Controversy over whether radio stations should censor Fairytale of New York

An online debate has been spurred as to whether the hit 1987 Christmas song Fairytale of New York, performed by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, should be censored for its use of the word “faggot”.

Today seen as a homophobic slur and widely agreed to be unacceptable in public discourse, one of the song’s most memorable lyrics sung by Kirsty MacColl is the line “you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot”.

The debate stems from Irish Radio broadcaster Eoghan McDermott, who works for 2FM, a radio station run by Ireland’s public service broadcaster RTÉ:

Phrases that have zero social utility should fall away.” McDermott wrote on Twitter. “Enough vitriol out there without gay people having to feel uncomfortable so people that aren’t affected by an insult can tap their toe.”

He also pointed to the Black Eyed Peas hit song “Let’s Get It Started”, which was initially released under the name “Let’s Get Retarded”, was changed after the word ‘retard’ became unacceptable. “The fact this song is a classic isn’t a strong enough defense to not at least censor it. We censor shit, fuck, ass, weed and loads of other comparatively benign words in songs. It’s not a big ask.”

Speaking to VoL, Cardiff University student Barnaby Thomas says: “I’m a big fan of the reclamation of offensive language to a particular group – the N-word being used by African Americans and the use of queer in the LGBT community, for example, gives off a powerful message to those who want to use it against those particular minorities. Whilst the word fag is most definitely still a slur… I don’t think that it should be banned but placed in its context and made clear that it’s made clear that it’s not an acceptable word to use today.”

Matthew Linfoot, Principal Lecturer and course leader for the University of Westminster’s BA Radio degree, says the debate raises questions about the nature of censorship in relation to art and culture: “The song uses a word which can be considered offensive in some contexts, but offence is mitigated by time and the awareness of the audience. Perhaps a contemporary song wouldn’t use the word in quite the same way today, but this song exists and has done for over 40 years: do new listeners have the right to tamper with it or censor it, because they are offended? If you start with one word in a song, where do you end? Changing the words in Shakespeare? And what about the rights of those who aren’t offended? It’s certainly healthy to have a debate, but I’m quite satisfied that the way the wording is used in the song is done for dramatic effect, there is no homophobic intent on the part of the performers or writers, and can be enjoyed as such.”

Linfoot added: “Perhaps we should be focussing our campaigning for LGBTQ rights and equality on more visible, tangible and immediate human rights violations in countries around the world rather than on a pop song at Christmas?”

Fairytale of New York documents an argument between two Irish immigrants and lovers in New York City at Christmas time. It plays on cynical attitudes towards the American dream, and the Irish diaspora in New York City. The song consistently ranks highly on lists of the best Christmas songs, and remains the most popular Christmas song in Ireland.

Written by The Pogues’ frontman Shane MacGowan, who spent his early life in County Tipperary, Ireland, the song’s use of the F-word has been defended given its context. In Irish and Scouse slang, “faggot” refers to a lazy person, not a gay person. In the context of the lyric, and the fact the classic Christmas song was written and performed by two Irish singers, some have argued the lyric should remain uncensored.

Following the controversy, MacGowan released a statement to Virgin Media’s Tonight Show: “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. If people don’t understand that I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible then I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word but I don’t want to get into an argument.”

A spokesperson for RTÉ issued a statement following a request from, clarifying that despite the discussion instigated by McDermott, “The song ‘Fairytale of New York’ will continue to be played RTÉ Radio without omissions.”



Featured image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Words: Matthew Hall | Subbing: Claire Chung

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