In our age of cancel culture, it seems odd to see an artist cancelling himself.
New-wave icon Elvis Costello recently asked radio stations not to play one of the most popular original hits of his storied career, Oliver’s Army. He added that he will no longer perform the song publicly.
The song contains the n-word, which was regularly used in 1978 when it was written but is no longer tolerated in 2022. That fact says something about the advancement of our culture. Thank goodness.
In recent years, radio stations began bleeping the word out, drawing more attention to it. Costello, therefore, felt it was better to simply put the song away.
To the casual listener, Oliver’s Army sounds like a happy, upbeat pop song. In fact, it’s a cutting social commentary. Costello is of Irish heritage, a group targeted and suppressed by the English for centuries. As a member of the British army, his grandfather was referred to as a “white n-word,” thus the context in the song.
The army in Oliver’s Army is the British army, and Oliver is the detested Oliver Cromwell who developed the idea of a paid, standing army which he then used to subjugate the people of Ireland.
Costello wrote the song after performing in Belfast, where a large contingent of heavily-armed British soldiers circulated, harassing the Catholic population.
Using his talents as one of the greatest wordsmiths of the new-wave era, Costello wove this idea into a masterpiece that challenged the concept of colonization and military domination. The lyrics also look empathically at the soldiers sacrificed in this cause, noting that most of them were from regions of high unemployment and poverty where young people had few other prospects in life.
Little seemed to have changed between the Ireland of Cromwell’s era and the Belfast of the 1970s.
Other than our sensitivity to offensive language, is the world really different than it was when Costello penned Oliver’s Army? Great Britain has continued to deteriorate as a world power, but the United States and other NATO members tried to fill the gap they left behind as its empire collapsed.
Today, neocolonialism is alive and well, as are large standing armies and obscene military budgets. So is the myth that militarism is effective in maintaining order. In essence, we’re being told that supporting Oliver Cromwell’s concept of military might is a good investment for our tax dollars.
Military domination is based on the concept of forced compliance. Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated to the British in the first half of the 20th century that this doesn’t work because you can’t rule over people who refuse to be dominated. If massive numbers of people choose not to comply with the wishes of a colonizer, an army is powerless.
In addition, military violence breeds resentment and resistance. Though Cromwell’s rule ended in the 17th century, to some Irish he remains the personification of oppressive foreign domination.
The United States lost wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan and will never gain control in Iraq because its violent ways understandably fail to win the people’s trust. The U.S. finds itself at the end of a long list of failed empires.
If investment in Oliver’s army is futile, what does effective foreign policy look like?
It’s made up of scenarios where all sides benefit, with a particular focus on healthcare and education.
There will always be a need to establish law and order – a small number of criminals are present in every population. But we don’t need high-tech missile systems to hold them accountable.
Elvis Costello may have chosen to cancel his song, but perhaps it’s time the rest of us cancelled the entire idea of Oliver’s army.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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