Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, and the Torch Song Tradition

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Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, and the Torch Song Tradition Larry David Smith. Westport: Praeger, 2004.

The term "torch song" conjures up images of schmaltzy songs of unrequited love sung by lounge singers in smoky rooms. You can picture Frank Sinatra or even Barbra Streisand melting hearts with a torch song. But Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell? Whoa! What's going on here?

Larry David Smith's book, Elms Costello, Joni Mitchell, and the Torch Song Tradition is pop music meets literary criticism; it seeks to combine the worlds of English professors with rock stars. This is Smith's third attempt at this task; previously, he wrote Pete Townshend: The Minstrel's Dilemma and Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and American Song. In these books, he takes pop songwriters very seriously; fortunately, he deals with songwriters who take their songs seriously.

Smith has presented himself a formidable task: to bring serious literary criticism into the world of entertainment. The author seeks to add depth to something that most people take lightly, to explain things in detail that most accept on the surface. But he faces a serious obstacle: it seems some things are too important to be taken seriously. The entertainment industry is a prime example of this. True, it has a profound impact on individuals and society, but it works best when it is entertainment first, with profundity as an almost accidental by-product. …