Something has been playing on my mind lately and I wanted to explore my thoughts, which are by no means conclusive, here (and welcome comments and discussion). What started me thinking was the how in December our sonic surroundings or soundscape drastically change. Christmas songs fill the air and can be heard almost everywhere we go: supermarkets, shopping centres, pubs and restaurants. They are heard on the radio and frequently on television as well as the theatre and in karaoke bars. One of those songs played and performed regularly in the UK is The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, a powerful Christmas favourite that was released in 1988.
The line I want to discuss was a line that was the subject of much controversy at the time of release: “You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot”. Whilst originally the BBC edited versions of the song and removed the term (as well as the term “slut” in the proceeding line), the controversy is now long past – for some forgotten, for others unknown – and since 2007 the song now played by the BBC in its original version. The BBC argued in this case that:
“While we would never condone prejudice of any kind, we know our audiences are smart enough to distinguish between maliciousness and creative freedom. In the context of this song, I do not feel that there is any negative intent behind the use of the words, hence the reversal of the decision.”
I find the use of the term ‘I’ here particularly telling and dangerous. What concerns and interests me more though is that since 1988 the song has become increasingly institutionalised, a seemingly integral part of the Christmas soundscape. This means that the homophobic slur of the song (and by proxy homophobia?) now forms a regular part of my Christmas and has since I was 7. I don’t think we can ignore the effect persisitant (and uncritical) homophobic language has on LGBTQ audiences, and on those in particular who are coming to terms with their sexuality.
My aim here isn’t to put an argument forward for censorship (which only leads to social amnesia and a turning away from difficult issues), but to open up a debate on the relationship between aesthetics, creative freedom identity, and ethics, particularly when an aesthetic object, art practice, or cultural tradition becomes institutionalised and runs in danger or oppressing minority groups and reinstating white, masculine, heterosexual hierarchies. Indeed, this isn’t an attack on the song per se, but the (uncritical) legacy of that song. So what, if anything, should be done?*
I recently read an article that drew my attention to the fact that the Tom and Jerry cartoon series available on Amazon Prime are now accompanied by a statement that highlights the racist nature of some of these cartoons. While this I don’t think provides a satisfactory solution, it does draw the viewer’s attention to the issue and potentially generates discussion, which is better than these cartoons being screened without comments.
So, is an equivalent strategy needed for The Fairytale of New York? Should listeners be informed and warned of the homophobic and misogynistic language? Should the song be played (without edit) by publicly funded corporations and should it form part of an institutionalised christmas landscape if it is played without comment? To what extent are we willing to privilege aesthetics and heritage over and above equality? And what other areas do we need to think more deeply about this issue? Indeed, this is something that goes far beyond the gay community when we think about institutionlised narratives of “normativity”.
Perhaps an alternative solution lies with balance in what we hear at this time of year. Do we need to work harder at ensuring that there opportunities to hear, see, and engage with works that challenge heteronormativity, works frequently hidden from view? And on that note, I’ll leave you with a celebratory LGBTQ christmas song by Bourgeois and Maurice and Sink the Pink. Enjoy.
*It is perhaps worth saying that I like and enjoy the song, but I find it’s performance and legacy problematic.