Happy Christmas, My Arse
Christmas time is silly season in the newspapers; stories abound of politically-correct churchmen replacing nativity plays with right-on interfaith ceremonies, local councils banning advent calendars for fear of offending Muslims, and so on. Some of these stories are true, most … Read More
Christmas time is silly season in the newspapers; stories abound of politically-correct churchmen replacing nativity plays with right-on interfaith ceremonies, local councils banning advent calendars for fear of offending Muslims, and so on. Some of these stories are true, most are bullshit, and the world continues to turn.
But now they’re coming for the Finest Christmas Song Of All Time ™, and it’s time to draw a line in the sand. ¡No pasarán!
BBC Radio 1 has said it will allow the Pogues' Fairytale of New York to be played on the station uncut, after criticism of a decision to censor it.
The words "slut" and "faggot" had been dubbed out from the 20-year-old festive hit by station executives. But after a day of criticism from listeners, the band, and the mother of singer Kirsty MacColl, they changed their minds.
Sanity prevailed on this occasion, but for a while there it looked as if one of the festive season’s few pleasures had been emasculated. Radio 1, which is still Britain’s most popular chart music station, has courted controversy before; famously refusing to play “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood after twigging to the pretty thinly-veiled sexual references, their decision to ban it sent the song rocketing up the charts and into immortality (it even spawned a bizarre computer game).
Banning songs now seems like a throwback to a distant age, but the whole arsenal of dubbing, bleeping and ‘clean’ edits to avoid offending the oversensitive souls among us still rankles. I don’t really care that much when such soft censorship is applied to gangsta rap, or whatever the hell you call it, because there’s only so many times I can hear the word “motherfucka” before I start to get bored anyway – but when a great song like Fairytale is targeted, we’re crossing from mere silliness into full-on absurdity.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, it seems like Peter Tatchell, for whom I have a lot of time, doesn’t agree. In condemning the BBC’s U-turn he argues, slightly disingenuously, that he’s not calling for homophobic language to be banned, merely for some consistency between homophobic and racist abuse. He has a point, of course – most of us wouldn’t belt out Fairytale with quite the same drunken abandon if the word “nigger” appeared in the slot occupied by “faggot” – but ultimately Tatchell’s complaint falls because he doesn’t address context.
Even Peter doesn’t claim to find the lyric offensive; I’ve never met a gay man who does. Fairytale doesn’t call for gays to be murdered, for example, as the Jamaican dancehall artists targeted by Tatchell's Stop Murder Music campaign do. The lyrics depict a drunken domestic fight, and the song uses earthy, ‘offensive’ language, but – news flash – this is the way people in the real world talk. People are more sophisticated than usually given credit for, and they understand that they’re listening to two characters talk and squabble, not an attack by the singer on their way of life. Most gays are no more offended by the use of homophobic language, in this context, than I was when Tony Soprano mocked Uncle Junior for enjoying “eating pussy”.
It’s not uncommon, where I come from, to taunt a colleague who’s sticking to the soft drinks on a night out by calling them a “poof”. I plead guilty to doing it myself, quite frequently. No offence is ever meant, nor taken. Yet if, in the midst of a drunken argument, I deliberately insulted a gay friend by calling him a “faggot”, he would probably be an ex-friend by the time we sobered up. Context is all; the word has only the meaning we choose to attach to it.
Such is our terror of “causing offence” these days, though, that companies like the BBC employ whole teams of people to ensure that it never happens, pre-empting any possible complaint by neutering the sentiments in the original song. And, as Brendan O’Neill points out in his response to Tatchell, it’s funny to note how censorship has, slowly but surely, mutated from a tool of the intolerant right into a weapon that is more frequently used nowadays by the oh-so-tolerant left. In its painfully angst-ridden-liberal way, the BBC’s elitist sympathies are there for all to see; appalled at such uncouth language befouling the airwaves at a time of family celebration and determined, in their own narrow-minded, thin-lipped and very British way, to uphold a certain level of decorum and protect the fragile diversity of our society. If we don’t stand up for the faggots, the towelheads and the niggers against this sort of rough abuse, they fret, who will?
The idea that gay men might not need to be protected from Kirsty MacColl, or that we might not want to see all the rough edges in our culture smoothed out into a bland homogenous soup, clearly doesn’t occur to these guys. But that, finally, is why Fairytale is so enduringly popular. Christmas isn’t all about crackling fires and kissing under the mistletoe any more than life is a bowl of cherries, and if it takes an addle-brained old piss artist to remind us of it, so much the better. Censoring art is more offensive than the word “faggot”.
UPDATE: Video of the song below.