In 1978, Elvis Costello recorded the best known version of “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding.” It’s a great version, there’s no question of that. But a lot of people are surprised to learn that he didn’t write it. This is because his version seems sarcastic. The song was written by Nick Lowe, a man certainly capable of great cynicism. But I think this song is really a self-indictment. It’s an honest question, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?”
When I was in graduate school, I lived with two Brits. I liked them both very much. I still do. They were fun people. But they had a very cynical view of the world and considered themselves very cool. In some ways, I thrived around them. It was knowing them and their incredible self-assuredness that got me to start my first underground newspaper and eventually led to me being a professional writer. But it also brought out a lot of bad things in me, especially being over-conscious of how people viewed me.
As any teenager can tell you, the easiest way to feel un-judged is to be cynical and to pretend that nothing really matters. And I think Nick Lowe suffered from that same thing as many creatively minded people do. So the song is kind of him slapping himself in the face. I know how that goes. I remember writing a song once told from one perspective and thinking that it was so unfair. So I wrote a song from the other perspective. The second song was better, because it was more thoughtful.
I think that America suffers from the same kind of insecurity. This is why we take up 48% of the world’s military spending. We just aren’t right with us. What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding? Everything! It’s for weak people, suckers, or as Donald Trump would say, losers. But I want all the peace, love, and understanding that I can get.
The 4th of July always strikes me as the opposite of peace, love, and understanding. When I was kid, I liked the fireworks. They were colorful. But now they are all illegal. So people get illegal “fireworks” that are not pretty. They are just bombs — loud. And I hate loud sounds. They are the sounds of conflict, hatred, and intolerance. And that is what America is for me to a large extent. If Donald Trump becomes president, it will be a catastrophe, but it will also be fitting.
But on this 4th of July, I want to offer the hope that we can be better — that we won’t laugh at those who are kind. That being an “easy mark” is a sign of greatness, not stupidity. What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding? Not a damned thing.