Fairytale of New York in the dock for Homophobia

It’s Christmas! And this year, among my circle friends and those I hang out with in the arts scene, there have been discussions around that hardiest perennial of Christmas songs, the Pogues’/Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York. The conversation has been in regard to accusations of homophobia in the lyrics and against the backdrop of the recently altered landscape of Irish society in terms of equal marriage, repeal of the 8th amendment, LGBTQ and gender rights, it seems obvious that the inclusion of the word ‘faggot’ in the list of traded insults between the straight couple at the song’s bursting heart is problematic, right?

So I wondered, paying attention to LGBTQ friends who have obviously been hurt by the term’s co-option, why I hadn’t particularly felt insulted by the term in that song before, and whether I had been tone-deaf to something while perhaps falsely hearing some excusing subtlety that wasn’t there.


These are the explanations for the offence having passed me by that I considered.


– I’d wondered if there was something about the American-Irish set-up of the lyrics which gave a different nuance of the word? Or even whether the word had literally a different, alternative meaning (beyond the bundle of sticks one, or meatball ones…). I hear people saying a lot, for example that a certain c word is statistically used much more in Scotland than in England and considered much less offensive (I’d love to eavesdrop on the street surveys I like to imagine being used to determine this information) or even that it meant something different – thinking of how the word clart differs in Scots and Jamaican lexicons, say. But it was two Irish-connected people in particular who brought the current thinking around the song to my attention so this seemed less likely than I’d thought. And on investigation I realised that Kirsty MacColl was English – I’d somehow thought she was Irish, so live and learn etc.


– I wondered if I’d let the song off the hook because of being character-based, something about it being like a play. The characters would say this. And I got a thrill, like I do when I watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the exhibitionist searching for one-up insults in a hopelessly enmeshed and entangled love/codependency. I realise though that beyond this dramatic scene, this moment in the song has evidently been taken out of context in spontaneous shout-a-longs reported by other queer friends, where I’ve been told of obvious enjoyment of presumed straight people singing the taboo word with relish. And I imagine I would have felt much more uncomfortable if I had been in those situations, and felt threatened – like it was some call to homophobic arms.


– But then there’s another possible explanation for the song lyric’s appeal. I say ‘appeal’ to include the shouty thrill mentioned about and the enjoyment even I as a gay man think I felt at the problematic moment in the song. It’s something to do with representation. A friend I used to be in a band with told me that in a discussion about why homophobia was so present in certain genres of music (I think they were talking about hip-hop and dancehall and this would have been about 10 years ago) a friend suggested that a homophobic attack or slur might be in a lyric as one of the only ways (apart from encoding and regendering maybe, aka Noel Coward etc.) that same-sex desire could be talked about in the fiercely sexual and genderpoliced communities where the music came from. Better to say something offensive and get a thrill from it’s closeness to your desire, rather than not be able to talk about it at all.


– And I think there’s a perception I had that the way that the straight couple in the song include this insult along with ‘old slut on junk’ (interestingly the only term asterisked out on the lyrics site I visited) and the colourfully anglo-saxon scumbags, maggots and bums, makes a celebration in their debasement of a true seeing of people’s range of behaviours, including sexual ones. I guess I think something like the guy she’s singing to maybe *does* like having sex with men as well as with women. And I enjoyed being winked at in the song as the man that might have been one of those he’s had sex with. And I liked the honesty of her calling it in to her depiction of him.


And that might all be far-stretched and rose-tinted. I also remembered that the same band I mentioned earlier writing a song in response to the homophobia of Ragga lyrics about a ‘trannie’ who was taking the culture on, having a good time and calling the frontmen out for their sexual double standards. I can’t imagine writing that song now. I have since educated myself more about trans experiences and I see the way we conflated a lot of issues around LGBT inclusion into a trans character, as well as the way that no one in our band was trans, would mean I would choose a different character instead, if I wrote the song at all. I had a glimmer that some of my band’s LGBTQ politics were in conflict with other people’s when we were invited to perform at a queer night called Fag Club, and brought out a mixed straight/queer audience to the gig. I remember being vaguely offended when I heard that some of the queers present had producted a zine about queer spaces and how our night had not worked for them. Now I would like to see that zine!

Maybe there’s a way of framing my song and the lyrics of Fairytale of New York as something that felt, or hopefully *was*, productive in its time and place in pushing back against an oppression. Hopefully they’re part of the success that leads to their own content seeming outmoded and embarrassing at this later, present time.

For Fairytale of New York, I think I am guilty of not having thought about the use of the faggot enough. Having done so, I feel like I may continue to claim something about that problematic lyric moment as part of my life-history experience of queerness. I will remember the excitement it gave me as a gay/queer person, but I am now thinking that we are in a hard-won position to move beyond the use of that word in such a song because in terms of representation and respect, we are achieving that in healthier, more supported ways.

I have shifted in my feelings towards this song, and the pasts it anchors me to. And this change becomes part of a complicated nostalgia for times that were never simply worse or better that the song performs so beautifully.