Fairytale Of New York: Why Are You Still Begging To Sing The F-Word?
Today, the BBC incited this year’s edition of the now-annual culture war that happens every winter in the UK and Ireland: Should radio stations censor Fairytale of New York?
Perhaps it happens elsewhere, too. However, the heated discourse over the use of ‘faggot’ – a word I shall only refer to as the f-word from now on – in The Pogues’ 1987 hit takes hold of our news feeds and breakfast TV shows like clockwork every November, rather alarmingly.
This morning, November 19, it was confirmed BBC Radio 1 will play an ‘alternative’ version of the song over the upcoming festive period. The edited version replaces the original line using the ‘homophobic slur’ – defined as such by the BBC – with ‘You’re cheap and you’re haggard’.
This version of the song isn’t new. In fact, it’s three decades old; MacColl first sang the altered lyrics during a 1991 performance on Top of the Pops when they promoted a re-issue of the single. It’s the version many have sung since, and the version many others make their life’s mission to see banished for omitting a slur historically used against gay men and the LGBTQ+ community at large.
There have been several proposed arguments to justify the continued use of the slur and its place on the radio. ‘It’s only a lyric! Come on, it’s a Christmas classic! But it’s a part of history! It doesn’t mean that! Nobody knew what it meant back then!’ Now, I’m sure there are more excuses people give but, frankly, I’m not interested in entertaining them because this word has real-life implications on people’s lives.
First, let me clarify something: I personally couldn’t care less for the song being a ‘Christmas classic’ as it’s simply not to my taste. (Debate that.) However, the incessant need of so many people to campaign to keep a dangerous slur that has literally killed people in my community is nothing short of bewildering to me. That, I do care about.
My household has never been big on Fairytale of New York, from what I can remember. They wouldn’t ever turn it off but my mum also wouldn’t seek it out like she would Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree. Perhaps my apparent queerness signalled to my immediate family not to blast that one every year, though we’ve never actually discussed it.
Still, I can feel the tension in my shoulders from when cousins would yell out that line – curiously more enthusiastically than the rest of the song – on Christmas Day. I can feel my stomach dropping from when it would play at house parties or in the pub on Christmas Eve where crowds would give the same performance. The aggressive joy expressed in people’s grins when singing that line is uncomfortable, intimidating and, in some situations, genuinely terrifying for LGBTQ+ people.
Many have been, and still are, verbally abused with the slur from people in the streets or in our own homes via our timelines. Many have had it yelled at them while being physically attacked. For some, it will have been the last word they heard before dying. This is the atrocious legacy of the slur and the reasons why, I believe, it shouldn’t be played on the radio.
Matt, Director of Communications and Campaigns of akt charity, explains the impact of language on LGBTQ+ people, and ‘in particular young people who might just be discovering who they are and who might not have adequate support networks around them.’
He told UNILAD:
No one has the right to police what someone is or isn’t allowed to feel offended by, and if someone tells you they would prefer you to use different language or a different word when speaking to them, it costs nothing to do just that.
Misplaced anger in having to adapt language is not only a sign of privilege but also demonstrates a worrying lack of allyship to whoever it is talking to you, whichever marginalised group that language is related to.
The majority of young people we support at akt find themselves homeless because of familial abuse or rejection, many of them at the receiving end of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic language. So to anybody who argues that LGBT people are equal and ‘words are just words’, we would have to disagree.
The justifications given for keeping the slur on the radio are confusing, because doing so will not erase the original song’s existence, particularly in the age of streaming when radio’s popularity has reduced significantly. Cries for the f-word to be played during Greg James’ breakfast slot on BBC Radio 1 make little sense when it comes to musical legacy; instead, they only illustrate how present queerphobia is in the UK and Ireland today.
Conor, a DJ and radio presenter based in Ireland, compared the censorship of this particular slur to censored versions of other popular songs, WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, for example. He explained different versions of songs are used to adhere to radio guidelines, telling UNILAD, ‘Radio edits of songs are nothing new and I find the attempt to make this out to be censorship so ridiculous.’
As an LGBTQ+ person, Conor also pointed to the ‘clear double standard’ we see with the discourse surrounding the f-word in Fairytale of New York:
If we know f****t is a harsh and demeaning word but we’re fine with overlooking it for a radio edit because ‘That’s always the way it’s been’, then it basically says it’s ok to use slurs directed at that community. And also because it is a word I’ve had hurled at me in childhood and adulthood and to have it made okay for daytime usage and the dreary, predictable ‘you’re too sensitive!’ line trotted about feels frustrating and ridiculous.
The BBC’s response to the matter today is disappointing because of how it pushes the narrative of hypersensitivity among people offended by the slur’s presence on the radio. It pointed to BBC Radio 1’s younger audience being ‘offended by derogatory terms for gender and sexuality’, saying ‘young listeners were particularly sensitive’ to this.
By focusing on young people being ‘offended’ or ‘sensitive’, the BBC only fuels tired and inconsiderate critiques of political correctness á la ‘PC gone mad!’. It’s particularly infuriating when the original song will not be banned by the BBC as a whole, like some reports suggest, because it has been confirmed BBC Radio 2 will continue to play the uncensored version this year.
A BBC spokesperson said:
We know the song is considered a Christmas classic and we will continue to play it this year, with our radio stations choosing the version of the song most relevant for their audience.
Not only will individual stations be able to choose the version ‘most relevant’ to their audience, but BBC Radio 6 Music will leave the decision to each DJ, ‘according to their wishes’. The lack of decision-making only points the finger at young people and encourages the culture divide we have seen play out over the last few years.
In December 2019, the BBC was at the centre of the ‘debate’ after the uncensored version was used in the Christmas special of Gavin & Stacey. At the time, they defended the use by stating ‘there was no intention to offend viewers’, and argued the song is ‘widely played and enjoyed in its original form’.
Alim, culture writer and author of Queer London, acknowledges the BBC is ‘in a precarious and difficult situation’, but explains its attempts at impartiality have failed. ‘They have actually picked a side, a side that suggests that it’s okay for homophobic slurs to be played on the radio.’
The word ‘f****t’ was offensive when the song came out in 1987 and it’s offensive now. While, in general, I do think the BBC are okay in terms of their LGBTQ+ representation and their covering of queer issues, I think this sends a message to LGBTQ+ folk that in the so-called ‘culture war’ the BBC are choosing the Right. However, for queer people this isn’t a culture war but our lives (which many people seem to not understand) and the word f****t being played on radio will only embolden bigots.
It’s apparent this rehashed debate will continue on this year, with LGBTQ+ people’s experiences put to the side in favour of appeasing the demands of homophobic people. The BBC’s decision is avoidable for those of us who don’t listen to BBC Radio 2 or similar stations, however the anger directed at our community as a result of it is not.
At a time when the UK government is pulling funds for school projects tackling bullying of LGBTQ+ students in England, the need for allyship and better examples in the media is imperative for the safety and support of LGBTQ+ people. When we cannot turn to the media for this, we must hold each other accountable and listen to others’ perspectives to build a more considerate and kind place for us all.
Also, for the record, The Pogues don’t agree with attacks being made against ‘the PC brigade’. In fact, they seem rather content with their 33-year-old song being censored so it can maybe be enjoyed by all.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact the LGBT Foundation on 0345 3 30 30 30, 9am until 9pm Monday to Friday, and 10am until 6pm Saturday, Or email [email protected]