Oliver’s Army

I’ve been listening to the album Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & the Attractions a lot recently (and currently listening to Kate Bush while drinking a glass of red wine: I think at some point I became someone’s mother without noticing). The album’s best-known song is undoubtedly “Oliver’s Army,” and every time I hear the song on the radio, I think, You never have that song much anymore.

The obvious explanation for that is the following section:


Only takes one itchy trigger,
One more widow, one less white n*gger


Yup, the N word. Though being prefaced by the word white does give it a little context, giving it a different meaning to the word on its own, to say the least. The term has a bit of history, being used in different contexts at different times to refer to various disadvantaged white populations.

Its presence in this song is generally believed to refer to its use to label Catholics in Northern Ireland during that region’s period of sustained violence known as the Troubles. There’s not much evidence for its use there though, and I personally think it refers to the young men from disadvantated backgrounds enlisted to serve in the British army (which is what the song as a whole is about).

Anyway, what I’m really thinking about is the fact that while the song isn’t played much on the radio anymore, whenever it is played, it’s usually never censored, regardless of the time of day.

The only significant time it was censored, on BBC Radio 6 Music in 2013, there was a strong public backlash. But why hadn’t it been censored before then? The N word is one of the most taboo words there is, so why is it OK for it be played publicly? I suspect in this specific case, the fact that it’s paired with white might help to lessen its impact, in some people’s eyes.

Still, I’ve noticed that censorship on the radio still isn’t generally as strong as on TV (no swearing before nine, and content warnings after then, here in Ireland at least). Maybe the simplest explanation is that we simply can’t hear words as clearly in a song compared to regular speech, or might even misinterpret them. I know I’d certainly never noticed the white n*gger part for years. This might also explain why the supermarket I worked in in college saw fit to play the uncensored album version of “Creep” by Radiohead (You’re so f*cking special).

Not actually seeing the person see the word also perhaps reduces its impact (and makes it harder to hear).

And maybe people are more willing to censor a word from a film or a TV programme because it’s just one word from many, and doesn’t really affect the overall work much.

But a song is short, and its words are limited, so changing or removing any is a bigger deal.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad I now own the album and can enjoy the song in full whenever I want.

3 thoughts on “Oliver’s Army

  1. My theory is that it’s so obviously being sung in the character of an awful, racist, fascistic despot that nobody feels uncomfortable with the N word being used. If it had been more ambiguous, if people had suspected it was Elvis Costello rather than a fictional character saying it, then it would’ve been much more controversial. It’s the same as how we can read Huckleberry Finn without thinking Mark Twain is a racist, because the language is so authentic to its characters.


  2. Ahhh, this is one of my all time favourites, and I have a feeling it’s 40 years old this year, was it released around ‘79?

    I love it for all sorts of reasons, the tune for a start, is a happy ear worm but as you rightly point out it has controversial lyrics. I was interested in your take on it, as that’s a new viewpoint for me, and similarly with the comment above, I can understand the rationale behind both too but I grew up with a slightly different perspective.

    As I understood it, the song was about the army being the only job opportunity for young men particularly in Newcastle, Liverpool and the like. There was no social investment in these areas, they were merely cannon fodder and the army relied on these areas to fill its ranks but these boys were never going to amount to anything, become officers or be valued, hence the term.

    As a protest song, it appeals to my left leaning views, I don’t find it raciest because to me the term is sung by the person who has been made to feel that way. He would ‘rather be anywhere else’ but that’s all he’s good for and he resents it.

    I’m away for a listen, it’s been too long already 😊


  3. It is hard for many, as well as I, to tell what sung words are. When I determine what a line in a song actually is, I often remember that event in detail.

    I have speculated that “The Game of Love” doesn’t get played often even on those stations on account of being homo-exclusionary, though not with hate.


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