[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

February 2007



Goon Squad*
by Elvis Costello

Mother, Father, I’m here in the zoo
I can’t come home ‘cause I’ve grown up too
   soon
I got my sentence, I’ve got my command.
They said they’d make me major if I met all
   their demands.
I could be a corp’ral into corp’ral punishment,
Or the gen’ral manager of a large
   establishment.

Refrain:
They pat some good boys on the back and put
   some to the rod,
But I never thought they’d put me in the goon
   squad.
They’ve come to look you over and they’re
   giving you the eye.
Goon squad.
They want you to come out to play; you’d better
   say goodbye.

Some grow up just like their dads and some
   grow up too tall.
Some grow drinkin’ with the lads. Some don’t
   grow up at all.
And you must find the proper place for
   everything you see,
But you’ll never get to make a lampshade out
   of me.
I could join a chain of males or be the missing
   link,
Looking for a lucky girl to put me in the pink.

Refrain.

Mother, Father, I’m doing so well.
I’m making such progress now that you can
   hardly tell.
I fit in a little dedication with one eye on the
   clock.
They caught you under medication. You could
   be in for a shock.
Thinking up the alibis that everyone’s
   forgotten,
Just another mommy’s boy gone to rotten.

Refrain.


* Lyrics from Elvis Costello: A Singing Dictionary. New York: Warner Brothers / Plangent Visions Music, 1980.

Welcome to the Working World: Elvis Costello’s "Goon Squad"

Elvis Costello’s song "Goon Squad" from Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ 1979 Armed Forces LP begins with the declaration that the singer is "here in the zoo." We quickly understand that he is not a visitor at the zoo: He is in some way being treated as if he were a caged and exhibited nonhuman animal. In what metaphorical way is that the case, what is "the goon squad," and what does the singer communicate by adopting a goon’s persona?

On the fast track, but where to?

By artistically conflating different human endeavors, the words simultaneously confuse and clarify whom or what the song dubs "the goon squad." On the one hand, "I’ve got my command" and double-entendre references to military rank suggest the singer is speaking to his parents from a military base. But other details indicate he’s recently entered the business world. Unidentified bosses -- the ubiquitous "they" -- lure the young man with promises, the most literal probably being, "I could be…the gen’ral manager of a large establishment."

Specific industries or professions are not mentioned. Boasting of opportunities to aggrandize himself by doing what others tell him, the singer is not out to meet a human need or serve a public interest. "They said they’d make me major if I met all their demands" and the next line -- "I could be a corp’ral into corp’ral punishment" -- suggest we’re supposed to understand "gen’ral manager" as his potential title in "a large establishment" as part of an extended play on words. He is not in the military just as he is not in the zoo, but his experience smacks of both.

How to assess the situation?

"I can’t come home ‘cause I’ve grown up too soon" says getting ahead in the world in which the singer finds himself requires him to reject some values hinted at by the song’s opening words, "Mother, Father…." Reporting back to his parents upon striking out on his own, a young man customarily assures them they taught him well, he’s adhering to the family’s values and traditions, and not to worry. In this case, we hear instead the un-reassuring and humorous "I’m making such progress now that you can hardly tell"!

The casual use of "you" for "one" -- any observer -- and at the same time for the parents he again invokes in the third verse suggests the seemingly immense progress and opportunities of which he seemingly boasts in the first verse instead represent stagnation or regression. Hence the impact of verse 2. If "[s]ome grow up just like their dads," is he not one of them? By juxtaposing that with "some grow up too tall" -- an entirely subjective judgment as height doesn’t indicate character -- is he trying to convince himself, by trying to convince his parents, that his turning out nothing like his dad, perhaps abandoning important values, shouldn’t be viewed in a negative light and needn’t trouble his parents?

That might help explain, in the refrain, "They pat some good boys on the back and put some to the rod." Being good doesn’t matter in the world he’s entered: You’ll be rewarded or punished arbitrarily -- not based on what you do that is good or bad in moral or practical terms, but based on meeting the demands of higher-ups. Demands of higher-ups are those that suit those in charge. No particular connection exists between work that is done and human needs or public interests. Not being able to make choices that determine one’s future -- relying on higher-ups’ whims -- keeps boys from becoming men. "They’ve come to look you over and they’re giving you the eye," reflects their passivity and intimidation.

"They want you to come out to play; you’d better say goodbye"? Urging someone to join the goon squad is like getting a kid to come out and play with your little group, just because they want more kids, not to accomplish anything in particular -- and if you don’t come with them, they’ll make trouble, so you’d might as well resign yourself and say goodbye to your folks. As part of an imagined communication with his parents, this also smacks of the singer making excuses for leaving and growing up too soon: They made him do it.

Facing unpleasant facts

Comparing the business world to the military gives a clue as to why "I’ve got my sentence" precedes "I’ve got my command," why the opening comparison is to a zoo, and why the entire endeavor is made to appear so sinister. Military forces do what their commanders -- generals and admirals or civilian heads of state -- tell them to do. In more democratic societies, their actions are made to appear in the public interest; such an appearance is less necessary the further along the continuum toward totalitarianism the society is located. To someone who’s been raised well -- and therefore can’t face his parents when he violates the principles of his upbringing -- getting a command seems more like a punishment the more one’s task diverges from the common good.

A goon is someone hired to intimidate or perpetrate violence. In organized crime, military ranks are used -- a goon might be called a "lieutenant." Likewise, we speak of "captains" of industry. "Goon Squad" applies casual uses of military jargon to suggest the working world that inducts young people exhibits aspects of the military and of organized crime without actually being either. It also shares aspects of a zoo: In "put[ting] in a little dedication with one eye on the clock," the singer makes the needed impression on those who monitor his performance while he is in his cage -- a cubicle, perhaps, or the mental imprisonment of having made commitments that burn bridges -- ostensibly to make a promotion more likely or at least to avoid being "put to the rod."

The singer’s plight hints at that of a "patient" in a Stalinist mental hospital. "They caught you under medication. You could be in for a shock" -- if you use drugs seeking escape from your moral predicament or from your boredom, isolation, and fear, you’ll be deemed in need of electro-shock therapy, a form of punishment when used arbitrarily as in the Gulag. "You" also refers to Mother and Father. Were they found sedating themselves to suppress their distress at the thought of their son’s choices? Is their son warning them to avoid punishment?

Character implications

How do all of these details tell us why the singer has "grown up too soon" and therefore "can’t come home" and is "making such progress now that you can hardly tell"? Perhaps he has grown up too soon in that he’s deemed suitable to wield authority over others -- as a member of the goon squad -- because he pursued success without exercising moral judgment. Before learning to perceive the signs, he’s fallen into a quasi-fascistic vortex. Now he can’t escape without risking punishment or his future prospects. He can’t come home in that he can’t face his parents.

When he says, "[Y]ou’ll never get to make a lampshade out of me," referring to Nazis’ literally making lampshades of Jews’ skins, is he telling his parents he won’t let them oppress him by trying to hold him to old family values? Could be: "[Y]ou must find a proper place for everything you see," sounds like a kid chiding his parents for being narrow-minded. Or is he declaring in the end he’ll find the strength to break loose from the regime in which he is now operating? Maybe both.

The song is not an actual letter or phone call home; it’s the singer’s inner thoughts, revealing his struggle: How can I explain what I’m doing and how I stumbled into this? It reminds us you can’t go home again -- in this case not because one has outgrown one’s origins but because one is moving in circles where personal growth is suspect. You can’t tell the singer is making progress because outwardly he’s going nowhere, or worse, he’s sold his soul fairly cheaply. The progress he’s making is strictly within the goon squad and the self-serving hierarchy it protects, so those to whom he is speaking in his imagination, his mother and father, would not recognize it as progress.

Watch out, girls!

Part of establishing one’s identity as a male human is to assert one’s sexuality. If one is not homosexual, one pursues the opposite sex. An "up and coming" young fellow like the singer of "Goon Squad" assumes a girl will find it to her advantage to become "his." She will be, in this song, "a lucky girl." Yet another double entendre has her experiencing her good fortune by putting the singer "in the pink." One is in the pink when one has good health and wellbeing. But the obvious lewd hint at sexual intercourse reflects the male chauvinism, domination over others, and commodification of interpersonal relationships associated with humanity’s many goon squads.

"I could join a chain of males or be the missing link" contains many references. Juxtaposed to the pursuit of women to prove one’s masculinity, it suggests simply being one of the guys. But aurally it alludes to a "chain of mail" -- old-style armor. One’s buddies are one’s protection, especially in a goon squad and its larger establishment. The "missing link" literally refers to a being anthropologists hypothesize must have evolved between the anthropoid apes and Homo sapiens. Does a goon feel less human, less sense of belonging, when he’s "looking for a lucky girl…?" The objective always being to get back with the guys?

All of this is very subtle, indirectly stated, but unmistakably a part of the song, an extremely ingenious interweaving of details. In simultaneously lamenting his plight and boasting of his newfound stature, the song’s persona connects the distant past, the recent past, the present, and the future.

Big implications

Since this song was recorded in 1979, the singer’s parents ostensibly are familiar with fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, perhaps Kafka’s haunting portrayals of isolated individuals stuck in impersonal and amoral systems and Wiesel’s admonitions that the Holocaust can happen again if we are not vigilant. Three commandments articulated by a creator of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. are, "Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Thou shalt not be a victim. Though shalt not be a bystander." These and countless other relevant thoughts might enter the mind of a listener to "Goon Squad." Meanwhile, we’ve seen horrors in many parts of the world that many young people might have trouble linking to their choices of whom to serve when they "leave the nest."

That democracy hangs by a thread is understood by all who explore the question. Demagogues and tyrants pervert such lessons to exploit the desperate, the unaware, or those without conscience. As a global marketplace supplants culture and morality and what "sells" becomes the dominant human value, parents and schools experience increasing pressure to teach children not to think or feel -- as it is put in the motion picture I Heart Huckabees. The alternative is to risk their being nonviable in a world where "nice guys finish last." What is the appropriate balance? Who is to say? In the marketplace, an "I’m OK, you’re OK" attitude acknowledges our not knowing how much goon or how much nice to expect in anyone we meet.

In "Goon Squad," the persona is aware he is supposed to learn not to think or feel: It must be the most essential syllabus item for Goon 101. Hearing his internal struggle, voiced as a stifled cry to his mommy and daddy -- with the fiery Attractions and their sinister downward-marching chords and drums engulfing Costello’s gravelly-indignant voice, thin and inhuman-sounding as if through a bad phone connection -- we experience the ultimate impact of the song in recognizing the chance is not zero that goon squad R us. All of us working stiffs are in some way "good boys" -- and girls -- who meet all their demands to avoid the rod.

...David J. Cantor
davidc@soundstage.com

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