The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 9: Fairytale of New York

a-charlie-brown-christmas

 

More than any other selection on our Advent Calendar, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of The Pogue’s Fairytale of New York.  And in fact, this is as good a time as any to note — indeed, for the first and only time during this entire project — that the video below is NSFW.

Not having grown up in the UK, I was unsure for years if Fairytale was meant to be a Christmas song, or merely one of those songs that happened to have the word “Christmas” in it.  (Like Ben Fold’s Brick, for example.) Fairytale did not get the airplay in the States that it did in Great Britain, and so for years it was simply a favorite track on the non-Holiday album If I Should Fall From Grace With God.  It would be almost twenty years after I first heard the album that I began to hear it on the radio during the holidays and noticed it being covered on other artist’s holiday albums.  As it turns out, the song was in fact written to be a holiday single, and has been treated as one in the UK since its release.

Fairytale is meant to be sung in two parts, male and female, similar to Baby It’s Cold Outside. This, of course, is where similarities between the two pieces begin and end.  While Loesser’s number infers first love (or first lust, anyway), Fairytale gives a glimpse into a toxic relationship between lovers, which over the years has rotted into mutual pain and hostility.  Each of the lover’s remembers the sweeping passion that overtook them on the drunken December night that brought them together, but at this point their love has turned to hate.

“I could have been someone,” laments the male singer, blaming his life’s failures on his partner.

“Well so could anyone,” the female replies, equally disgusted with his lack of success.

And that’s about the nicest exchange the two can muster.  The song’s lyrics are as thoroughly depressing as its melody is sublime.

In the original, the two parts are sung by Pogues front man Shane MacGowan and guest Kristy McColl.  MacColl was the wife of If I Should Fall From Grace With God’s producer, Steve Lillywhite.  Relatively unknown at the time, her biggest claim to musical fame after Fairytale outside of the UK is as the songwriter of Tracy Ulman’s hit song They Don’t Know.  During the week before Christmas of 2000 MacColl would take a holiday with her children in Cozumel, Mexico.  While swimming at Chankanaab reef she would be struck by a motor boat and killed.[1]

The song is also somewhat controversial due to its language.  When the song was first aired in 1987, the BBC dubbed out two words: “slut” and “f**got.”  After public outcry about the removal, the BBC switched course and reinstated the offending language on air.

MacGowan, who wrote the song with Jem Finer, went on record as finding the whole thing “amusing,” noting that in their home of Ireland, the word f**got referred to someone lazy.  (An odd and weak tea olive branch to extend to the gay community, to say the least.)  Though in his… um… defense (I guess?), MacGowan was anti-social to the point of self-parody.  He was willing to spout off offensive remarks toward any group or individual whenever he was fall-over drunk, which he was pretty continuously.  More often that not, he would often show up to press interviews plowed off his gourd, replying to questions with slurred and sometimes incoherent answers.  By all accounts the rest of The Pogues thoroughly despised him, and finally kicked him out of the band in 1992.

Consider Fairytale one of our Advent’s Calendar’s few brief lapses into Bah Humbug territory.

And for those wishing a different take on this modern classic, here is a version from Florence and the Machine with Billy Bragg:

 

And for those like me that have long wished for a quality cover with Pogues-like instrumentation that avoids the “F” word altogether, here’s a great version by the always fabulous K.T. Tunstall which replaces the word with blaggard.

 

[1] In the UK, MacColl’s death is something of a controversy.

The area where she was swimming had restrictions on motorboats, and the vessel that killed MacColl was clearly in violation of the law.  The boat belonged to Mexican grocery store magnate Guillermo González Nova, president and part-majority owner of the $4.5 billion chain Comercial Mexicana.  Nova was on board at the time of the accident, and according to witnesses (including some of the boat’s passengers) was at the wheel when it struck MacColl.

Under Mexican law, you can escape jail time for certain crimes by paying a percentage of your annual wages to both the state and the victim, and this arrangement includes the crime of manslaughter.  After the accident, a low-wage Comercial Mexicana employee claimed that he and not Nova was the pilot at the time.  Because of his low wages, he escaped jail time by paying the Mexican government the equivalent of $90 US dollars, and MacColl’s estate the equivalent of $2,150.  Pretty much everyone assumes the fix was in.

At various times over the years when public outcries have grown loud enough, the Mexican government has publically announced that it would immediately take action.  To date, it has done nothing.

 

 

The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar

Introduction

December 1 — God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

December 2 — Merry Xmas (War Is Over)

December 3 — Baby It’s Cold Outside

December 4 — Maybe This Christmas

December 5 — Oh Hunnukah

December 6 — You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch

December 7 — Jingle Bells

December 8 — Merry Christmas, Baby

 

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37 thoughts on “The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 9: Fairytale of New York

  1. Fairy Tale of New York is a guilty pleasure of mine. Its a great song and capture the bah humbug spirit more than anything else than any other song. Most bahg, humbug songs like Christmas Wrapping tend to give in and become bright an cherry Christmas songs at the end. Fairytale of New York is non-stop bah humbug from start to finish.

    One one level its good, a little bit of cynicism is necessary at times. People need to be reminded that even during holidays its never cheery for everybody and that the holiday magic in movies does not exist in real life. At the same time, so many people love Christmas and all its associations that liking this little bit of cynicism and negativity seems abusive. Why should people have the Christmas fun and optimism destroyed? What good does that do?

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    • I don’t know. But the Christmas fun and optimism seems to die about the point where the Dad gets his latest paycheck (about the only money he’s got), and realizes he can’t afford to get what Junior wants.

      This whole thing is reminding me of the Nostalgia Chick’s commentary on Christmas songs.

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      • Once again you never fail to astound. I realize that lots of people are struggling at this time of year, I say so in my response. Its not a universal thing though. Lots of people of all socio-economic groups do have nice Christmas holidays. Sometimes, its important to remember the sweet side of life to. If only a little.

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      • Awesome, an argument between two Jews about whether people can enjoy Christmas without money and gifts!

        LeeEsq wins, of course (when has Kimmy ever been right?).

        One of the best Christmases I ever had was the first one my wife-to-be and I spent together. We had very little money, didn’t really know each other well enough to know what to buy each other as gifts, and lived in a really crappy apartment. With a roommate we went down to a Christmas tree lot, bought a tree that maybe was two feet high and rode home on the streetcar with it. At one stop a little kid saw the tree through the window, and as the door opened we heard her exclaim, “we get to ride on the Christmas bus!” We bought a little bit of plaid ribbon, made some popcorn, and decorated it with strung popcorn and little plaid bows; no lights. It was great, and we didn’t need money to do it.

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      • James,
        I’m always right. I will admit my views may indeed be colored by knowing entirely too many people who have worked in retail. Take a look around a mall at Christmastime, you’ll find few people over the age of 15 truly happy. I’ll grant this is worse in Pittsburgh (I do have the stats on that, if you’re truly bored).

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      • Kim, is there anybody you don’t know? You seem to know people from all walks of life and at every conceivable socio-economic level. There have only been four things you have been consistent on in blog conversations; your gender, your marital status, that your Jewish, and that you live in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, you have said so many mutual inconsistent things that I’m not sure when your telling the truth or not. You have gone beyond simple trolldom and into the realm of performance art.

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      • Kim, have you ever considered the possibility that the people are unhappy because they live in Pittsburgh rather than its Christmas? When I was in San Francisco for Thanksgiving, lots of people looked happy because they were in a good place.

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      • Lee,
        Yup, tons of people. Mostly in sports.
        I do know a guy who used to get phone calls from Madden,
        but that’s business (video games)…

        I’m not sure what you’re picking out that’s “mutually inconsistent”…
        I sit on a bus. I talk with people. I sit on a plane, I talk with people.
        Ya meet an awful lot of people in your life. Hear an awful lot of stories.

        Have you ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder? We got it so bad
        in Pittsburgh, that even the criminals get depressed and our crime rates
        plummet (no, I’m not kidding. pull the stats if you don’t believe me).
        We’re cloudier than Seattle — in February.

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    • I think that “liking this little bit of cynicism and negativity” is actually a path through to optimism – or at least contentment – about the holidays for a lot of people who would otherwise be having a hard time with it. I think it’s a mistake to think that when people love something hard and prickly, it’s because they are hardened toward others.

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    • it’s hardly a case of bah humbuggery. it is not, perhaps, npr white people levels of “happy” but having grown up with the “…and then he died” genre of irish-american storytelling, it is pretty uplifting.

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  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEFpgb1a9DE

    A modern version by Stars from Montreal

    I love Fairytale of New York but I think it is way too bitter and cynical for most Americans. Like you, I don’t much of anything about Christmas celebrations in the UK. I do have an outsider and anthropological prospective on Christmas in the US. Yay for being Jewish.

    Christmas in the US seems to be about jam-packed joy and squee. It is supposed to be a holiday of innocent wonder for everyone. Very Dickinsian. Nothing bad is supposed to happen in the American sense of Christmas no matter who you are. It is supposed to be about as much warmth as humanly possible.

    Fairytale of New York is a reminder that sometimes people are alone on Christmas and/or bad things happen during this time of the year. The narrator spends Christmas Eve in the drunk tank and is companion is presumably a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future if does not clean up and based on the lyrics he probably will not.

    I don’t think Americans can stand having such thoughts close to their Christmas, the only ugly things we like during this time are Ugly Sweater Parties.

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    • From what I can tell, Christmas in the UK is just as sentimental and schmaltzy as the American version for the most part. There seems to be more emphasis on food in the British Christmas though. In the United States, Thanksgiving is the big meal holdiay. There is obviously no Thanksgiving in the UK so Christmas takes up the slack.

      One major difference is basically a media-centered one. In the United States, even the most cynical or sarcastic shows seem to be unable to keep up the negativity for the Christmas episode. In the UK, the cynical sitcoms are just as cynical at Christmas.

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  3. What is great about this song is that it is truly sentimental along with taking an unvarnished view about how hard xmas is for many people. The couple do love each other and can remember why. But they are also homeless and addicts, and have led a hard life which has them close to beaten down.

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      • I remember them as a being a homeless couple….hmmmm… I can’t watch the video now, i wonder if i got it from there. Really what are the chances my memory is mistaken.

        And there is a real sweetness to the at the end of the song.

        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 out alone
        I´ve built my dreams around you

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  4. I think of the relentlessly upbeat denouement of Christmas as part of the religious story. Christmas is the beginning that leads to Easter, and redemption.
    With Fairy tale, I always thought the last verse was a re-commitment between the couple. They love but they are addicts, and being co-dependent and toxic, they’re probably not good for each other. But they love, so they stay.
    (I know a co-dependent couple. The dynamic was really bad for a long time. As each one would hit bottom and try to get clean, the other would sabotage the effort. I thought the only chance was to split up. But, at one point the cycles meshed, they cleaned up together and are still strong for each other. The relationship that fostered the addiction and destruction is now supporting them. So, I listen to this song with them in mind. And hear the hope.)

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  5. Those covers are excellent, but somehow the original version of this song will always be the ONLY version for me. And if finding some small measure of love and hope in even the direst and most miserable circumstances *isn’t* a Christmas message, well, what is?

    Shane McGowan is… a piece of work. I have this video of him stumbling through Parting Glass (not a holiday song, I guess, except that it is traditionally sung on New Years’ Eve, so I grew up assuming it was one) as one of my Youtube favorites, and it breaks my heart every time I watch it:

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  6. Question for my fellow gays:

    Is anyone bothered by the use of the word “faggot” here? It’s a harsh, terrible word, but isn’t the point of the song that these people are in a place where they’re calling each other harsh terrible names? I can understand bleeping it for radio play, but actually changing the lyric is pretty weaksauce.

    I feel pretty similarly about “Money for nothing”.

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