Ed Power: 'Time has come to relocate Fairytale of New York to that dark room reserved for things that were once acceptable but no longer are'
The sour, majestic ache of The Pogues’s Fairytale of New York sets it apart from other Christmas songs.
Fairytale captures the ugliness and unease so often the downside of the season. It is the hangover after the office party – the one at which you made an idiot of yourself and lost your car keys.
Even those of us who consider Shane MacGowan and his London band problematic in all sorts of ways – their perpetuation of boozed-up Paddy stereotypes a particular grievance – must concede this point.
But then there is the “f” word.
There has been a firestorm this week over Fairytale and its notorious deployment of a homophobic slur. “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy f*****,” sings Kirsty MacColl, as if about to reach out of the stereo and punch you on the chin.
The line is devastating – like a swing thrown during choir practice. But can we live with it in 2018?
Tis the season for difficult conversations about troubling lyrics, with radio stations in the United States banning the creepy standard Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
That decision was controversial but not scandalously so. In the #MeToo era, even the most trenchant free-speech advocate will admit to a cold shiver at lines such as “Say, what's in this drink?…Your eyes are like starlight now”. Eeeugh.
The difference is that in Ireland Fairytale of New York has the status of a national treasure.
There are those few of us who flinch every time we hear Shane MacGowan sing and then there is everyone else, who seem to regard the Tunbridge Wells-born artist as manifesting some precious aspect of Irishness. It’s just a guess but I suspect your passion for the Pogues and the likelihood of you joining an impromptu “olé, olé, olé” chant at a public event go arm in arm.
Anyway, now MacGowan has weighed in on Fairytale-gate. On Friday he defended the contentious line, saying the anti-gay slur was consistent with the character “played” by MacColl.
“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”.
The characterisation rings true. We’ve all found ourselves in the vicinity of people who cannot open their mouths without unleashing a stream of offensive invective. Usually we change seats or finish our drinks and leave, feeling not outrage but pity.
MacGowan is correct, also, in pointing out the line is delivered by MacColl in character. Were we debating a movie or TV show, nobody would blink. Actors deliver outrageous dialogue all the time to illuminate a deeper truth about the protagonist they are portraying and the circumstances by which they were shaped.
But should the same rules apply to a pop song – especially one as inescapable as Fairytale of New York? Lairy rockers Kasabian ran into just such an issue in 2017 with their single You’re In Love With A Psycho, which was criticised by mental health charities.
There is a fine line to be walked. Should Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer be scrubbed from playlists? Of course not. Yet for gay people the “f” word is regarded as a taunt without equal – the equivalent to the “n” word.
Rappers have, it is true, reclaimed the “n” word, after a fashion. But the rules here are clear – and it would be completely unacceptable for a white rapper to deploy the term. Should the Pogues be held to a more forgivable standard? That’s a hard case to make and asserting MacColl was simply “in character” feels like reaching.
The backlash to the backlash against Fairytale of New York confirms just how beloved it is.
But the debate over the song will not be end this Christmas and, with every passing year, Fairytale is likely to become more contentious – an oozing seasonal sore leaking out over supermarket tannoys and on radio.
There are better Christmas songs and better Pogues ones, too, and standards have changed since MacGowan and MacColl locked eyes across a booth at Abbey Road Studios in March 1987. The time has come to quietly relocate Fairytale of New York to that dark room reserved for things that were once acceptable but no longer are.