‘Fairytale of New York’ might be the best Christmas song ever written, although it’s probably only people of a somewhat cynical turn of mind who think so. The song, by the Pogues with guest vocalist Kirsty MacColl, is a bittersweet tale of a couple of down-and-outers alternately fighting and reminiscing over a grim, bleak Christmas in NYC. It’s a much-beloved seasonal tune, but it has one big problem: at one point, MacColl sings the line, “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot”.
That’s a nasty word, and in recent years it’s sparked a lot of debate over whether it should be heard anymore. Some radio stations won’t play the song. Others will play but will censor the F-word when they do. Some say that a song with such a vicious slur within it should be left on the scrapheap of history and banished from all our Christmas playlists.
Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’ is by no means a Christmas song, but it’s been subject to similar reappraisal. To play or not to play Costello’s strident anti-war polemic, and in particular the lyric “Only takes on itchy trigger/One more widow, one less white n-----”. Unsurprisingly, many people wish to erase that word from history, and therefore would rather erase the song as well.
Now, what a radio station plays, or what a music seller chooses to sell, is up to them, of course. What’s interesting is not so much whether any particular gatekeeper wants to ban a song, as the principles behind the desire to censor music. Very few people, for example, would demand a movie be banned from cinemas because a character says the word “faggot” in it: in film, it’s accepted that characters have flaws and will say and do bad things. In a song, for some reason, we dismiss the idea of “characters” at all. “Fairytale of New York” is a story, but it’s treated, like all songs, as an expression of the songwriter’s personal views. The same could be said of Eminem’s “Stan”, a tale of a deranged fan that was decried by many for the rapper’s “advocacy” of violence against women. As long as there has been music, people have been using it to tell stories: yet for some reason, we struggle with the idea that a songwriter might, as storytellers do, be creating characters that are something other than just a mouthpiece for their own views.
A song like “Oliver’s Army” is a little different, of course – the n-word is quite rightly taboo and generally unacceptable, and Costello is not placing it in the mouth of a character. But do we condemn the singer as racist for using it? I’m of the belief that here we must implement the idea of artistic licence, and remember that in the song, the word is used precisely because of the powerful revulsion it will provoke. It’s a song of outrage, of anger at power’s exploitation of the powerless, and the n-word has been carefully chosen to shock the listener into engaging with the subject. In an artistic context can we accept it for its intended use? I think we can.
This is at the heart of most complaints of musical offensiveness: an unwillingness to look at words and ideas in the context of the songs in which they’re situated. The censor’s urge is an urge to ignore context, to ignore intention, and to focus on some imaginary standard of Good And Bad Things. That’s how the scope of art gets narrowed, how creativity is choked. Better, by far, to accept that songwriters, like all artists, are in the business of expression, and that allowing them free rein makes the world a better place. Occasionally feeling unsettled by a lyric is a small price to pay.