Elvis Costello and the Attractions - I Want You
I know I’m going to feel this way until you kill it (or yet another Costellian enumeration)
1. This song is about when love, triggered by an affair, turns to hate and desire remains.
2. It is so gentle. Slow-dance gentle. A hand on the small of the back, a whispered promise of fidelity and forever. Hair tucked, brushed aside with tender fingers so you can hear the words better. But then the grip start to tighten.
3. It terrifies. I first heard ”I Want You” shortly after buying Girls! Girls! Girls! on cassette. I wasn’t too familiar with Elvis Costello & The Attractions but “Mystery Dance” used to play on WDRE and I liked that one in a casual singalong way. Well, more than that since I actually went out and spent my hard earned teen babysitting cash on it.
The memory of that first listen is clear because it was more than sound. I’d warmed a Chilean chocolate bar in the toaster oven, slowly eating the soft almondy mess while drinking some Ceylon which I’d just brewed. The tangy smell filled the apartment and I was alone. I popped the tape into the boombox that teetered on the dead heater by my bedroom window and sat down to read.
I wasn’t paying that much attention to the background music but towards the end of side one, tape two I’d forgotten my YA book about people trapped in their home by an avalanche. I was suddenly anxious, hyper-alert, head tilted, poised, waiting.
I. Want. You.
In constant repetition, at the end of every phrase, mauled and pawed, grimy from overuse. Why won’t he stop saying it? Why is it so ugly? Why won’t he go away? What the ever loving fuck? Of course, I kept hitting the rewind button. Hearing the whirr, then the click stop, then the quiet part. I want you. I want you. I want you. The person putting it out there was revealing something ugly about themselves and the display was distasteful as it was compelling. Maybe that was the point. Look at me, drunk and in my bathrobe, wanting you. I love you. I hate you. But mostly I want you. I want you. It was too unpleasant to not be real.
4. Later, I came to understand it and understand it too well. I knew it when I met him. I responded to small things about his appearance. My gaze would zoom into each detail, the slight up-turn of his mouth, the way he would look at me from the tops of his eyes as if we were in immediate confidence, coquettish, flirtatious. The small scar on his face. He kept stepping closer to me as he talked so I told him to step back, keep his hands to himself and he did, clasping them tightly behind his back for the rest of the night. He had no way of knowing that that was exactly the right thing to do. Eventually, I slipped my fingers under his sweater; his skin, cool and smooth.
The things I remember most about our time together was the way he touched me, how I couldn’t break away. Our love affair lasted way too long. I took a photo of us on one of the many nights we decided to call it off and he asked why. So I can remember, because I’ll forget. I always did. I wanted him. That trumped my own self-interest. I was a smart girl but a stupid woman.
I still have that photo. I’m smiling in it. I do this even when I’m miserable. He has his arms around my waist. I’m sure he spent the night. I know he did. He’d say I want you and I’d respond.
5. Re: “I Want You”
The sound of this track was always going to be the aural equivalent of a blurred polaroid, so no apologies for the lack of fidelity. None are needed, it’s just a pornographic snapshot; lots of broken glass, a squashed box of chocolates and a little blood on the wall. - Elvis Costello
6. For many years, the fan chatter on this one is that it was written about Bebe Buell, model, sometime Playmate, lover of rockstars, mother of Liv Tyler. Costello denies this, saying in no uncertain terms that their relationship was barely that. Just a girl on a doorstep with too many suitcases who quickly overstayed her welcome, laying claim to songs that had already been written. Which is too bad because it would be an easy narrative: surly singer/songwriter in love with a model who can’t commit, realizes that he has to demonize her in order to leave her. So he does, talking smack from here to eternity while saying that he wants her THIRTY-THREE times just in case she missed it.
7. I’m not repeating this because I think it’s true. I’m repeating it because fake gossip serves a purpose. The falsehood turns the song into Tiger Beat theatre and makes it more palatable. Boy writes a mean song about Girl. Curtain. They were actors all along? Phew!
8. (When he debuted, Costello epitomized a very specific white, male nerd rage. It’s a role he performs brilliantly. His mature albums are missing that persona. By now he’s the fun loving dilettante enthusiast; the uncle you want at the party piano. But, like any excellent performance, you can’t quite remove it from your mind even when the actor is doing something else, even when he’s moved on. This was the last encore.)
9. While it would be easy to hear the song as a misogynistic piece of entitlement theater and nothing else, it plays just as well when reversed. Fiona Apple performed an on point cover in 2006. It sounds like her words, her pain and her experience. She switches the pronouns and for once, that doesn’t bother me, it is legitimate. Her passionate performance is pitched beautifully between shame and exultation. She turns that song inside out and makes it specific to anyone who has ever felt wildly, crazy, over the top fucked up about anyone.
10. Back to the repetition - it could be that it is there to provide rationale for behavior. The feelings are overwhelmingly negative but no one is leaving. I’d forgotten how important that is. (How could I forget?)
11. Or perhaps hypnosis is what it’s closer to? When Costello says “I Want You”, he is not convincing you, he is provoking you. There is a clear attempt to make you pay attention, to fight or flee or just go nuts. Those three words dig themselves into your head and regardless of whether or not the song has any personal meaning to you, it triggers mania. It is meant to displace, unnerve and knock you off your axis. Much like desire itself. If the actual story gets through to you, you’ll question its intentions. Being wanted does not imply that it’s mutual. Nor does it imply that it’s healthy. Those three words are a threat and a warning. You’ll always remember it. No one who wants you could want you more.
12. I want you.
13. I want you.
15. Want you.
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— Daniella Joseph didn’t want to count to thirty-three. You can find her at Soft Communication and writing about Radiohead for OWOB.