Don't Criticize Costello for Canceling Concerts in Israel

Wednesday, 02 Jun 2010 01:14 PM

By Jon Friedman

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Elvis Costello, one of the smartest and most socially aware rock-n-roll stars ever, is getting a bad rap these days.

Some people are claiming the 55-year-old Costello is anti-Israel because he pulled out of two concerts in that country, claiming that he didn't want to be seen to show support for the government.

That's a serious charge. Let's break it down.

Costello said in a post on his website: "Sometimes a silence in music is better than adding to the static and so an end to it. I cannot imagine receiving another invitation to perform in Israel, which is a matter of regret, but I can imagine a better time when I would not be writing this."

I've heard idle speculation that Costello made this decision because he didn't want to schlep to the Middle East or he feared for his safety there or wanted to spark publicity for himself or he felt the gigs wouldn't make enough shekels from the appearances. I think these people are all off base. Costello is voicing his opinions — and this is his privilege.

That is the issue: freedom of speech. You might not agree with the man but he deserves to be heard.

My view probably won’t be a popular one, given the mob movement against Costello. I have a few close friends who have moved from New York City to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the years. As staunch Costello fans, they were looking forward to his concerts in their adopted homeland.

Now, Matt, who went with me to Costello's brilliant 1995 and 1996 shows in Manhattan, tells me that Costello is a coward and swears that he'll never go to see him play again.

Then there is Rob, who wore out copies of "My Aim Is True" and "This Year's Model" when they came out. Rob says he is very disappointed in Costello's decision and has all but threatened to stop buying Costello’s albums.

What's the issue here, anyway? I suspect that many of Costello's critics privately share his anxiety. It's even possible to assume that many Israelis raise the same points. But Costello had the audacity to make his opposition in public.

Costello should be permitted to make these kinds of statements without being hounded. He should be guaranteed his right to freedom of speech.

Some folks believe that an artist has no business making provocative commentaries in the first place. This position is ridiculous, particularly when it applies to Costello.

Many of his most enduring songs — such as "Oliver's Army," "Shipbuilding," "Pills and Soap," and "Tramp the Dirt Down" — have strident political themes. In 1983, he sprinkled into his concerts an English Beat song pointedly called "Stand Down Margaret," as in Mrs. Thatcher.

In retrospect, Costello's lone miscalculation might have been to make the comments after he scheduled the concerts. If he felt this way, he probably shouldn't have agreed to play in Israel in the first place. So be it.

My friend John in London makes a valid point, putting the flap in proper perspective for Costello, who once posed for an album cover jokingly depicting himself as the King of America.

Elvis should be flattered, in a way, that so many committed people still take his words seriously, whether they like them or not. Everyone should be guaranteed freedom of speech.


Jon Friedman writes the Media Web column for MarketWatch.com and hosts the Media Matters Web talk show. Click here to read his latest column.

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