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Elvis Costello and M.I.A. Receive British Empire Honors — and Accept With Mixed Feelings

"It confirms my long held suspicion nobody really listens to the words," Costello writes.

Elvis Costello
Stephen Done / courtesy Shore Fire Media

UPDATED: Elvis Costello and M.I.A., two British musicians renowned for provocative lyrics and statements, have received official British Empire honors — and both have responded with profoundly mixed emotions. The honors, presented as part of the annual Queen’s Birthday Honors, recognize various British citizens for their service to the arts, medicine, charity and other categories. Not surprisingly, both Costello and M.I.A. reflected their mixed emotions in statements issued shortly after the announcement — and thanked their mothers.

Costello wrote in an open letter that he is “happy to accept this very surprising honor.” But he’s not doing so without a combination of cheekiness and doubt about becoming an OBE — as would be expected, given the many lyrics he’s written over the years that take a dim view of British policies and politics.

“To be honest, I’m pretty tickled to receive this acknowledgement for my ‘Services To Music’,” he writes, “as it confirms my long held suspicion nobody really listens to the words in songs or the outcome might have been somewhat different.”

He explains his decision at length. “I knew that I must put old doubts and enmities aside and muster what little grace I possess. When I looked down the list of past honorees, those who have accepted and those who have declined for reasons of conviction or cantankerousness, I came to the conclusion that I am, perhaps, closer in spirit to Eric Morecambe than to Harold Pinter, as anyone who has heard me play the piano will attest. Even so, it is hard to receive anything named for the ‘British Empire,’ and all that term embodies, without a pause for reflection.”

Costello says that when he first discussed the honor with his mother, he told her, “Of course I won’t be accepting the award.” But his mum talked him into it — even in the same conversation that she called the current prime minister “rubbish.”

The rocker himself has been known to criticize past prime ministers, as in his late ’80s song “Tramp the Dirt Down,” which anticipated the satisfaction of stomping on the soil above Margaret Thatcher’s grave-to-be. Even his most recent album, 2018’s “Look Now,” includes a song — albeit a less severely pointed one — about the decline of the British Empire, called “I Let the Sun Go Down.”

But he says he thought about how both his grandfathers fought in France in 1914 and thought their service was worth honoring. “It is in memory of those two British Army soldiers, and because my Mam told me to do it, that I can proudly accept this award.”

M.I.A. (born Mathangi Arulpragasam) was named Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE — the same honor the Beatles received in 1965) paid tribute to her mother, who she said was “one of the 2 women in England who hand stitched these medals for the last 30 years.”

“I’m honoured to have this honour, as it means alot to my Mother,” she wrote on Instagram. “I want to honour what my mum spent many hours of her life doing. “She spent her life in England hand sewing thousands of medals for the Queen. No matter how I feel or what I think, my Mother was extremely proud of the job she had. It’s a very unique situation for me where I get to honour her most classiest minimum wage job ever.”

M.I.A. is of Sri Lankan descent but was born in London and is a British citizen. Her career has been spiked with controversy, ranging from her father’s history as a Tamil revolutionary to her flashing a middle finger before countless millions of people during her performance with Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl, along with multiple politically loaded statements.

These are hardly the most controversial statements involving a royal honor and a musician. John Lennon famously returned his MBA in 1969, writing with some cheek of his own that he was giving it up “as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”

Other musical OBEs include Eric Clapton, Elton John, Bono, Ray Davies, the Bee Gees, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, Sting, Jimmy Page, Annie Lennox, Tom Jones, David Gilmour, Bob Geldof, Bryan Ferry, Ian Anderson and Kylie Minogue.

Costello’s complete letter, printed under the presumably Bond-referencing headline “In Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (with British spellings and punctuation left intact):

 

I am happy to accept this very surprising honour.

I have to admit that my first reaction, upon receiving an “O.H.M.S.” letter was, “Oh no, they’ve finally tumbled me”. For those of you who enjoy irony, I was standing in my dressing room, at the “Queen Elizabeth Theatre” at the time. That’s Vancouver, British Columbia, you know. The pink has stained the map all over the world.

Reading the letter, I thought for a while, then folded the document and slept on the news until the morning when I could place a call to England and speak to my mother, Lillian MacManus.

Lillian is almost the same age as Her Majesty, so I regard myself as immensely fortunate that I am still able to seek her counsel. She suffered a severe stroke last year, just two days before my 64th birthday, but thanks to the prompt attention of an incredible NHS specialist ward and the sustained dedication and kindness of her home care team, she has recovered her wits and words to a truly remarkable degree.

“I began my call by telling my Mam that the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, had put my name forward for an O.B.E.”

“But she’s rubbish,” Lillian cut in before I could complete the news. Well, that aside, I said, “Of course, I won’t be accepting the award.”  I didn’t get much further with that statement either. I listened carefully to my mother’s argument that if something is deserved then one must be gracious in acceptance.

So, as a good lad, who likes to do what will make his Mam most proud, I knew that I must put old doubts and enmities aside and muster what little grace I possess.

When I looked down the list of past honorees; those who have accepted and those who have declined for reasons of conviction or cantankerousness, I came to the conclusion that I am, perhaps, closer in spirit to Eric Morecambe than to Harold Pinter, as anyone who has heard me play the piano will attest. Even so, it is hard to receive anything named for the “British Empire”, and all that term embodies, without a pause for reflection.

Both my grandfathers were sent to France in 1914 to fight for King and Country and, I suppose, the Empire too, despite the conflict not really being their family squabble. Jim Ablett ended up spending three years in a P.O.W. camp in Lower Silesia, while Pat McManus was left wounded in a trench, when all he’d started out to do was to play the bugle or the trumpet. Pat was posted “Missing, Presumed Dead” before turning up in a military hospital and upon his recovery, being posted to Imperial India.

I can’t say that the future and fortunes offered to such men upon their return home were anything more than an insult to add to their physical, mental and spiritual injuries. You had to make your own luck then but that’s the way it’s been ever since. One hundred years have passed and the British Empire doesn’t exist any more but our family is still thriving and playing music. So, it is in memory of those two British Army soldiers and because my Mam told me to do it, that I can proudly accept this award.

It would be a lie to pretend that I was brought up to have a great sense of loyalty to the Crown, let alone notions of Empire. I used to think a change might come but when one considers the kind of mediocre entrepreneur who might be foisted upon us as a President, it’s enough to make the most hard-hearted “Republican” long for an ermine stole, a sceptre and an orb.

To be honest, I’m pretty tickled to receive this acknowledgement for my “Services To Music”, as it confirms my long held suspicion nobody really listens to the words in songs or the outcome might have been somewhat different.