The popular 1987 classic song Fairytale of New York has entered headlines recently, and not just because it’s the Christmas season. The song’s use of the word ‘faggot’ in the lyrics (‘you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot’) has stirred controversy around whether the song should be banned or the word bleeped.
This debate around the language of the song has attracted attention since its release, and has now reached a boiling point. But what are the arguments involved, and is there a clear answer?
The song was written in 1987, so it can be argued that the use of the f-word is simply a product of its time. This is a correct statement, but it has to be noted that this doesn’t mean it isn’t offensive. Times have changed, and with that, so does language and our uses of it. Continuing to use the word signals that some problematic attitudes are still prevailing, and although this is ‘just a word’, words have very real consequences on the world around us. The song has been censored in performances before: the line was changed to ‘you’re cheap and you’re haggard’ in a 1992 Top of the Pops performance, so clearly audiences have been aware of the issue.
The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan gave a statement on the topic, saying that the word was used to fit in with the character portrayed in the song by Kirsty MacColl, who ‘is not supposed to be a nice person’ but one of a ‘certain generation at a certain time in history’. MacGowan added that ‘she is not intended to offend’ and that he was ‘absolutely fine’ with the word being bleeped on broadcast. Banning the song is perhaps a step too far, since that would then lead to the banning of all and any songs containing offensive language, but censoring is certainly not a radical idea. Songs containing offensive language, whether it’s the n-word or words like ‘bitch’, had been censored before Fairytale of New York existed, in order to cater to a wide range of viewers.
it would seem obvious that singing the word is equally as offensive as it would be to say the n-word
Others have argued that the word is in fact Irish slang for a lazy person, and unrelated to the homophobic slur. Whether this is true, and whether this was the intention by The Pogues in 1987, is yet to be proven. Regardless, it would seem obvious that singing the word is equally as offensive as it would be to say the n-word. Slurs can be reclaimed by those affected by them; the word ‘queer’ is now used as a sign of positive self-identification, and is the name given to various fields of studies, such as ‘Queer Linguistics’. Straight people can justifiably weigh in on the argument, but ultimately, they are not the ones who get to decide what is and isn’t offensive. As broadcaster Eoghan McDermott tweeted, there is ‘enough vitriol out there without gay people having to feel uncomfortable so people that aren’t affected by an insult can tap their toe‘.
‘Words can never hurt me’ is the well-known phrase, but it’s entirely ridiculous. Of course words can hurt. Of course language can be used to segregate and discriminate against people. We have seen time and time again that language has been used to conquer and divide. It’s not ‘political correctness gone mad’ or ‘being a ‘snowflake’ to acknowledge that words can be offensive. Arguably this is a vitally small issue compared to the ‘real’ issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, but this doesn’t mean it’s not important to talk about.
it’s vital to acknowledge the way potentially harmful ideologies are pervasive in popular culture
At a time when some parts of the world seem to be backsliding to right-wing, racist, sexist, and homophobic thoughts that we had hoped had been increasingly abandoned to the past, it’s vital to acknowledge the way potentially harmful ideologies are pervasive in popular culture, that this kind of discourse is part of our everyday life. Being a responsible—and arguably decent—human being means recognising the hurt you can cause by not thinking about what you say and do, and acknowledging that while free speech means you can say what you want, you shouldn’t be surprised if people call you out for it.