Louise O'Neill: Fairytale of New York - 'every time I hear the opening chords my teeth grit'

"The conversation around ‘censorship’ that comes up about Fairytale every year is tedious."
Louise O'Neill: Fairytale of New York - 'every time I hear the opening chords my teeth grit'

Picture: Miki Barlok

One of the first ever interactions I had with my boyfriend was at the beginning of the Christmas season in 2017. 

I had tweeted about my dislike of Fairytale of New York and he’d disagreed, calling it a classic. Mine was the controversial opinion because objectively, Fairytale is a great song. 

It creates a lifetime in just over four minutes, and it has that perfect blend of pathos and hope and melancholy that characterises Christmas, especially for those who are far away from home. I’m sure that it will be even more poignant in 2020, with so many expatriates unable to get home for the holidays. 

Having said that, every time I hear the opening chords, my teeth grit. I’ve heard it too many times, forced into too many drunken singalongs at closing time on Stephen’s Night, a stranger’s sweating arms wrapped around my shoulders as they screamed the lyrics in my ear. 

Of course, now I look back at those nights and cringe. A group of young, straight people shouting the word ‘fa**ot’ at the top of their lungs, with nary a thought for any of the queer people present, many of whom hadn’t come out yet. 

Were they hurt? Did they feel silenced? Did they feel frightened that they would not be accepted if they were to reveal their sexuality? I will always feel guilty for my part in that hurt, unwitting or not.

The conversation around ‘censorship’ that comes up about Fairytale every year is tedious.

The song contains a slur about gay people and there’s an effective workaround to that – replace the line with “you’re cheap and you’re haggard,” as Kirsty MacColl did when they performed on Top of the Pops in 1992. 

Shane McGowan said that while he thinks this is “ridiculous”, he is “absolutely fine with them bleeping the word but I don’t want to get into an argument.” 

Songs are always being altered for radio play; just this year, Cardi B’s phenomenally successful WAP had the lyrics “wet ass pussy” changed to “wet and gushy” for its ‘clean’ edit. We’re all used to listening to curse words being cut when played on the radio. Why is such a fuss being made about this particular song?

Most left-leaning liberals I know are not overly concerned with this issue; they’re not calling for the song to be banned, they just believe there’s an easy solution that feels generous and kind and inclusive. End of debate. 

But what’s interesting is how this is being used as bait in the so-called Culture Wars, with those on the Right using it as ‘proof’ that the Left is trying to take away everything they hold dear, sure you can’t say anything these days, can you?

(As I always say, what it is you actually want to say then? Would you want your child calling another child a fa**ot in the schoolyard? Thought not.) 

The right to use a homophobic slur becomes a symbol of something larger, the fight to hold onto supremacy and privilege, to ensure the status quo remains firmly intact. 

The people making the most noise about the ‘censorship’ of Fairytale of New York are, as always, those who want to paint the Left as precious snowflakes, too delicate and sensitive for this world, wanting everyone else to change their behaviour to suit them. 

But when I have talked to gay people, the majority have said that yes, they would rather not have the word ‘fa**ot’ sung at them by drunk, bleary-eyed strangers in the spirit of Christmas, but they’re more concerned with suicide rates amongst young queer people and workplace discrimination. 

That instead of having a debate about a 33-year-old song every December – written at the height of the AIDs epidemic that was ravaging the LGBTQI+ community, no less – our energy might be better spent looking at creating a sex education programme for schools that is inclusive of all gender and sexual identities. 

It reminds me of when, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder, brands rushed to divest themselves of outdated racial stereotypes. Mars dropped Uncle Ben’s name, Quaker Oats changed the name and logo of their Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix. 

This was met with fury from the Right, who saw this as yet another sign that the ‘old ways’ were being threatened, and with bemused resignation from people of colour. 

Those changes should have been made years ago; the imagery was reinforcing harmful and dangerous stereotypes about Black people. But when thousands were taking to the streets demanding justice and radical police reform, changing the name of your rice seemed like a cynical attempt to divert the conversation. 

And that’s my fear when it comes to the Fairytale of New York debacle. That instead of confronting the real, systemic prejudice faced by LGBTQI+ people every day, we are too busy arguing over a Christmas song.

Louise Says:

Watch: Happiest Season. A queer Christmas rom-com starring Kristen Stewart? Sign me up immediately. Highly enjoyable.

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