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Will Self-Censoring Soon Become The Norm In Music?

Elvis Costello

Not only Elvis Costello has declared that he doesn’t want to play his song “Oliver’s Army” anymore because the lyrics contain the N-word, but he has also begged radio stations to stop playing it. In an interview with the Telegraph, he said: “If I wrote that song today, maybe I’d think twice about it. That’s what my grandfather was called in the British army – it’s historically a fact – but people hear that word go off like a bell and accuse me of something that I didn’t intend.”

I understand why he is uncomfortable with the line – “Only takes one itchy trigger/One more widow, one less white n…”– but isn’t it the intention that counts? Some radio played the song and bleeped the word, but Costello thought that it is “making it worse” because this was “highlighting it then.” The song has an anti-war message and, as he explained, it was a slur used at the time: removing the word would make the song far less powerful. Signs of the times, Mark Twain’s classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (among other classics) is also in trouble for the same reason, and a lot of people wonder when should we start worrying about this.

During their last tour, the Rolling Stones have been playing samples of their large catalog sans one of their classics: the 1969 “Brown Sugar,” and just like in Costello’s case, it was self-censoring. When asked about the absence of the song, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards declared to the LA Times: “You picked up on that, huh?” Richards said. “I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it. At the moment, I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this shit. But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.” Jagger added: “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, we’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes. We might put it back in.”

It seems that they didn’t want to have to explain themselves over and over at a time when everything is under tough scrutiny and can become the source of controversy. But “We might put it back in”? Do they think we are going to go back to the good old times and that this is just a passing phase? I don’t think so.

The song “Brown Sugar,” a double entendre for “drugs and girls” according to Jagger, has lyrics with explicit references to slave ships, house boys, and Black girls, which makes us easily forget about the drug metaphor and only think about the hyper-sexualization of Black women under the white gaze… obviously not something you want to hear in 2021.

Should we expect more and more self-censoring? Culture is changing but I predict an epidemic of banned old songs in the near future. Plenty of them have something offensive, that can be interpreted as racist, sexist, homophobic… and very few songs written in the ‘60s and ‘70s can escape the cancel culture police. Here are examples of “problematic” songs, and even more controversial ones here: nobody is spared. There were so many “little girls” in the lyrics that now surely interpreted as pedophilia, there were so many culturally inappropriate words, Can we even keep Elton John’s “Island Girl” with its “black as coal but she burns like a fire,” Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” with its “Don’t say a word, my virgin child, just let your inhibitions run wild,” Guns N’ Roses’ “One in a Million” and its “Immigrants and f****ts, they make no sense to me,” The Beatles’ “Run for Your Life” and its “I’d rather see you dead, little girl/Than to be with another man”… There is certainly no shortage of problematic lyrics and these are far from being unfamiliar songs by obscure artists. Are we going to ban 50% of the repertoire of the past?

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