WARNING: This commentary contains language some readers may find offensive.
You know it’s getting close to Christmas when a certain segment of the population starts complaining about The Pogues’ 1987 classic, Fairytale of New York.
The annual call for its ban from British airwaves was kicked off by Alex Dyke, a presenter for the BBC’s Radio Solent, back on Dec. 5.
“I think Christmas songs should be about excited children, toys, Christmas trees, snowy streets, ski lodges, reindeer, wrapping paper, Santa, family, peace on earth and love. I just find the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York a nasty, nasty song.”
And we’re off.
Every December, we hear these loud objections to what people consider to be “offensive” lyrics used in the song’s depiction of a love-hate/passive-aggressive relationship between two lost damaged souls during the Christmas season.
The general complaint involves two immortal lines in which Shane McGowan sings “You’re an old slut on junk / Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed” to which Kristy MacColl replies “You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot.”
You see the problem. Like the annual Geminids meteor shower which appears every December, the calls to ban the song from the radio start around the same time.
Canadian music fans are familiar with a similar controversy when the Canadian Broadcast Standard Council ruled in 2011 that Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing was offensive after a single listener in Newfoundland complained about the use of the word “faggot” in the lyrics. It was originally deemed as a breach of the Human Rights Clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code.
Cue the backlash.
Fans (and non-fans, come to think of it) were very quick to point out that the word appears as part of a dialogue by a bigoted character in the song and is not intentionally used as an anti-gay slur by composer Mark Knopfler. The CBSC was forced to reconsider its decision after “considerable additional information” was presented.
In other words, context is everything. The song was soon back on Canadian radio.
So if Money for Nothing created this kind of problem, what about Canadians’ attitude towards Fairytale?
Having dealt with many, many listener complaints over my radio career, I can’t recall a single time when someone has yelled at me over Fairytale of New York. In fact, out of all the holiday songs I’ve played and programmed for Canadian radio over the years, this one is by far the all-time favourite. No song in my experience has received more listener requests year after year.
Most Britons would seem to agree. Just last week we learned that Fairytale was again the most played Christmas song on British radio last year and continues to rank at the top of the most beloved holiday songs of all time, beating out Last Christmas from Wham, Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade and even Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. And I’d sure as hell rather listen to Fairytale a hundred times than suffer through Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You even once.
Shane McGowan’s annual defence of the song first appeared in 2017.
“The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. 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. Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it but she is not intended to offend! She is just supposed to be an authentic character and not all characters in songs and stories are angels or even decent and respectable, sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively.”
The BBC did ban the song once, but just like Canada and Money for Nothing, it was reinstated after a massive public outcry. And just because Alex Dyke won’t play it, that doesn’t mean the song still can’t be heard across the network today. And as usual, the song crept into the British Top 10 on the singles charts.
One more thing: Uber-haters will point out that the very name “Pogues” is derived from the phrase “pogue mahone,” which is Gaelic for “kiss my ass.” But we’ll poke that bear another time.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.