Musical Cultural Relevance is Cyclical
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Today is a big day. We have a new president elect, Donald J Trump. The Donald’s ability to prevail in this election got me thinking while I was at the gym earlier listening to Elvis Costello. I was playing the song “Oliver’s Army”, which is about a man named Oliver Lyttelton, who was Winston Churchill’s President of the Board of Trade – a cabinet position in the United Kingdom in charge of, among other things, employment. Inasmuch as history repeats itself, songs written to highlight historic events inevitably become relevant as those events are repeated.
The song lyrics talk about how people looking for work can always go into the army and kill others. ‘Oliver’s Army’ was therefore a pejorative referring to the militarization of the non-working populace and glibly refers to these people killing “white nigger[s]” as part of a “professional career”. Notwithstanding any political affiliations, I think that we can agree that this song was relevant for its time period. It was initially released in 1979 and was aired during the first day of broadcast on MTV in 1981.
In 1993, the British group Blur covered “Oliver’s Army”. You might remember Blur as the English band that most Americans were aligned against in favor of Oasis because of a legendary feud between them. However, Blur was known for being patriotic, and their cover of Costello’s anti-war song was reinterpreted by a new generation that was watching revelations of the Iran-Contra fiasco. One of the central characters to Iran-Contra was Oliver North, and so ‘Oliver’s Army’ referred to him in 1993.
Now that Mr. Trump has won the presidency, the song seems relevant once more even though there is no longer anyone actually named Oliver. While I was at the gym this morning, I really started to consider the lyrics. As this song is reinterpreted by new generations, what’s interesting is that the younger people listening may have no idea what references the original Costello song was making – who is Winston Churchill?