The sanity and dignity of Shane MacGowan’s response to the Fairytale of New York controversy is inspiring. He simply stated what the song was about and why the two sad and broken characters spoke the way they did. He was also big enough to say he was “absolutely fine” with the offending word being censored.
I believe Fairytale of New York is one of the finest songs (not just “Christmas” songs) ever written. Musically, it’s a masterpiece; almost operatic in its construction, from the stark opening piano phrase, to the cascading strings that play it out to the end. Lyrically, it condenses what could be a full length feature film into a four minute song. It also has that quality that to me makes a song exceptional: it can work as a stand alone poem without the musical accompaniment. Check out the spoken version by Gerry McArdle and Colette Proctor – you’d need to have a heart of stone not to weep at the sheer heart breaking sadness of it. The inhospitable cold of the New York streets, the utter dejection of the inmates of the “drunk tank”, the shattered lives of two once optimistic people are all contained in those four evocative minutes.
Sadly, many people can hear a song repeatedly, and never really know what it’s about. The worst aspects of human nature kick in, and they focus on one line or phrase (or indeed word) from the song, cheapening it in the process. Try playing Johnny Cash’s Folsome Prison Blues, and a whole room full of punters will join in with gusto on the line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”. They’re not so quick to join in on “I know I had it coming. I know I can’t be free”. Then there are those who want the song to be about something other than what it is. Eric Bogle’s wonderful (but much mangled) anti war song “The Green Fields of France”, contains the line “I can see by your gravestone you were only nineteen, when you joined the great fallen in 1916”. This line is often bellowed to the accompaniment of much air punching and shouts of “Up the RA!” (Lads, it’s about the First World War – the bit about the gas and barbed wire is a dead giveaway.)
So while I personally don’t want “Fairytale” banned or censored, I can well understand the pain of those who do. To have a crowd of drunken, homophobic gobshites taking a line from a song out of context and using it to give utterance to their bigotry and intolerance must, at the very least, touch a few raw nerves. It’s disingenuous at best, and as long as that level of immaturity prevails, there will be demands for censorship.
Take a trip to the Fairytale hashtag on Twitter or (god help us!) to the comments sections of any online publication you care to mention and you’ll find among the genuine, sane comments defending artistic freedom, a plethora of not very articulate disparaging remarks about the “PC brigade” or the “snowflake brigade”, and some pretty hateful offensive invective directed at the gay community. Much of it concluded with the phrase “get over yourselves”. Talking about censorship, there’s a phrase the English language could well do without.
Well done Shane for your grace and magnanimity, and thank you for giving us one of the greatest songs ever written