The Song Elvis Costello Will Never Play Again

Throughout the history of popular music, offensive words and phrases have often made it into the lyrics. Sometimes, the offensiveness emerged from the fact that the songs' writers were reflecting the attitudes of their day, and the lyrics seem cringe-inducing through the lens of modern-day sensibilities. For example, the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" makes light of slavery, as USA Today notes, while Taylor Swift's "Picture to Burn" contains an anti-gay slur. In other cases, the song was written deliberately to prick the listeners' ears, perhaps because the songwriter wanted to make a point. One example is Guns 'n Roses' "One in a Million," in which Axl Rose uses racial and anti-gay slurs to complain about the culture shock he experienced when moving to L.A.

A song by English singer/songwriter Elvis Costello lies somewhere between these two extremes. Back in the late 1970s, he wrote a song about the political and ethnic violence that was taking place in Northern Ireland at the time. Unfortunately, Costello used a word that, though he might not have intended any offense in using it, doesn't fly today. As such, he's refusing to perform the track ever again and has asked radio stations to stop playing it.

Costello is retiring 'Oliver's Army' because it uses an unacceptable word

Costello's 1979 song "Oliver's Army," according to the songwriter himself, is an anti-war message inspired by the young soldiers he'd met who were involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as the experiences of his own family. Specifically, as he told The Telegraph, at the time some English referred to Northern Irish Catholics with a pejorative that, in the U.S., is a racial slur. Costello used it in the lyrics. "Only takes one itchy trigger; One more widow, one less white [N-word]," the song says. Costello himself noted that the slur was used against his own grandfather — "it's historically a fact," he said – but today the word doesn't land well on listeners' ears.

As such, Costello is not only refusing to perform the song ever again, he's also asking radio stations to stop playing it entirely. BBC News notes that some British radio stations have, for a few years, been playing the song with a "Bleep!" where the offensive word was. Costello claims that the censorship just calls attention to the word, and he'd rather stations just stop playing it entirely.