Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Fairytale of Censorship?

In a December 19 op-ed for The Guardian, Peter Tatchell summarizes a recent censorship controversy in the UK:

I am both perplexed and angered by the storm of controversy over the sweet Christmas pop song, Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. The furore is not about the use of the word "faggot" in the lyrics, but the fact that BBC Radio 1 decided to bleep out the f-word. Critics decried it as censorship and an attack on free speech.

A BBC online poll asked the public whether the word "faggot" should be deleted. Over 95% said no. They believe that singing the word faggot is acceptable. Faced with this deluge of criticism, Radio 1 caved in and rescinded its bleep-out. This looks like capitulation to mass pressure, rather than a rational, consistent policy decision.

In Tatchell's view, the BBC was entirely within its rights to bleep the term in question. Brendan O'Neill, on the Guardian web site, argues that the BBC was guilty of both censorship and elitism.

In my view, this incident is merely another example of the kind of silly pseudo controversy that arises in free societies due to the lack of genuine threats to free expression. Like the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction of a few years' back, it neither poses a dire threat to society, nor does not showing it mark the emergence of police state censorship. It is simply an issue of perceived obscenity and community standards, to hopefully be resolved in accord with the wishes of the community. This sounds like what happened.

Make no mistake, Fairytale of New York is a beautiful song, but it is not your father's Christmas song. What the BBC did in this case is simply what American TV and radio outlets have done for years. Indeed, they still do it, as anyone who watches Red Eye can attest.

In my view, the most shocking element of this story is its confirmation that, by some divine miracle, Shane MacGowan still lives. When I saw him live at Detroit's St. Andrew's Hall in August 1995, I gave him two more years at most. He was an hour late coming on stage, slurred his lyrics, stumbled and staggered on stage and had the gaunt, emaciated look of someone who smokes five packs a day. He only performed for an hour, though he was quite proficient at giving the two finger salute to unhappy members of the audience. When my friend went to see him at the same venue in 1999, MacGowan failed to come on stage, and the event had to be canceled.

In his piece, O'Neill provides this description of the present-day Shane MacGowan:

I once read a book called Is Shane MacGowan still alive? The answer to that question wasn't immediately clear as the man himself staggered on to the stage at Brixton Academy last night. With skin as grey as a cadaver's, and a cackle that sounds spookily like a death rattle, MacGowan looked more "living dead" than fully alive.

Then the music started, and Shane began belting out old Pogues classics like a pub drunk who's had one (or perhaps 10) too many.

What's truly sad and ironic is that while MacGowan continues to stagger on like a Guinness-swilling zombie, Kirsty MacColl died in a tragic boating accident in 2000. Her beautiful voice has been silenced, yet a once brilliant songwriter and musician who chose to drink himself into a permanent stupor lives on. Sometimes, life defies rational explanation.

(Edited: 12-27-07, DD. Because if I'm going to write about Shane MacGowan, I should at least spell his name correctly.)


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