The Pogues Fairytale of New York is a firm favourite across Britain and Ireland but is subject to constant scrutiny for it's offensive lyrics
"Christmas comes this time each year...." and with the arrival of the Christmas season comes all the traditions of the holiday. Presents, food, the old familiar films and the debates about inappropriate lyrics in Christmas songs!
Yes, it has felt like the perennial hot potato has been the controversy that has raged around the duet Baby its cold outside and the supposed depiction of sexually aggressive advances, which we discuss here, but this year, the spotlight has focused on a song that is often considered the most popular Christmas season pop song in both the UK and Ireland, Fairytale of New York by the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl.
The song was written by Jem Finer and Shane McGowan of the group The Pogues. It had a long gestation in the writing process, first taking shape in 1985 before emerging from the recording studio in August 1987. It is written in the style of an Irish folk song, features an Irish immigrant character as the male vocal. He is in the drunk tank (The Police cell for drunks arrested by the Police) and remembering Christmases past. An old man alongside him is singing an old Irish ballad and the narrator settles to sleep and dream about a lost love. The rest of the song is a call and response between the male and female protagonists as they reminisce and argue on a Christmas Eve. their youthful optimism is destroyed by alcoholism and drug addiction and their relationship descends into a heated exchange of insults and finally a heartbreaking forlorn return to hope and love wrapped in nostalgic interdependence.
It is a powerful and emotive song, which captures the joy, nostalgia and reverie of the Christmas season along with the bitterness and regret of a failing relationship, Kirsty MacCol's haunting performance has taken on a further emotive, painful texture after her sudden and horrendous death in front of her teenage sons in a boating accident in Mexico, on December 8th 2000. The plaintive hope in the melody and delivery bringing tears of joy and injustice to even the hardest of listeners.
A bitter scandal has emerged over the use of homophobic and misogynistic slurs in the lyric as the couple spit insults at each other. What is deemed acceptable has changed over the lifetime of the song, with social attitudes frowning upon the use of words in such a way.
McGowan spoke of the context of the lyrics on the song's release in 1987;
“My part is the man who’s got kicked out of the drunk tank on Christmas Eve night. His wife’s in hospital. She’s ill, and he’s just out of his skull. Then they’re having a row and he keeps on bringing it on back to the good times and she keeps handing out all the shit. I haven’t got anything in common with the actual part that I’m singing – Yul Brynner isn’t really the King of Siam – except in the sense that I’ve had arguments with women and it’s usually ended up with some kind of reconciliation.”
The lyrics have been controversial from the start, although not always the same words as the ones that cause offence today. Originally, the BBC required MacColl changed the word "arse" for "ass" for the Top of the Pops performance. In a live performance in 1992 MacColl changed the words further singing "You're cheap and you're haggard", replacing the word "faggot".
The word "faggot" has emerged from North American English as a derogatory term for a homosexual man. "Slut" is a word that has been around since the days of Geoffrey Chaucer and is recognised as an insult towards women, implying that she has loose sexual morals or many casual sexual partners. In the line "an old slut on junk" is an insult to suggest the female character is of loose sexual morals and a drug addict, Junk being slang for heroine.
In December 2017 BBC Radio 1 edited the words "faggot" and "slut" from the track to "avoid causing offence". Whilst the decision was ridiculed by MacColl's mother and the band themselves described the situation as "amusing" the BBC later announced a reversal of the position. Confusion was caused by the ban only being implemented on Radio 1, while the traditionally more conservative Radio 2 continued to play the original, unedited version.
The following year Irish State Broadcaster RTE became the centre of a storm as they censored the lyrics before then reversing the decision in the face of a backlash.
Shane MacGowan defended the use of the lyric in a statement released that year stating:
"The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate. Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it but she is not intended to offend! She is just supposed to be an authentic character and not all characters in songs and stories are angels or even decent and respectable, sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty to tell the story effectively. If people don't understand that I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible, then I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word, but I don't want to get into an argument."
The song was once again under fire in December 2019 when Alex Dyke, a presenter on BBC Radio Solent, announced he would not play the track, calling it a "nasty, nasty song" and "an offensive pile of downmarket chav bilge". Perhaps the irony of finding a song insulting then using a disparaging word for people of lower social class in his reasoning is lost on Alex.
The year 2020 has once again seen BBC Radio 1 announce the intention to play a censored version with "faggot" and "slut" removed, whilst Radio 2 would once again play the unedited original. 6 Music presenters were offered the chance to decide which version they would like to play.
The decision has become the the front line in a heated culture war regarding the freedom of expression and the growing trend to censor anything deemed uncomfortable. The demographic split on this sort of issue is crystallised in the fact that Radio 1, the station aimed at a younger audience is censoring the lyric whilst Radio 2, aimed at middle aged listeners is comfortable to maintain the original lyric.
Laurence Fox, a British actor who is becoming increasingly recognised for his outspoken opinions on political correctness and freedom of speech, was quick to criticise the announcement. What has made the controversy so much more explosive is the response from the Pogues twitter account: "Fuck off you little herrenvolk shite"
"Herrenvolk" was the "master race" democracy concept proposed by the Nazi party in Germany. It disenfranchised minority groups to only allow the majority ethnic group to participate. Fox was quick to respond by quoting the original lyrics of the song back at the group :
It remains unclear as to whether any member of the band is involved in the Pogues twitter account content but once more a debate regarding the use of derogatory name calling seems to descend into a slanging match of derogatory name calling with blinding speed. The use of labels such as "racist" or "Nazi" hold such power in the current social climate it is a constant source of wonder as to why they have not been deemed offensive or hate speech by our censorious betters. It would seem that McGowan's desire to not be drawn into an argument on the issue may have been trumped by the need to be seen to be aligned with the politically correct forces of the age.
Not that the Pogues are probably concerned. All publicity is good publicity and such combative headlines grab the attention and will probably boost sales, the writers will cash in whichever version is played or downloaded. It is estimated that the tune provides McGowan and Finer around £400,000 per year, coming second in the Christmas Song Money Earners Top Ten.
The song of course is relentlessly popular and often tops polls for the nation's favourite Christmas song. It has taken the Christmas Song World Cup Title twice (2008 & 2012) and was the runner up in 2016. It is considered a firm favourite to reach the final stage of the tournament once again this December. You can vote in the competition throughout December by heading to the Christmas Song World Cup Page here or clicking on the picture below
Full original lyrics :
It was Christmas Eve babe In the drunk tank An old man said to me, won't see another one And then he sang a song The Rare Old Mountain Dew I turned my face away And dreamed about you
Got on a lucky one Came in eighteen to one I've got a feeling This year's for me and you So happy Christmas I love you baby I can see a better time When all our dreams come true
They've got cars big as bars They've got rivers of gold But the wind goes right through you It's no place for the old When you first took my hand On a cold Christmas Eve You promised me Broadway was waiting for me
You were handsome You were pretty Queen of New York City When the band finished playing They howled out for more Sinatra was swinging All the drunks they were singing We kissed on a corner Then danced through the night
The boys of the NYPD choir Were singing Galway Bay And the bells were ringing out For Christmas day
You're a bum You're a punk You're an old slut on junk Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed You scumbag, you maggot You cheap lousy faggot Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it's our last
The boys of the NYPD choir Still singing Galway Bay And the bells are ringing out For Christmas day
I could have been someone Well so could anyone You took my dreams from me When I first found you 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
The boys of the NYPD choir Still singing Galway Bay And the bells are ringing out For Christmas day