Warning: This post contains language that may offend, but since it’s entirely about language that may offend, that can’t really be helped.
In 1987, when ‘Fairytale of New York’ began its trip to the number two spot (and, let’s be honest, its melancholy appeal would have been rather compromised had it actually succeeded in topping the Christmas charts), I was working in a pub where the clientele leaned towards white, middle-aged, working-class men. It was an immediate hit in the (45 rpm vinyl, 20p a play) jukebox, although I suspect few of the punters knew who the Pogues were or what the rest of their oeuvre sounded like. I did know the band, but I assumed this latest effort was a cover version of something from the ’60s or earlier, not least because of the speed with which the drinkers picked up the lyrics and started to sing along, especially as last orders drew near. The most popular artist in the machine, with six different records, was Jim Reeves, and ‘Fairytale’ felt closer to his world than to that of more recent additions (which included T’Pau, the Bee Gees, George Harrison and the act that would hit the top Yuletide spot, the Pet Shop Boys). The term “instant classic” smacks a little of careerist cynicism, as if MacGowan and crew deliberately had created something they knew would still be played (and, yes, overplayed) 33 years later, but this was clearly something that resonated with people who didn’t read the NME or watch Top of the Pops.
I may be doing my former customers a disservice but I can’t imagine that many of them had particularly enlightened opinions regarding what we would now call LGBTQ+ rights; yet at the same time I don’t recall any of them bellowing the word “faggot” with particular gusto. Had an openly gay person stumbled into the pub they may well have done that, but I’m guessing not. However, that is the essence of the controversy that’s surrounded the song in recent years. Within the Donleavy/Bukowski-influenced context of MacGowan’s lyrics, Kirsty MacColl spits out the taboo word in character, as a performance, inhabiting the role of someone who’s actively seeking to hurt; but others hear it and seize on it and deploy it without distance, without irony against anyone who is or appears to be different in terms of sexuality or gender. An obvious comparison is TV viewers in the 1960s and ’70s who took the imbecilic bigotry of Alf Garnett at face value and threw his words at any black or Asian people they encountered.
So, just as ‘Fairytale’ has become a Yuletide tradition, so has the annual argument about whether it should be removed from playlists or somehow have its language ameliorated for a more sensitive, inclusive age. It does feel a little bit redundant now when most of us are able to control the sounds we want or don’t want around us. If we want to hear the song, with or without “faggot” (and, let’s not forget, “slut” and “arse” too) we can summon it up in a manner that would have seemed to my pub customers in 1987 something akin to witchcraft. And if we don’t, we don’t.
But this is the BBC though, which isn’t meant just to entertain us; it nominally represents what we aspire to as a nation. If it does an offensive thing, even though we don’t hear it (if Kirsty sings a homophobic slur on the BBC but we’re all watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix at the time, does it make a sound?), it’s somehow doing it in our name, on our behalf, even the tedious twerps who decorate their Twitter profiles with “#DefundTheBBC”. Do we want to see ourselves reflected in the BBC that seeks to protect the non-gender-conforming teen who has to run a gauntlet of vicious sneers and jibes every day, even if this means policing the art of yesterday – not just pop music, but literature, film, painting and more – via the semantic sensibilities of 2020? Or do we want it to chuck all the rules in the bin, tie itself to the mast of free speech fundamentalism and have effing and jeffing gangsta rappers on CBeebies and Nazi Satanists on Thought For The Day?
The fact is, whether the BBC plays the uncensored version, or a censored version, or doesn’t play it at all, they’re going to annoy somebody somewhere, which is why the usual response is a fudge of banning and un-banning. I think – and this may be premature – that this year they’ve got things about right, by the simple process of giving their various audiences what they want. On Radio 1, whose younger listeners are more sensitive to language around gender and sexuality (or virtue-signalling woke snowflakes, if you prefer), the bad word will be excised. On Radio 2, whose older listeners are apparently more amenable to a dose of earthy invective over the mince pies (gammons, karens and Trump-loving homophobes to you, squire) will get the version I first heard in the Duke of York in 1987. And on Radio 6, which hovers somewhere between the two extremes, it’s up to the conscience and taste (if they possess either) of the individual DJs.
As I was writing this, I discovered something that had never occurred to me in the third of a century I’ve shared a planet with ‘Fairytale of New York’; the fact that in its original, non-redacted form, it runs for four minutes and 33 seconds, a nod, subconscious or otherwise to John Cage’s mash-up of minimalism and conceptualism. So in a grim year when the loneliness and melancholy that oozes from Fairytale will, for many people be the reality of Christmas rather than a drunken karaoke session, maybe the BBC should just play silence instead, and we can fill the gap with our own thoughts, offending nobody but ourselves.
PS: Some people are inevitably weaponising this against the BBC; but those who stand to gain from a performative let’s-all-buy-Fairytale campaign aren’t playing ball.