By Cosima Worth
(Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl performing a duet of 'FairyTale of New York')
Christmas songs are unique in that they follow a very different trajectory of popularity to almost all other genres of music. Typically, any significant popularity a song achieves occurs within roughly the first year of release, after which begins to fade out of fashion. Whilst occasionally a track might gain status as an immortalised classic, this is usually a credit to its excellence. Nonetheless, every year, with the onset of the festive season, even the tackiest of Christmas songs reliably make a comeback. This year, 26 years after its first release, Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You has topped UK charts for the very first time, exemplifying the enduring relevance of festive tunes.
While Christmas songs have not gone out of fashion, some of their themes certainly have. Earlier this month, Nick Cave criticised BBC Radio 1 for censoring the word ‘f*gg*t’ in The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. He claimed that to do so was “mutilating” the popular hit and “stripping it of its value”. Indeed, it is arguably true that the song’s central purpose is to be vulgar and controversial, and this is a large part of its appeal. Amongst an extensive collection of wholesome, cheerful tunes that portray images of dancing around a Christmas tree and simply having a wonderful Christmastime, Fairytale of New York stands out for its raw, sombre tone. It depicts hard times, and drunken arguments, so there’s an aspect of necessity to the constant use of obscenities.
Nonetheless, times have changed since the track debuted in 1988, and intolerance towards hateful slurs has hugely increased. Whilst no one takes much issue with the term ‘maggot’, its homophobic rhyme is significantly more offensive. So, was Radio 1 right to censor the song? Nick Cave’s response was effectively: ‘if the word is so offensive to younger generations, the track shouldn’t be played on the radio, but if it is played, it should be played in its original form’. It seems a little far-fetched (and mildly obtuse) to suggest that the value of the song rests almost entirely on the inclusion of that one particular word, and that playing the track without it is as good as not playing it at all. If Nick Cave gets such a thrill from the word ‘f*gg*t’, he could just go and listen to the uncensored version of the song on Spotify. It’s not as though Radio 1 were suggesting that all versions of the song everywhere are dubbed over, the suggestion is that those to whom the word is offensive should be free to listen to the radio without having to hear it.
Although this is a very specific case, it plays into a larger problem surrounding whether or not we should allow the perpetuation of harmful messages in outdated Christmas songs by playing them publicly every year. Band Aid’s Do They Know it’s Christmas? is another obvious example. First released in 1984 in response to the ongoing famine in Ethiopia, the song presents some incredibly problematic, paternalistic and downright condescending attitudes towards, effectively, the entire African continent. What was construed at the time as a charitable effort to offer aid and support is now seen as a glaringly obvious example of white saviourism (worsened by the distinct lack of racial diversity amongst the artists originally involved in the creation of the track). Critics have noted that the lyrics portray Africans as helpless and infantile, and neglects to present Africa as a continent made up of 54 separate sovereign states, each with diverse populations and a unique set of circumstances. There’s an arrogance to the lyrics, especially when it comes to the line “tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you”, which depicts an enlightened subset of white western society with a responsibility to share their wisdom and wokeness with ignorant people. It seems ironic, therefore, that the track continues to make public appearances around Christmas time, continuing to ‘teach’ its patronising, western-centric view, despite wide-spread recognition of its shortcomings. In 2014, Band Aid 30 even recreated the song, celebrating its 30-year anniversary as well as raising money for the Ebola crisis. Whilst the lyrics were changed from the original version, reception was still widely negative with recording artist Fuse ODG highlighting the ignorance and condescension of lines such as "there is no peace and joy in west Africa this Christmas".
So, the question stands: should media platforms censor and/or boycott dated Christmas music that upholds old-fashioned attitudes and problematic stereotypes? It’s difficult to think of a solid argument not to, other than the fact people enjoy them, and they hold some nostalgic value. There’s no suggestion, though, that private enjoyment of these tracks should be restricted. The concern is that by continuing to replay these records in their original form in public spaces, the use of hateful language or colonial tropes is endorsed. Having a slightly more limited repertoire of Christmas tunes played on the radio or television, or enduring a couple of poorly-produced dubs in replacement of derogatory language, seems a small price to pay to potentially prevent the continuation of outdated messages.
Image credit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-54999375