Ah, the Fairytale Of New York discourse – it truly does come around earlier every year, doesn’t it?
Like buying mince pies or debating whether Die Hard is a Christmas film (it is), the argument over whether or not the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s song is offensive is a staple signal that the festive season is on the way and, more specifically, that I am going to get a tension headache at every tweet and Facebook comment about the controversy.
For any of you who have opted out of the annual discourse, the rib is this – in the second verse of the Christmas classic, Shane MacGowan calls his duet partner ‘an old slut on junk’, with MacColl then singing: ‘You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy f****t.’
On one side, we have people who think that in this day and age, it’s probably not appropriate to have a pub full of people shouting a homophobic slur at the most wonderful time of the year. On the other side, people who think shouting said homophobic slur is somehow in the spirit of Christmas tradition.
Today, BBC Radio 1 came down on the side of the former, announcing that the song had not been banned from its airwaves but that it will be played with edited lyrics – that is, without the slurs. This decision has been made in an effort to not offend its core demographic – listeners aged between 15 and 29, who aren’t typically as attached to a homophobic insult from a song released before they were born.
A statement from the BBC read: ‘We know the song is considered a Christmas classic and we will continue to play it this year, with our radio stations choosing the version of the song most relevant for their audience.’
Bizarrely, this means that something considered too inappropriate to play on Radio 1 is absolutely fine for the listeners of Radio 2, who will hear Fairytale Of New York in all its unedited glory. 6 Music listeners can’t quite decide if it’s offensive and think both sides of the argument are valid, thus giving presenters the choice of which version to play.
Apparently, we’re now using Goldilocks as a template on how to deal with homophobic lyrics, and some generations are just fine with them. Great news, not at all terrifying and problematic!
BBC culture clash aside, I wholeheartedly agree with Radio 1’s decision to play an edited version of Fairytale Of New York. I’m Irish, I can’t go five minutes at home in December without hearing it, and I love it, I do. But what I don’t love is groups of people, arms around each other, gleefully roaring a word that has been used to insult, scare and dehumanise LGBTQ+ people for decades.
I hate even more the annual tradition of people falling over themselves to rationalise using it. ‘I don’t mean f****t as a slur!’ ‘It’s a Christmas classic!’ ‘Everything is too PC these days!’
Nobody complains about the other F-word, or C-word, or N-word being bleeped from chart songs on the radio. Nobody screamed ‘we’re being censored!’ when N***as In Paris by Jay Z and Kanye West was played with part of its title bleeped out or replaced. Nobody has started a petition to get Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP played in its entirety on the Radio 2 school run.
However, the moment someone so much as suggests ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be playing a slur on daytime radio that is so offensive it needs to be starred out in the press and is used in hate crimes’, they’re considered politically correct snowflakes.
But someone complaining about Ashley Banjo saying Black Lives Matter on Britain’s Got Talent, or a Sainsbury’s Christmas ad featuring a black family? Nah, they’re just standing up for British values.
The thing is, I just don’t find it that big a deal to say that if something makes a large group of people uncomfortable, it should be changed. Yes, in 1987, when Fairytale Of New York was released, it was considered fine to say ‘f****t’.
But a year later, Section 28 was passed, stopping schools and councils from ‘promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. It was a different time, and a horrific time for LGBTQ+ people. Section 28 was rightly eradicated in 2003. Things change.
We (well, most of us) accepted this year that blackface in Little Britain wasn’t acceptable nowadays, and removed episodes from streaming; Gone With The Wind is still broadcast but with a warning explaining that slavery equals bad. Bleeping out something hugely offensive isn’t betraying the past or changing our history, it’s just moving on and being a more decent society. And anyway, it’s not new news. Back in 1992, Kirsty MacColl replaced the lyrics with ‘you’re cheap and you’re haggard’ while performing on Top Of The Pops, and in 2018, Shane MacGowan said he didn’t mind if radio stations bleeped the offending words, and nobody had a conniption or claimed they were being censored by *checks notes* the people who sang the song.
It is deeply frustrating that every year, we still have to have this conversation, that LGBTQ+ people have to repeatedly explain why it’s upsetting to hear this smear used against them held up as a beacon of Christmas joy and sung happily on Gavin and Stacey while their opponents claim that actually, it’s a core British value to use it, it doesn’t mean what you think it means and you’re a snowflake for suggesting otherwise.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be a two-week row, with ruddy-faced men shouting on Good Morning Britain about the good old days when they could call gay men p**fs without fear of retribution.
Fairytale Of New York could just be treated like any other song, with its expletives bleeped or replaced, and we could move on with our lives, or – here’s an idea – maybe focus on more pressing issues, like the Government pulling funding for projects tackling the bullying of LGBTQ+ kids in English schools.
And even if it is bleeped, nobody is stopping you from singing the original lyrics in your car. But if you’re fighting so hard for the BBC to play Fairytale Of New York unedited, and fighting for your right to sing it, maybe ask yourself why you’re so keen to be allowed to shout ‘f****t’ every Christmas.
Hint – it’s not because of Christmas spirit.
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