I could go on and on, but Gladwell should note:
Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” is a single, not an album.
His assertion Langer & Winstanley were behind "all the new wave hits" of the 80’s is preposterous. They had a good run for a couple of years, period.
When Gladwell asks if listeners remember Dexy's “Come On Eileen” and then proceeds to not only play, but sing it, I want to club him to death the same way I do Howard Stern when he asks Billy Idol if he “remembers ‘Rebel Yell’.” This is as insightful and informative as asking Toni Basil if she remembers “Mickey.”
Noting the “improved” Cale version of “Hallejulah” was originally released as a cover-mount tribute CD called “I’m Your Fan” with the French magazine “Les Inrockuptibles”, Gladwell marvels that this tiny release made it to the apartment of a friend of Jeff Buckley’s, who beyond all odds played it, inspiring Buckley's version.
That WOULD be somewhat remarkable, even though NYC and Paris are major metropolitan cities with flights back and forth daily, so magazines and CDs were probably on many of those flights. But again with the lack of research; Gladwell ignores the wide release of “I’m Your Fan” through Major Labels worldwide, including Atlantic in the US. The album was an alternative chart hit, featuring tracks by some of the biggest artists of the era, like REM and the Pixies – hardly the obscurity Gladwell makes it out to be.
Finally, when noting the source of “The Deportee,” Gladwell jokingly says “Rykodisc Records, whatever that is.” I find it hard to believe any “massive” Elvis Costello fan, even the GCW averse ones, weren’t at least aware of the Rykodisc re-release campaign, and most likely had purchased a few of them between 1993 and 2000 when Ryko’s rights expired.
Taking all of this into account, here’s MY theory; Malcolm Gladwell is no “massive” Elvis Costello fan and he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.
* A theory easily disproven by his tortuous read of an autobiography, “Unfaithful Music.”
** These same folks are likely to vote for “Fifty Shades Of Grey” and it’s offspring in 2020 (provided they can do so anonymously). So, good company.
*** EC admits to having taken the reins of production of the album from Langer / Winstanley
**** Sorry, Erik. I don’t mean to imply your work sucks, just that it would be as inappropriate in a Cezanne as the production EC chose for GCW