A lot of buzz in the soul-patch-o-sphere about Elvis Costello’s recent appearance with Elmo on Sesame Street. I must confess to ambivalence. I’m a devoted fan of both cultural institutions (meaning E.C. and Sesame; Elmo hasn’t earned the designation), and I’ve enjoyed some of the celebrity star turns on PBS’s flagship kids’ show. My problem isn’t with the cognitive dissonance of New Wave’s Angry Young Man doing children’s television, for anyone paying attention since Costello’s marvelously hokey “Spinning Songbook” tour of 1986 knows that E.C. forsook that persona a Zuckerberg’s-lifetime ago and has since embraced mainstream showmanship with humor and élan. (I loved him on Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special.)
It’s the song choice and Muppet choice, I think. That they reached back to the Angry Young phase, and specifically to one of the very first blasts of it—rejiggering the almost-debut 1977 single “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and its statement-of-purpose opening line, “Oh, I used to be disgusted/ And now I try to be amused” as “A Monster Went and Ate My Red 2” and “Oh, I want to count to ten now/ But it’s something I can’t do”—well, must every act of cultural transgression eventually be defanged and cutesified? (And with Elmo in E.C. drag, no less?) Personally, I would have much preferred a remake of the 1982 song “Tears Before Bedtime,” both because it lends itself to kiddie interpretation and because, with its weird multi-tracked backing vocals, it already sounds like it’s a duet between Elvis Costello and a bunch of Muppets.
A larger point: It feels like every famous person traipses down the Street nowadays. I rather miss the innate Sesame-ness of the celebrity appearances of my childhood, when it seems that the visitors were always righteous and beautiful black people like Lena Horne and Richard Pryor, dropping by while in the neighborhood to uplift the race. Somehow, the latter-day cameos by the likes of Seth Rogen and Michelle Monaghan just don’t have the same oomph. (Though there is something compelling about the wrongness of Robert De Niro’s legendary master class with Elmo, which upset adult viewers while leaving small children puzzled.)
As much as I understand the universal love for Sesame Street and every decent famous person’s innate desire to appear on it, I’d rather some public figures in the arts remain indisputably of the adult world, never deflating their own mystique by counting to ten or reciting the alphabet in the presence of talking felt. Herewith, a list of well-known people who should never appear on Sesame Street:
Tom Verlaine of the band Television