Dan Jacobson places The Pogues’ hit song in a wider cultural context
Most likely for no reason other than the prospect of massive material gains, idealised visions of Winter holiday joy continue to be purported in the new wave of films and music offered this year, no matter what your imagination of the perfect Christmas is. We have Daddy’s Home 2 for the children, A Bad Moms Christmas for fanatics of Eat, Pray, Love and It’s Complicated, and a new collection of beloved Christmas songs by Pointless presenter Alexander Armstrong for, well, nobody. The fact of the matter is that these are a digression from our reality, in which Mila Kunis and Kathryn Hahn grinding on a mall Santa would be deemed “socially unacceptable” – “Let’s put the ass back in Christmas” – and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is illegal in most apartments, regardless of how deep Armstrong’s voice is. The true Christmas experience is neither so absurd, nor so idyllically wholesome.
Therefore, it was refreshing to see this reflected in the public opinion regarding the era’s most beloved Christmas songs. This year, The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ and Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ were considered the two greatest Christmas songs, according to television personality Richard Osman’s World Cup of Things, with The Pogues edging it out in the final. Both songs describe an alternative view of Christmas that, today, is both ubiquitous and taboo; as one of loneliness, and the hope and remembrance of better times. The difference is in the way the topics are approached in these songs. ‘Last Christmas’ is a bittersweet tale of love lost, yet seems to be set to a backdrop of extroversion, as is reflected in its music video, which features a collection of friends drinking, skiing, and revelling in Christmas cheer.
The Pogues, in contrast, do not tell a personal story as George Michael does, but instead use their characters as a metaphor for a more profound message. ‘Fairytale of New York’, a song celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, tells the story of an Irish couple who moved to New York, allured by the prospect of fame and fortune, with Kirsty MacColl singing, “When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve/You promised me Broadway was waiting for me.” The song is narrated by Shane MacGowan, who dreams of McColl from his ‘drunk tank’, a cell used to accommodate drunkards. The jaunty melody, crafted by the depth of the accordion, and the fluttering of the pennywhistle, juxtaposes the drunken swearing, and realisation not only of their dreams dashed, but also their naivety, discovered with the benefit of foresight (“I could have been someone”/” Well so could anyone”).
Unadulterated discussion of the brutish realities of life has long been a feature of Irish culture, as might be expected from a people who have survived everything from famine to revolution. One famous example comes in the form of poet Brendan Behan’s folk song ‘The Auld Triangle’, which tells the story of a man held at Mountjoy Prison – most likely for acts of terrorism against the British – pining for his girlfriend back at home. It takes place on the day of the execution of a fellow inmate, as signified by the chiming of the Auld Triangle bell (“And the auld triangle went jingle jangle/All along the banks of the Royal Canal”).
This Irish realism extends far beyond music, and has become particularly pertinent in plays, namely through the work of playwright Martin McDonagh. All characters in his plays set in Ireland are drunk, bored, and detached from the world around them. One possible exception is the eponymous Cripple Billy Claven in The Cripple of Inishmaan, who, longing to escape the idle gossip of Galway Bay, finds himself transported to the States, only for it not to work out as planned. Even when a glimmer of hope presents itself, it is rarely meant to be.
This is further reflected in the experiences of many Irish immigrants, who, attracted by the flickering light of prospect, arrived in New York over the last century. As a result, many found themselves homesick, in poverty, and addicted to drugs and alcohol, similarly to Shane MacGowan. What The Pogues were able to do in ‘Fairytale of New York’ was take this experience, and add to it an air of humanity and community. The drunks in jail are no longer criminals, but “The NYPD Choir”, creating an image of fraternity and joy that is normally far removed from these stories. In addition, “the bells are ringing out for Christmas day”, contrasting beautifully with the prison bells, rung like the Auld Triangle, resulting in an indiscernible separation between celebration and strife.
Recently, there have been indications that ‘Fairytale of New York’ may not stand the test of time as well as it has to this point, thanks to the inclusion of insults like “old slut on junk”, and “cheap lousy faggot”. Pink News described the song as “a reminder – not of a mythical time when it was acceptable to say ‘faggot’, but of a time when people just didn’t care about how unacceptable it was.” This has been countered by the response to Ed Sheeran’s recent cover on the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge, in which he received criticism for his “sanitation” of the song by replacing the insults in question. For a song with its popularity, it is possible that calling criticism of ‘Fairytale of New York’ anachronistic is no longer excusable. Nonetheless, I would also argue the importance of preserving the song’s authenticity, and thus cultural impact, even as a reminder of a less tolerant society.
In his Revisionist History podcast, journalist Malcolm Gladwell dedicates the episode ‘The King of Tears’ to American country music, and its emotional effectiveness. He says, with specific reference to the song ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ by Emmylou Harris, that “we cry when melancholy collides with specificity”. This ‘specificity’ is so affecting on ‘Fairytale of New York’ because the characters in this story are not generic and faceless: they have histories and dreams and problems and turns of phrase. Therefore, we inevitably display a greater empathy when listening to this track, far more so than when thinking about “someone special” whilst listening to Wham!.
This explains why the song remains a Christmas classic. We display mournfulness for the characters as presented in this song, but given that their story parallels that of thousands of Irish hopefuls who found themselves broken and dying, this empathy must extend to them too. And this continues, as these people are not the only ones who may spend Christmas alone, or on the streets, or in prison. It is true that the religious element of Christmas is becoming increasingly rare, but the themes of family and friendship may remain. These are adequately reflected in much of Christmas culture, from Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to my personal favourite Christmas song, Cat Power’s gorgeous 2013 rendition of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, but there is no song or film that epitomises these themes more effectively than ‘Fairytale of New York’.