Fairytale of New York: Microcosm of a Culture War | Joseph Prebble
Advent has officially begun, and Christmas is beckoning. Christmas songs have been creeping onto our radiowaves for a few weeks, and DJs have to ponder whether to play the finest Christmas song of all time, ‘Fairytale of New York’. Before the first piano notes have been heard, though, debate has begun in lively fashion about a six letter word in the second verse, and BBC1 has decided to censor it. It is now, of course, an annual row, as settled a tradition as preparing the Christmas pudding or yelling about ‘Happy Holidays’ cards. It isn’t unique in the calendar, though. A few months earlier we enjoy the ‘Rule Britannia’ debate, with every two-bit Brexit commentator and washed up e-celeb opining on its alleged glorification of slavery. Actually, switch the title of the song and a few thematic details and the discourse, and the teams of actors on each side, are essentially identical. A longstanding favourite of many, something that strangers could sing together with gusto, was suddenly no longer so innocent.
The reason for the apparent censorship in each case was actually procedural – the limited number of musicians available at the Proms in one case, the pre-watershed legalities in the other – but it didn’t stop enthusiasts getting angry. 4 per cent, according to one YouGov poll, know all the words to Rule Britannia. The really controversial line is in the bit that pretty much everyone knows, that ‘Britons never, never, never will be slaves’. Is it naïve to assume that people just enjoy singing along to a patriotic anthem with a musical swell absent from the slow-going national anthem? Do Hyde Park revellers mutter ‘but the rest of the world jolly well will be’ after that line? Examining a national anthem for conventionally problematic language is commonly avoided out of politeness. The Marseillaise is probably the finest national anthem going and nobody wants it spoiled by a debate about impure blood watering French pastures.
But then a sense of literalism will be enough to cancel many a song, and Fairytale is no different. While this argument had in previous autumns largely been confined to radio talk shows in need of filler, it took the Pogues themselves to really spark things into life with a rebuke of actor turned anti-woke crusader Laurence Fox. This isn’t the first time he’s been written about in this occasional column, but then Fantastic Mister Fox has developed a habit of stumbling all guns blazing in the culture war du jour. The band’s Twitter account sarcastically labelled him ‘herronvolk’, and tweeted in support of one tweet condemning straight people fighting for the right to sing it. Fair enough – the authors of that very line no longer care for the preservation of that one word, so why should anyone else? After all, the word has potency. Many gay people know it all too well from its use to bully and marginalise them. You don’t need to care for identity politics per se to recognise that, if that word hasn’t been weaponised against you for your sexuality, you will be numb to its effects.
Fuck off you little herrenvolk shite https://t.co/znPSuhkSo0— The Pogues (@poguesofficial) November 19, 2020
So why all the fuss? The BBC will play a scarcely different edited version, but the original is available freely on YouTube and other streaming services. What can insistence on singing this word boil down to other than an attachment to that word and all its hideous modern connotations? It isn’t really about longing to say that particular word. Well, for some it will be, and may contempt be widely poured on those wanting to weaponise language to hurt people. They probably don’t need a song in order to do that, for that matter. Largely speaking, this is what happens when critics begin fidgeting with something familiar and just a little bit beloved. The word is (hopefully) not the point – it is the problematising of something previously so innocent-seeming, naughty only for its profanity. An odd thing that what approximates as the conservative side of this is demanding the playing of profanity on national radio, pre-watershed, while what roughly passes for the progressive side is supporting the traditional stance of censorship of a naughty word.
But this is 2020, and standards change quickly. So do expectations of what is beyond reproach. The quote ‘To learn who rules over you, learn who you are not allowed to criticise’, wrongly but frequently attributed to Voltaire, often does the rounds when some sensitivity is touched. It may be more accurate to see what is commonly held as sacred and what is not, however, by which sort of targets are most fiercely defended. If Sinéad O’Connor once drew the wrath of Catholic Ireland by tearing a photo of Pope John Paul II in 1992, fellow lapsed Catholic Madonna Ciccone (who at the time criticised O’Connor) met with barely any visible disapproval twenty-three years later when she composed ‘Holy Water’, which she compared to vaginal fluid. If the Sex Pistols outraged royalists frenzy with ‘God Save The Queen’ in the seventies, rapper Slowthai drew the adoration of republicans decades later with a track that treated Her Majesty to a certain four letter word.
We can expect cultural institutions to change in public opinion over time, but far quicker in the age of social media and oven-ready-in-sixty-seconds reactions are the status of taboos. Years before Boris Johnson made the country’s commentariat set its hair on fire with the infamous letterboxes article, well known conservative firebrand Lady Gaga recorded a raunchy track called ‘Burqa’ (‘Do you want to see me naked, lover?/Do you want to peek underneath the cover?/Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the burqa?’). Gaga quickly substituted the title for ‘Aura’, but not before the Washington Post and other publications panned the choice of metaphor. With apologies for an exhausted cliché, imagine if it were released as a single today.
After all, naughty songs are just fun. Soviet marching anthems and IRA ditties can be a joy to listen to. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s Blurred lines was hitting number one worldwide right as a backlash over its lyrics was spawning dozens of thinkpieces and bans from university campus radios. Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead rather brilliantly shot to the top of charts for obvious reasons in April 2013. Suffice to say, irreverence to moral censure thrives off condemnation, which is why any attempts to discourage people out of listening to the uncensored version will probably fail – much like how telling a six-year-old about the rudeness of a four-letter-word does little to limit their curiosity.
Moreover, Fairytale of New York is, largely, miserable, which is why it is the best Christmas song. Nobody wants to listen to some sickly-sweet song about Yuletide love while travelling halfway across the country to some parish hall in the hopeless pursuit of their crush. And that is the context in which the word is used: as a frantic insult thrown at an erstwhile lover. Divorced from its intention and context, a word has no power; this particular word would have no power were it not for the countless times it has been cruelly levelled specifically at gay people. By itself it is meaningless, which is why delis can advertise faggots in the form of meat dumplings, and the abbreviated three-latter variant could refer to a cigarette or a finite abelian group. So while nobody who hasn’t been called that word has no standing in denying its power, it is probably worth taking a stand for its context in the song and, more importantly, for the principle that people of good will should be trusted to just enjoy things without examining all contrived connotations. Life’s too short.
But these are the fights we are going to put up with if there is to be any resistance against the infantilisation of people, either legally or culturally. A bit like the price for having libertarians is tantrums about the right not to wear seatbelts, so we have to put up with protests over the right to use an ugly six letter word if we want to defend against larger erasure of problematic-when-removed-from-context art. It is a pity that a heated culture war, or at least a snapshot of it, should gather around such an iconic song, but it is a fitting way to end 2020. Happy Christmas, your derrière.