Artists could follow Elvis Costello by ‘self-censoring’ outdated songs - expert

17 January 2022

A music industries expert has suggested that other major artists could follow in the footsteps of English-Irish singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, and ‘self-censor’ historic songs that contain offensive or outdated lyrics.

Costello has asked radio stations not to play 1979 hit ‘Oliver’s Army’ and pledged to remove the song from his live shows owing to a racial slur when depicting the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Dr Matt Grimes (pictured), senior lecturer in Music Industries and Radio at Birmingham City University, has suggested history and art can be challenged and rewritten, but extremist lyrics and incitement to hatred must not be afforded radio airplay.

He said: “I can see other artists following in the footsteps of Elvis Costello and ‘self-censoring’ or ‘self-cancelling’.

There is a conflict between music reflecting a particular time, place and space, and where politics and culture are now. However, history and art are also there to be challenged and rewritten – recent developments around the Colston Statue in Bristol being a prime example.

“Fan opinions over Elvis Costello’s comments will no doubt be split, however musicians and songwriters do have a responsibility to consider their back catalogue and whether any material can be readdressed and recontextualised, which is effectively what Costello is now doing.

“Being a big fan of punk, I know there will always be material from the punk canon that some people will find offensive. The counter-argument, of course, is that music has always served as a viable platform for politics of all persuasions. So, there is also a conflict there alongside free speech and artistic expression.

“A good example is Morrissey, who has both a cult-like following from some sections of the public and is seen as divisive, abrasive and outspoken by others.

“Of course, radio stations already censor some music. However, anything that incites hatred has no place in society and this is reflected in OFCOM regulations for radio station output, limiting airplay for anything containing what may be deemed as extremist lyrics.”

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