There’s a surefire way to tell Christmas has arrived. Forget the Oxford Street lights. Forget the sudden appearance of stacks of selection boxes in your supermarket. Forget Noddy Holder’s pained cry, ‘It’s Chriiiistmaaas!’
No, these days it isn’t really Christmas until we have the annual handwringing over The Pogues’ song ‘Fairytale of New York’.
And it’s here. It has arrived. As predictably as pine trees in your local garden centre and dads getting boxes of tinsel from the attic, the argument over Shane MacGowan’s ‘offensive’ lyrics is back. Happy Christmas, everyone!
This year, the annual blizzard of snowflakery over MacGowan’s lyrical masterpiece has been started by the BBC. The Beeb has announced that Radio 1 will play a censored version of ‘Fairytale of New York’, while Radio 2 will play the original. The reasoning seems to be that the mostly youthful listeners to Radio 1 will be horrified, possibly even traumatised, if they hear the word ‘faggot’, while the older, round-the-block listeners to Radio 2 won’t give a fig.
Every single year the storm over the greatest Christmas song of all time gets more ridiculous. The allegedly offensive verse is of course this one:
‘You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot / Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it’s our last.’
Those words are sung by the late, great Kirsty MacColl. In their stirring duet, MacColl and MacGowan play the parts of Irish immigrants in New York whose dreams have been crushed by folly, drink and drugs. They reminisce, they argue. ‘You’re a bum / You’re a punk / You’re an old slut on junk’, sings MacGowan.
And then they make up. In lines guaranteed to make all drunk blokes of a certain age tear up, MacColl sings ‘You took my dreams from me’, and MacGowan replies: ‘I kept them with me babe / I put them with my own / Can’t make it all alone / I’ve built my dreams around you.’
How dare the suits and pen-pushers at the BBC meddle with such poetry? Who do they think they are? They aren’t fit to lace Shane MacGowan’s boots – far less interfere with his greatest lyrical achievement (and with his back catalogue, that’s saying something).
This year Radio 1 will play a version of the song in which they use the word ‘haggard’ and will bleep out the word ‘slut’. The aim of this Orwellian rewriting of lyrics is to erase the song’s homophobic and gender-based insults.
But the controversial lines aren’t homophobic or misogynistic. These insults aren’t made against gay people or women. Rather, they’re the highly personal, emotional brickbats of a couple whose dreams of the fancy life in New York City — ‘cars big as bars… rivers of gold’ — have been shattered. The idea that MacGowan and MacColl use these words in order to belittle gay people or women is perverse, and an insult to these two great artists. Context matters. In this context, it is the bitter cries of two people looking back on their lives after getting blind drunk on Christmas Eve.
If you take offence at an imaginary, wonderfully woven lyrical argument between two characters created by the master Shane MacGowan, then I’m afraid the problem is you, not ‘Fairytale of New York’.
The song is a story. It has real meaning. There’s a reason it is the UK’s most played Christmas song of the 21st century. It connects with people. It is tragic and hopeful and beautiful. The BBC should stop fretting over how young listeners might feel and instead listen to the wise words of Kirsty MacColl’s mother, Jean. In 2007, when the BBC first flirted with the idea of censoring the song, she said any such move would be ‘pathetic’ and ‘absolute nonsense’.
‘Really this is too ridiculous. Shane has written the most beautiful song and these characters live, they really live, and you have such sympathy for them. These are a couple of characters who are not in the first flush of youth, I wouldn’t have thought. They are what they are, this is the way they speak… It’s like a play and it’s very amusing and sad, and it’s a great song.’
Absolutely right. And clipboard-wielders at the BBC have no more right to alter this song than the bosses at the National Gallery have to go around hiding painted penises with fig leaves. Or as MacGowan pithily said of the ‘Fairytale’ controversy last year: ‘Fuck that. Nobody in the band thinks that’s worth a second thought.’
The BBC’s aim to protect younger listeners from offensive words is the worst justification of all. The young are already too mollycoddled, too safe-spaced. Exposing them to allegedly shocking words, and encouraging them to understand their context is important.
So, hands off ‘Fairytale of New York’. It’s perfect as it is. The BBC did a U-turn in 2007 and ended up playing the original song. They must do the same again this year. Play Shane’s song, you scumbags, you maggots.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.