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When does a song become unsingable? A few days ago, singer-songwriter Elvis Costello revealed he would no longer be performing one of his songs, “Oliver’s Army”, at live shows. He also called on radio stations to stop broadcasting it. The 1979 track is one of Costello’s best-known and best-loved, a deceptively upbeat song that somewhat obliquely tackles the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the second verse, Costello sings the phrase “white n*****”, a slur that was historically used against the Irish, including his grandfather. For decades, the lyric was largely uncensored in broadcasts of the track; in recent years, this has changed. Speaking to The Telegraph last weekend, Costello argued that broadcasters were “making it worse by bleeping it”, because they were calling attention to the term. “Just don’t play the record,” he said, adding: “People hear that word go off like a bell and accuse me of something that I didn’t intend.” Our endless cultural self-analysis – the perennial redrawing of the boundaries of good taste – can be exasperating, of course. But it is also necessary. Anything else would constitute intellectual and moral stagnation.
It’s easy to see why Costello would feel compelled to reassess the song. In the years since its release, the “n-word” has become, for extensively documented reasons, taboo for white artists to use, regardless of the context. Randy Newman used the word many times in his 1974 song “Rednecks”, a satirical number written from the perspective of a southern racist, which also called out racist hypocrisy across America’s northern states. It didn’t make the headlines that Costello’s proclamation did, but Newman stated in 2015 that he has stopped performing “Rednecks” live, explaining: “Things have got better in some ways for black people in this country but not significantly. However, the ‘n-word’ is really anathema now.”
It’s not just musicians who are reassessing their work in a modern context. In 2020, the comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for instance, removed multiple episodes that included instances of Black and brownface from streaming services, at the behest of the show’s creators. A spate of other TV series (30 Rock; the US version of The Office) have undergone similar reforms. But these decisions are not always received enthusiastically. Surely, the argument goes, there must be space for toothsome satire in the arts. Surely, depiction need not equate to endorsement. Surely, context must be taken into account. When the infamous homophobic slur is censored in The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, or the Rolling Stones announce they will no longer perform the skin-crawling lyrics of “Brown Sugar”, that is one thing. These are corrective actions, taken to avoid perpetuating the songs’ harmful racial and homophobic sentiments. The racial slur in “Oliver’s Army”, however, was written with full awareness of its horrible implications; the condemnation was baked into the usage. The Blackface in Always Sunny was similarly knowing, a transparent lampoon of its characters’ racism and obliviousness. So why is it necessary to censor this?
The reason is fairly clear-cut, once you boil it down to a term that provokes an allergic reaction in so much of the British media commentariat: “political correctness”. This, along with its brother “cancel culture”, is a bogeyman: a term used chiefly as a pejorative, when all it really translates to is harm reduction. It’s an undeniable fact that some people would listen to Costello singing “white n******” and be upset by it. Removing the phrase – or removing the entire song from the airwaves – simply reduces the chances of this happening. It isn’t an act of censorship, but an act of decency.
The thing is, there is space for this kind of satire. It’s tempting to pigeonhole Costello’s decision as an act of erasure, but what is being erased? The song still exists in its original, uncensored form. It can still be streamed easily and ubiquitously. Even if it were to be removed from Spotify (which almost certainly wouldn’t happen), it would still be available on countless CDs, on YouTube and on vinyl.
Costello is not telling fans not to listen to the song. If anything, in letting people seek it out themselves, he’s encouraging people to engage with the lyrics, and the context, more than they might as a passive radio listener. The same goes for other similarly problematic songs, and for TV series. Those wishing to watch the Blackface episodes of Always Sunny or 30 Rock still have avenues through which to do so – DVDs and online piracy being the largest two – but they must watch them only as a conscious choice.
In retiring “Oliver’s Army”, Costello has ducked out of the tiresome culture wars and maintained his autonomy as the artist. He understands that context matters, that satire that was once sharp and incisive can be blunted by time. So fans should rest easy – they’re not losing out from Costello’s decision. They of all people should know, his aim is always true.