It can be hard to make people understand – empathy is trickier to elicit than you might think. Especially when it comes to things that seem so simple, from both sides, and even more so when it’s something that people love so much.
As it has every year for around the last decade, a small, insistent row has erupted over a particular lyric in a very popular Christmas song that’s not only a huge selling record but also gets heavy rotation on radio stations and music channels. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2017, the song is much loved by those who “don’t really like Christmas songs” and still, after all this time, offers a refreshing alternative to the regular brand of festive tune – either lovelorn wistfulness, schmaltzy cheer or infantilised celebration. The song is visceral, heartrending, a veritable opera of hopes dashed and dreams crushed, yet with cold, quiet optimism running through it like the finest thread of gold floating on top of a sewer. Over its four and a half minutes, all human life is there. It’s both immediately relatable and reassuringly distant, the tale of two down and outs – possibly Irish immigrants or at least an early ensuing generation – their lives poisoned by doors closed in their faces, alcoholism, drugs, illness and the unbreakable bond between them that will likely kill them both.
The song is the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. Of course it is. But there’s a problem – actually, there are several but, in typical style, only one’s causing an issue at the moment. It’s a word. An F-word. No, not that one. You know the one. It comes at 2 minutes and 22 seconds into the song and is sung, with gusto, by the much-missed Kirsty MacColl. The word is “faggot”.
We know what faggot means, what it’s meant for decades. In fact, as clever people who always end up getting all their Trivial Pursuit “cheeses” before you land even your first will tell you, it has quite a few meanings. A faggot can be a bundle of sticks used for kindling, or a rather unpleasant spiced meatball, or it can mean a homosexual man – most dictionaries in the UK do their best to distance themselves from this unpleasant definition by insisting it’s “chiefly US, informal”, but it has been spat in school corridors up and down the country for at least 30 years, funnily enough, thanks to its use in American movies. There is, apparently, another meaning for the word in Ireland and some parts of Liverpool where it means a lazy person, but beyond the archaic attribution “an unpleasant or contemptible woman”, there isn’t much out there to support this claim.
Around ten years ago, when the song regained popularity thanks to legal downloads in the mid Noughties – although it had returned to the chart a couple of times before that – radio stations took the decision to miss the word out. Whatever had been allowed back in 1987 was deemed perhaps to be best left there, and it was no doubt thought better that all generations could enjoy it at any time of day on the radio rather than suppress the entire song altogether. Somewhat strangely, there was an outcry – from gay and straight people alike – and, after a few weeks, the original version was reinstated and the word has been booming from speakers all over the country ever since. In your supermarket, as you pirouette on your ice rink, as you listen to the radio on a Sunday afternoon. The issue here is it’s all about context, apparently. There are several defences, each one as paper-thin and patronising as the last.
1. They are characters in the song. Kirsty is not calling Pogues’ frontman Shane MacGowan a faggot in “real life”.
2. They are in fact referring to the old definition of “faggot”, meaning someone lazy or good for nothing. As Wikipedia would say: CITATION NEEDED.
3. The Pogues had a gay guitarist so it is unthinkable there would be a homophobic lyric in the song.
4. The use of “faggot” here predates its usage as an homophobic insult.
5. We shouldn’t censor art.
There is an extra problem with the song in that it’s acquired an almost mythical, untouchable quality, forever canonised because it features the talents of Kirsty MacColl, who died tragically in 2000 – around Christmastime, in an act of heartbreaking coincidence – and that as Kirsty was such a generally wonderful and well-loved singer, the song should not be touched. There is the story that Kirsty’s mum loves to hear it on the radio so she can hear her daughter’s voice again. But nobody is suggesting the song be erased from history; there would be no hysterical violent purge and the handing over of all physical copies, or wiping of it from your iPods and phones, a Fahrenheit 451 of all whimsical ditties with problematic lyrics. Of course not. But the word “faggot” shouldn’t be on the radio at any time of day, least of all at 2pm when I am wrapping my Christmas presents.
Call me pompous, call me pious, call me wrong – but only two of those will ever be true when it comes to this word.
I’ve had a hard time making people get it. It’s been out there for so long, what does it matter? All sense of the original meaning has been lost. It’s only a song. But this isn’t really about the song itself, or its motivations – although I would argue the writers knew exactly what they were doing and even if the intent was this Irish definition of faggot that’s hard to trace, I’d hazard a guess that it was a play on the fact it had another meaning in the US, where the song takes place, featuring these characters, who are hurling insults at each other. They are not speaking words of love: you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot. She is replying to his equally gross assertion that she is a “slut” – also merrily left to play out on the song when it should be bleeped – not mildly chiding him for not putting the bins out. But that’s all irrelevant; it’s too late to worry about that. Like I say, it’s not about the song; it’s the word. When someone sings this song, be they a school bully or that annoying guy from Accounts doing karaoke, they’re not mindful or respectful of the context, the finer details of the song and its true meaning, whatever that might be. All they’re hearing is the word faggot and applying it to the definition familiar to them. Maybe, like, 1 in 100 thinks she’s calling him a meatball and 1 in 1,000 reckon she’s using the Irish definition but most in the UK, where the song is a huge hit, will take it to mean she’s calling him a poof – now there’s a word that would get bleeped.
The pain words cause is usually invisible to those unaffected by them. The discomfort, or the scars, are usually borne in silence because to speak up about them makes you a complainer, or uppity, or rocking the boat; it exposes you to derision, dismissal, distress, so you carry on taking it all in, a sponge involuntarily soaking up the acid that will eventually destroy it. Perhaps if we all screamed out in pain every time it was heard on the radio, every time it was chanted triumphantly in a pub full of people delighted of the special dispensation to finally shout it out, every time someone came to us with an excuse of “but context”, maybe then they’d get it. It would become an irritation, a problem they’d have to fix, like a car alarm farther down the street that won’t shut up, or an infestation in the cellar. To make people understand and realise the harm, you have to make them deal with it directly.
If it still isn’t going in, if you think the song has no bearing on the homophobic use of that word and is merely a piece of art existing in isolation from all other areas of society, if empathy and imagination have yet to kick in, allow me to tell my story. There are thousands of others like it, I promise you.
I remember the song coming out in 1987 and being circled by a group of boys in the playground – I was coming up for 12 years old – cheering ones from the song and pointing at me on the word “faggot”. A daily occurrence. I remember Christmas 1989, one of my very favourite school bullies striding down the aisle of the school bus shouting out that line, and timing the “faggot” with a slap to the side of my head that made it bounce off the window. I remember the awkward looks from colleagues singing it at karaoke at a work Christmas party as they approached the line, willing me to give them permission, which I gave, against my will, by grinning and opening my mouth and miming along – even that word. No sound came out.
I remember having to sit quiet and obedient in a straight man’s world for almost all my life, unable to say or do anything without being under suffocating scrutiny. Playing nice, not complaining, wondering how far to push it, then immediately withdrawing. The bullies’ hands stopped choking my throat a long, long time ago, but sometimes it feels like they’re still there. I won’t allow bizarre, misplaced affection for a SONG restrict my breathing or keep me quiet any longer. It doesn’t offend me, or make me angry, or sad; I just feel tired. Tired of trying to explain my existence.
If the word “bastard” had been used, the word would’ve been bleeped out on release and the song would very likely have never been heard in its original form on the radio or TV. In later performances, the band and Kirsty themselves switched it out for “haggard”, perhaps acknowledging the word’s unsuitability. If they can bleep out bitch, slut (when they do), drug or sex references, lyrics about guns and crime, then it should be no trouble to dispatch faggot into the ether where it belongs. Allowing it on the radio legitimises it, offers it the thin veneer of respectability and acceptability – it burdens the LGBT+ community with making it a problem. The word still has power, sharp cruel fangs, and is still used to demean and destroy lives of young people up and down the UK.
You owe it to them and, frankly, you owe it to me. The fairy-tale ending we all deserve is for hearing that awful word to be an option, not an obligation. As Kirsty also sang, so beautifully: Happy Christmas your arse.
EDIT: It is also worth noting, for anyone doubting that Shane MacGowan knew the offensive meaning of the word, when the song was beaten to no.1 by Pet Shops Boys, he called them “two queens with a drum machine” and has also referred to them as “faggots with synths”. When the song returned to the radio in the mid-noughties and the words slut and faggot were bleeped out, to much outcry, the Pogues said they thought this was “amusing”. When the controversy reared its head yet again in 2018, MacGowan appeared to acknowledge the word was included in the song to be as offensive as possible, thus suggesting he knew it was homophobic. “Sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively,” he said, and he’s not wrong. He also said he had no problem with the word being bleeped out on the radio, “if people don’t understand that I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible”. So there we have it.
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Image: Gabriel Rodriguez