Should the BBC have censored Fairytale of New York?

The Radio 1 listener: Alex Hood

A culture war around the Pogues’ song Fairytale of New York feels like a new Christmas tradition, like a Lindt chocolate Santa, but homophobic. In this year’s iteration, Radio 1 has removed two offensive words from the recording it plays, but Radio 2 will continue to play the original; Radio 6 Music DJs can choose between the recordings.

This perennial debate has become more tiresome by the year, but simply put: popularising slurs against the LGBTQ+ community, particularly on a mainstream platform such as a BBC radio station, is unacceptable. The song has not, and should not, be outright banned, but we shouldn’t have to accept slurs of any form – especially in this instance, when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative lyric in the rerecorded version from 1992.

As a young person, it is incredibly frustrating to see that this initiative hasn’t been implemented as a blanket rule across all of the BBC radio stations. I welcome Radio 1’s move to lead the way, and I understand the need to make different decisions based on each station’s audience expectations. But the BBC’s overall decision turns homophobia into a generational issue. By choosing to continue playing the uncensored version of the track on Radio 2 and Radio 6 Music, Radio 1 listeners, who predominantly fall into the Gen Z bracket, are being left open to targeted vitriol online, and being characterised as homogenous. We are all cast as “snowflakes”, hypersensitive and infantile, distracting from a debate should be about respecting those offended by the slurs, regardless of age.

The BBC’s lack of rigour on this issue has turned those who are outraged by these derogatory terms into the problem, casting them as censors who can’t handle complex art. I’d argue that it is an intellectual and moral failing to say songs should have a free pass for homophobic slurs – you can have complex art without them. Why do you so keenly want to hear this word? Why are you so angry that you can’t sing it out loud? Why is this so aggressively and deeply argued year on year?

I am sure that other younger listeners are aware that the slurs in this song are archaic slang and a product of their time, but what these words are used for now – oppression – is the only thing that matters in this debate.

The Radio 2 listener: Patrick Strudwick

How inconsistent, it is tempting to say, that “faggot” and “slut” may be sung by the Pogues on Radio 2 but not on Radio 1. Well, can we first acknowledge an important consistency in the BBC’s decision here? For once, the focus is not just about the homophobic epithet but also the misogynistic one; the one that swirls through our rape culture and repeats so often in pornography as to become white noise. “Slut” echoes round playgrounds at just about the same age – year 8? Year 7? – as little boys hear “faggot” as a prelude to a punch.

But hatred morphs as you age. Until about 30, as a distinctly in-your-face gay man, name-calling and violence were quite the thing for me: being chased, threatened, hospitalised. After 30? It’s not the obvious one-word insults you have to watch out for, it’s the arguments devised by political and religious leaders, inspired by the promise of money and power, and enunciated in such a way as to sound reasonable and morally justified.

Social attitude surveys also reveal homophobia to be proportional to age: your grandad is much more likely to think you’re a faggot than your classmate, he just may not say it to your face. So if there is one demographic that shouldn’t be hearing “faggot” and “slut”, it is the Radio 2 audience aged 40 and over, like me, who grew up at a time when a Radio 1 DJ refused to play Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood because a celebration of sodomy was too much for his delicate heterosexuality.

The most likely choice of station for families together (hopefully) this Christmas is Radio 2. Want to protect the young? How about starting in the kitchen as they gather to stuff the turkey, with a glass of mulled wine and the radio on. If your grandad doesn’t say faggot, Kirsty MacColl will do it for him. Someone at the table will laugh. No one will say it’s ugly. Home is where the hatred that really wounds is.


Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl performing in 1988.

Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl performing in 1988. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

But I’m conflicted. The use of “faggot” is arguably a question of intention – Todrick Hall has a song called Fag but he weaponises it right back at you. In Fairytale of New York, that intention is abusive: the word is hurled as an insult. What complicates everything, including whether to bleep out words, is that the song is pure, rollocking artistry – just as Michael Jackson’s music is, and funnily enough, child abuse offends me a lot more than a word. I still listen to Jackson. And I’d rather people hear great music with offensive words in it – whether that’s hip-hop or folk-pop – than mediocre music that makes you feel nothing. That’s not easy listening, it’s death.

Easy thinking, meanwhile, would have it that the BBC’s move is censorship. It isn’t. It’s selection according to audience, no more censorship than not hearing the word “fuck” before the watershed. And if you don’t realise these are ugly characters in the song, drunkenly fighting, and not people worthy of emulation, then you are as stupid as someone who thinks that loving the same sex is wrong or a woman’s sexuality is shameful. Idiocy and bigotry are a tight overlap. The arts, by contrast, are the best of humanity.

There is only one answer to this conflict, one that will never be achieved – but could begin – with the deletion of a word. We need to change our world, one expression at a time, so that great music is never hate music.

A final word on consistency. If you hear a Conservative MP complaining about the BBC’s deletion, please remind them of another deletion made today by a powerful institution: the Conservative government’s decision to end funding for anti-LGBT bullying initiatives in schools. Pupils will still hear the word faggot this Christmas, but there will be no one there to mend the damage.

That story was reported by the BBC’s LGBT correspondent. Unlike the government, at least the Beeb is trying.

The 6 Music listener: Luke Turner

While the argument over Fairytale of New York is not a new one, this year it has felt especially fraught, like a bad dose of port’n’turkey flavoured acid reflux at 4am on Boxing Day. I admit that, on a personal level, the contemporary enthusiasm for deeming this or that song or artist #problematic and beyond redemption is exhausting and troubling. The best art challenges preconceptions, makes us feel uncomfortable, forces us to confront the safety blanket of orthodox views. Does Fairytale of New York fall into that category?

Shane MacGowan’s explanation for the lyrics – that they’re the words of a character and that “sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively” – is perfectly reasonable. Across the pop spectrum from, say, the devilish characters Nick Cave created in Murder Ballads to the horrific storytelling on Immortal Technique’s Dance With the Devil, offensive lyrics are key to the artistic process of writing a convincing, dramatic work. The same applies to art, television, literature. But is “faggot” really adding anything to the song that Kirsty MacColl’s replacement “haggard” doesn’t serve? I don’t think so.

Beyond that, my issue with the lyrics of Fairytale is the Christmas context. This is a song suited to being bellowed out by absolutely hammered people at their seasonal dos, a last collective singalong for the office party before everyone disperses to be sick into a McDonald’s bag on the commute home. I’ve heard it happen, and as a bisexual man, a load of straight people suddenly singing “cheap lousy faggot” has made me feel uncomfortable. It isn’t their word to sing. A load of white lads doing the gun fingers and rapping the N-word along with hip-hop has rightly been beyond the pale for years.

There is, however, a point beyond the offence caused by MacGowan’s lyrics. Like John Lennon’s Imagine with a Santa hat on, Fairytale of New York is insufferably sentimental and trite. As anyone who has been subjected to the repetitive sonic torture of working in retail at Christmas well knows, the repertoire is not exactly lacking in festive songs that don’t feature homophobic slurs, so perhaps instead of Fairytale of New York forever ammunition for both sides in the tedious stalemate of the culture wars, it might just be ignored. This fairytale should pass, blissfully, into forgotten myth.

The Guardian

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