There’s been a fairly predictable response in some circles to the news that Radio 1 will, this year, be playing an edited version of “Fairytale of New York” that cuts out some of the more potentially offensive words.
In particular, the debate revolves around the word “faggot”, which, while not a homophobic slur in the context of the song, is now widely perceived as one. Some people think that it’s wrong to use the word at all, because of its connotations to a 21st century audience, while others are equally firm that the only meaning that matters is the meaning it had when written.
For what it’s worth, I think the whole argument is overblown. Lots of songs are edited for radio airplay, and the decision on what to edit changes over time. Try listening to the uncensored version of most Eminem songs, for example, if you think that radio edits are a bad thing. Or, for that matter, the original wording of “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”. But, on the other hand, radio stations now play “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, despite it originally being banned by the BBC. “When I’m Cleaning Windows”, by George Formby, was once considered too obscene to broadcast.
Radio 1 is perfectly entitled to decide which version of any song, “Fairytale of New York” included, that it wants to play. Other radio stations are equally entitled to make a different choice. It seems to me that the BBC’s decision to treat the song differently on Radio 1 and Radio 2 is sensible. Radio 2’s audience is, typically, more mature and will mostly have grown up with the song in its original context. Radio 1’s listeners mostly don’t have that cultural background, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to have to take a history and etymology lesson before they can enjoy the song.
Personally, I prefer the original. But then, I’m of an age to remember the original, and recall that the word in the lyrics whch was most contentious back then was “arse”. The Top of the Pops version of the song from 1987 keeps “faggot” but changes the line “Happy Christmas your arse” to “Happy Christmas you ass” – although Kirsty McColl cheekily references the original line by slapping her backside when singing it.
These days, nobody has a problem with “arse”, but a lot of people have a problem with “faggot”. The perceived offensiveness of words is very much a cultural thing, and there’s no reason why Radio 1 shouldn’t attempt to reflect the culture of its current audience. In another twenty years’ time, maybe that position will have reversed again. My only hope is that, sometime in the next few years, society will develop a strong aversion to some of the language used in any Christmas single by Paul McCartney and radio stations have to stop playing them altogether. Now that would be a culture war worth winning.