It’s not Christmas for me until I hear the opening lines of Fairytale of New York.
I can’t remember the first time I heard the song, but its jarring and desolate story has become synonymous with December in my mind. I’ve sung my sober and drunken heart out to this cheerless festive tune, year after year. Which means I’ve also sung the word.
Even as I belted the lyrics out without thought or care, I knew that taboo always lurked within the lines:
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last
Culture is not stagnant. It evolves. And so it does not upset me that the BBC has recently decided to play a censored version of Fairytale on some of its stations. Somebody that it does seem to have upset is Nick Cave, who’s railed against the decision on his website:
The changing of the word ‘faggot’ for the nonsense word ‘haggard’ destroys the song by deflating it right at its essential and most reckless moment, stripping it of its value. It becomes a song that has been tampered with, compromised, tamed, and neutered and can no longer be called a great song. It is a song that has lost its truth, its honour and integrity — a song that has knelt down and allowed the BBC to do its grim and sticky business.
I’m sorry but Cave is simply wrong. If Fairytale is a great song then it can survive the replacement of a single word.
Shane McGowan has previously justified his use of the F-word in his song. It’s spoken from the mouth of a character, he explains, and ‘not all characters in songs and stories are angels’. As a writer, I agree. If we only ever wrote from our own perspective, the literary world would be dull and one-dimensional.
But are the nuances of character and authorial intent clear in the heat of the moment? Is that clarity carried through when the listener is buoyed along by the exuberance of the song? How can the listener fail to be influenced by the position the word occupies within the lyrics, bookended as it is between a series of slurs?
Even if the listener understands that the F-word is being used to denote a specific time and place, the word itself is always dragged into the present. It’s dragged into us.
‘Words are things’, as Maya Angelou said.
As a gay woman, the F-word is not mine to reclaim. But neither is it Nick Cave’s. As a heterosexual man, he approaches the use of the word from a position of relative privilege. He admits:
I am in no position to comment on how offensive the word ‘faggot’ is to some people, particularly to the young — it may be deeply offensive, I don’t know’.
He doesn’t know. But as an artist, he should recognise the danger in the repeated positioning of the word as a slur.
I love Fairytale. It’s Christmas to me. When I hear Kirsty McColl use the word ‘haggard’ as a substitute, I don’t find that the song is lessened. I recognise that the song is alive and sensitive to the fluctuations of culture. I find it to have progressed.
The furore over insisting the F-Word remains says more about the people that want it to stay in than the people that want it out.
There’s a simple test to gauge how we should treat this. If we switch the F-Word for the N-word, would we still be having the same discussion? How would we describe those that fought for its inclusion in the song? How would we consider their demand to sing it and have it sung?
As writers, we’re trapped within the prism of our current perspective and place in unfolding history. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look back on our stories with hindsight, humility, and respect for others. This should be especially true for the stories that we revere the most.
Just switch out the damn word. A Fairytale of New York will survive without it.