(Sevens, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, pays tribute to the art of the individual song.)

fairytale new yorkSome of the best holiday songs are the ones that don’t focus on the religious or spiritual nature of the season, but rather on the emotional resonance of a time of year that is centered around the idea of sharing with others – be it gifts, charity or simply time. The Pogues’Fairytale of New York” is exactly that type of song, focusing on the hopes and shattered dreams of a ne’erdowell and a woman who he picks as his last shot at greatness.

My absolute favorite songs are able to transport you to a place you may have never been yourself, say, New York City. The version of New York that Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl create in the song is a New York that doesn’t exist anymore. With images of the policeman’s choir and fantasies of a nobody making it on Broadway, these are the relics of a city of the past. Still, it’s exactly the type of environment that Christmas engenders in our minds. As the two wonder the town – first in love, then in hate, then in melancholic, resigned love again – they evoke the images of a holiday season that, while not amazing for everyone, has the same hopes of yuletide cheer. It avoids the sap of more traditional Christmas songs and instead hits the heart in a completely different way – one that, for me at least, is a lot more affective.

Discussion: While this remains one of my favorite Christmas songs, it holds another past relic and that’s the casual, flippant use of the word ‘faggot.’ As our culture becomes more broadly sensitive to language that is hurtful towards people of different sexual orientations, how do these words in songs make you feel? Does context matter and how much?  words/ j. neas

MP3: The Pogues :: Fairytale of New York

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15 Responses to “Sevens :: The Pogues, Fairytale of New York”

  1. Well said!

  2. That word was jarring the first time I heard it and as such I always forewarn anyone I give the song to. Over time, though, I’ve come to realize that that fairytale is has no wasted words or music. One of the things love about the song is the way it gets across so much vivid imagery and emotion in such an economical way. Even the circular, swirling ending makes me think of the two characters going around and around year after year.
    In that respect I can’t imagine a different lyric there and for me it does mot impede my enjoyment of what is my favorite x-mas related song, hands down.

  3. MAN, this is a sore subject for me. A long time ago I had a friend tell me that my use of words like “faggot” or “gay” in a derogatory sense were inappropriate. I was taken aback because I never thought of it as offensive. I grew up in an environment where it was normal and, to me, it carried no meaning. I took my friends words to heart and I have tried not to use terms like that in a hurtful way. When I first met my girlfriend she said something like “fucking faggot” in a Long Island accent as a way to lambast the NY frat boys who swarm our college town. I told her on the spot that I tried not to say things like that. She almost never talked to me again because she thought I was too uptight. Her defense was that she was saying it IN CHARACTER (she’s an improv comedic actress) so it was okay. I still argue with her to this day that the only way to you can do your part to eradicate words like that is to just not use them yourself in any context. It’s too hard to say if an artist is using a word in a demeaning way, or if they’re making some sort of statement against it. I now live in a limbo between my old friend’s pleas to do my part to strip words like that from our lexicon and my girlfriend’s argument that it’s okay to say it if you’re making fun of someone else’s prejudice, assuming you don’t hold that same prejudice yourself. In the end, this is just a great song and I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever really taken note of that word in the song. I guess that mean’s that it’s okay to use it in an artistic context, but not in a personal one… fucking girlfriend’s right again…

  4. The word ‘Faggot’ in the song is intended to be hurtful. She (Kirsty’s character) is expressing her disgust with him (SHane’s character). It makes perfect sense. Is anyone really offended by it?

  5. I always thought it worked for the song, like sean said above, Kirsty’s character was expressing disgust with Shane’s. It didn’t bother me until I read somewhere about a Macgowan show in Chapel Hill. He apparently made a lot of questionable jokes in poor taste (don’t remember details). Then there was a song or two on Crock of Gold with more of the same type material. I think it was truck drivin’ man or something but the above word was again uttered. Kind of hurt my appreciation for fairytale.

  6. I’ve spent a great deal of my life around homosexuals, and they use the term “faggot” far more times than any of my straight friends. Just like “nigger,” it all depends on context. Just imagine how much great literature or songs that would be a little less so if the artist were muzzled by the possibility that he would piss of some faction of the world because they misunderstood his intent.

    Use language; don’t let it use you,


  7. I can’t tell how much this song has been around for my whole life, it’s part of me. I guess the use of the word is part of the character. About that memory of NYC (never been there, also), go and try the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s “V”. Works the same.
    Again, thank you with that “Sevens”

  8. And here I was just about to put up a new post stating how there have been no good xmas standards to come out since Mariah Carey…

    How could I have forgotten about this one!
    This may not be a standard for most sitting around their fireplace dressing their trees, but for a massive crowd it is.

    Thanks for the reminder and I love the description of it. Honestly I wasn’t too excited for the holidays but after a good listen to Fairytales I’m now ready 🙂

  9. I think in terms of language context is everything. There is a great difference between ‘hate-speak’ and that of a character using a word in a story or song.

  10. There’s some thought that the use of the term here might be a reference to older Irish slang that doesn’t refer to sexual preference, but to a generalized lazy layabout. When paired with “cheap” and “lousy” this reading makes a bit of sense.

    More importantly, nothing else rhymes well with “maggot.”

  11. Yeah, I agree with Brian. Faggot is offensive to the gay and lesbian community (of which I’m a part) but I never heard it as her meaning that. I believe the lazy, shiftless meaning was intended. It’s difficult when current definitions are applied to older English. Besides the Pogues will always have a place in my ear for this brilliant song and album. Saw them live performing it at Tipitina’s in New Orleans.

  12. I had a lesbian roommate who wouldn’t listen to this song because of the word’s use therein, but i think people who let the word diminish the meaning are just looking to be offended. It’s become a de facto spectator sport here in the USA, getting our panties in a bunch over the latest douchebag putting their foot in their mouth. The notion that using a derogatory comment to describe a particular demographic group makes you a racist/homophobe/overall bad person is just the kind of thinking that has turned this once great nation into a bunch of whining pussies (I guess I’ll be hearing from the vagina lobby now)! It’s just language, and our country is only giving MORE power to the words by treating them like this. What ever happened to “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Sheesh!

  13. I’m gay. I’m a monster Pogues fan. Brian is right. It was supposed to be offensive and most importantly gives a rhyme for maggot.

    Like knopfler’s use of the F word in Money for nothing it’s used as a way of portraying the thoughts of an ignorant and aggrieved loser.

    Certainly a more enlightened use than Patti Smith’s attempt to use ‘nigger’ to describe put-upon white visionaries.

    It does not give straight folks clearance to use the word in their everyday conversation though … unless they wish to be seen as losers.

  14. “Fairytale of New York” strikes me, neither as a Christmas song, or even a true Pouges song, but it’s a great one nonetheless. I’d read where it wasn’t a band or Shane favorite, even as its popularity overwhelmed the rest of what they’d done. Its greatness can’t be denied, even by those who’d come to loathe playing it.

    Of course the word in question is not only appropriate in context, but the only word in the world of words for that line. The song, although lengthy in its intro and exit, is a model of written and sung efficiency. The offending word is nestled in a line a midst a stanza that perfectly counters and answers what had come before, from the first warm rush of romance, with each other and the city,

    “You were handsome
    You were pretty
    Queen of New York City
    When the band finished playing
    They howled out for more
    Sinatra was swinging
    All the drunks they were singing
    We kissed on the corner
    Then danced through the night”

    The singers were no more handsome and pretty then, than were New York drunks fanciful vocal artists, but that is the way those things felt, still feel, when remembered all those drunken years later, when the two return to their first love

    “You’re a bum
    You’re a punk
    You’re an old slut on junk
    Living there almost dead on a drip
    In that bed

    You scum bag
    You maggot
    You cheap lousy faggot
    Happy Christmas your arse
    I pray God
    It’s our last”

    They see themselves, at last, as they are, (as they were always?). What awe the closing chords strike, comes from the persistence of the dream of love, even in the pallid light of self-knowledge.

  15. Esoth – Your assessment is spot on, but you left out the most important part: the lovely resolution, which makes the offending word tolerable in the given circumstance and makes the song such a glowing example of what true love is all about:

    “I could have been someone

    Well so could anyone
    You took my dreams from me
    When I first found you

    I kept them with me, babe
    I put them with my own
    Can’t make it all alone
    I built my dreams around you”

    The pair have made it through the difficulty that followed the first rush of love, the honeymoon. They weathered the troubles that couples face, and made it to the more fully realized TRUE LOVE…

    This is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, bar none.

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