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There is something that has always bothered me about that word in the Christmas classic “Fairytale of New York”. You know the one I mean. The one that rhymes with maggot. The one that’s a not-so-nice word for gay men.
It isn’t the word, so much, really. It’s the reaction.
You see, it is uttered in response to: “You’re an old slut on junk/ Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed.”
So, Pogues lead singer Shane MacGowan has just taunted Kirsty MacColl with a misogynistic term for having a body so ravaged by substance abuse that she is at that very moment hospitalized, on the verge of death. And she, in turn… calls him gay?
Yet, this moment, when MacColl hurls that slur at MacGowan, is generally accepted to be the point at which the song’s vitriol has reached its most thrilling apex. It’s the line that gets the laugh.
Oof. Society, you’ve got a problem.
Does the song? Yes. And, no. And that’s okay.
I certainly cannot begrudge those who feel hurt. Bigoted slurs are, whatever their context, reminders that too many of our neighbors view queer people as inherently less-than. A minor humiliation for some; more painful for others.
Yet, it is also difficult to read the slur, in context, as an attack on gay people. If anything, it is an indictment of the character using it.
Would the line be written as it is, today? Probably not. Still, it exists, angrily thumbing its nose at our (incrementally) more enlightened time. This puts those airing or performing the song in 2021 in the position of balancing the integrity of a major work against respect for the humanity of their audience. The line is sloppy and unnecessary, yet efficient and somehow perfect in its wild barbarism. And, it could not be any of those things without being the others, as well.
In some ways, then, Fairytale of New York is a victim of its own popularity. The sometimes-brutal tale of an immigrant couple’s love, hopes and dreams shattered against hard times, addiction and old age was probably not meant to be played in Macy’s between Rudolph and Frosty. It was meant to exist outside polite society, where people know that junkies who scream horrible things at their partners are still worthy of love.
Last year, to maintain a prominence on pop radio the song never had any business having in the first place, the label released an alternate version. In it, MacColl instead sings, “You’re cheap and you’re haggard.” I appreciate the consideration. But, I can’t appreciate such a tepid retreat at the song’s darkest, cruelest moment. In this context, “haggard” is practically flirtation.
The alternate vocal is pulled from a 1992 live performance. Some offer this as evidence that MacColl had chosen to stop using the offending lyrics live. I, on the other hand, suspect that she was simply complying with broadcast standards.
What would Kirsty do today? Sadly, we’ll never know. My hope is that she would come up with a line even more brilliant than the original. One that cuts to the bone in a truer, even more vicious way.
If anyone could do it, it was Kirsty MacColl — a remarkable talent who has always deserved greater adulation.
Childhood asthma prevented her from going to school until she was eight years old. Still, when she was five(ish), her mother came home from work to find her reading a copy of Alan Watts’ Nature, Man and Woman. Kirsty had taught herself to read. At age seven, she was tested to have an IQ of 138, and was featured on the BBC’s The Problem with Gifted Children.
As a young woman, she wrote, sang and produced the dazzling songs that defined the Stiff Records sub-genre of vaguely punk, girl-group new wave. These records and her 2000 song In These Shoes? helped, ironically, to make her a minor gay icon.
Later that year — less than a week before Christmas — she died saving the life of her 15-year-old son. She was 41 years old.
However she’d have responded to the controversy, it feels enormously unfair that so much of what is now written about MacColl is focused on a single word in a song she didn’t even write. It isn’t even her only collaboration with The Pogues. In their 1990 fix-up “Miss Otis Regrets / Just One of Those Things”, MacColl’s stolid resignation gives the song a brilliant depth that sets it apart from countless other recordings. It was released on the 1990 AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Blue — a tribute to the very gay Cole Porter.
As for MacGowan, the terrible irony is that he has personally suffered more acute homophobia than many of his critics. His cheekbone was fractured in a vicious men’s-room beating, which his attacker attempted to justify by claiming the singer had made sexual advances toward him. Because we still live in a world in which “gay panic” is a plausible defense.
On its original release, “Fairytale” peaked at #2, missing the prestigious Christmas #1 spot on the UK charts. The honor instead went to the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of “Always on My Mind”. As Pogues manager Frank Murray later put it, “Two queens and a drum machine beat us.”
And, so, I am left with the conclusion that each reaction the song has brought on — its success, as well as its condemnation — has been well-deserved.