If you look at the playlist called “Christmas Classics” on the music streaming service Spotify, you’ll find The Pogues’ 1987 song “Fairytale of New York” (featuring Kirsty MacColl), a irreverent and embittered holiday tune that includes the line, “You scumbag, you maggot, You cheap lousy faggot.” So… Merry Christmas?
The anti-gay slur in “Fairytale of New York”
To put the song into context, it involves a female and male singer both recalling their broken dreams of love and luck in New York City. The song begins with the male reminiscing in the drunk tank of a police station and soon, the couple sings about the magical romantic evening they shared in New York on one Christmas Eve.
However, when the song starts its second half, the relationship has soured.
MacColl sings, “You’re a bum, You’re a punk,” and Shane MacGowan (The Pogues’ lead singer) responds, “You’re an old slut on junk, Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed.”
She then responds, “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot. Happy Christmas your arse — I pray God it’s our last.”
Here’s the video for “Fairytale of New York”:
As this article explains, 1987 (the year the song came out) was not such a great year for the gay community on account of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan doing absolutely nothing to address the HIV epidemic for fear of “promoting homosexuality.” At least 4,135 people died of HIV that year — most of them gay and bi men, including Liberace — and a frightened American public expressed increasing outward hostility towards gay people.
So when The Pogues and MacColl sang “Fairytale of New York,” they understood the political context of the slur.
Attempts to censor or change “Fairytale of New York”
In 2007, the BBC station Radio 1 edited out the slur to avoid offending listeners but quickly backtracked on their censorship after other listeners and MacColl’s mother complained. MacColl died in 2000, but Alex Needham, a music writer for The Guardian, pointed out that she was hardly homophobic: “She covered [gay musicians] Cole Porter and Noel Coward for the Red, Hot and Blue AIDS charity” and reportedly had a devoted gay following.
Pink News reports that when performing the song on the Brit music TV show On Top of the Pops in 1992, MacColl replaced the line “you cheap lousy faggot” for “you’re cheap and you’re haggard.” In his 2017 cover of the song (below), singer Ed Sheeran replaced it with, “You cheap lousy blackguard,” a rhyming insult for someone who behaves in a contemptible way.
But while the original song’s anti-gay slur undoubtedly stings gay listeners, Needham, argues that the slur is part of the song’s central message and audience:
The millions of people who’ve made it a standard know, “Fairytale of New York” is an anthem for those left outside capitalism’s magic circle — the gamblers, losers, scumbags, maggots and cheap, lousy faggots spending Christmas Eve on the streets or in hospital rather than tucked up in front of the TV with their family and a mince pie.
Featured image by cmart7327 via iStock