The BBC’s decision to censor The Pogues is wrong…and entirely predictable

When Nick Cave takes the time to pen an impassioned defense of a song, you take notice. At least, I do.

The rock legend was roused into action earlier this week after learning of the BBC’s announcement that it would censor The Pogues’ song “Fairytale of New York” on Radio 1 out of an abundance of caution for the way younger listeners might receive certain lyrics.

I searched for a way to abridge Cave’s words, but in solidarity with his own convictions, it felt more appropriate to keep a section of his words—four paragraphs’ worth, in this instance—unabridged. In large part because they are brilliantly conceived and deserve to be read in the original.

Now, once again, Fairytale is under attack. The idea that a word, or a line, in a song can simply be changed for another and not do it significant damage is a notion that can only be upheld by those that know nothing about the fragile nature of songwriting. The changing of the word ‘faggot’ for the nonsense word ‘haggard’ destroys the song by deflating it right at its essential and most reckless moment, stripping it of its value. It becomes a song that has been tampered with, compromised, tamed, and neutered and can no longer be called a great song. It is a song that has lost its truth, its honour and integrity — a song that has knelt down and allowed the BBC to do its grim and sticky business.

I am in no position to comment on how offensive the word ‘faggot’ is to some people, particularly to the young — it may be deeply offensive, I don’t know, in which case Radio 1 should have made the decision to simply ban the song, and allow it to retain its outlaw spirit and its dignity.

In the end, I feel sorry for Fairytale, a song so gloriously problematic, as great works of art so often are, performed by one of the most scurrilous and seditious bands of our time, whose best shows were so completely and triumphantly out of order, they had to be seen to believed.

Yet, time and time again the integrity of this magnificent song is tested. The BBC, that gatekeeper of our brittle sensibilities, forever acting in our best interests, continue to mutilate an artefact of immense cultural value and in doing so takes something from us this Christmas, impossible to measure or replace. On and on it goes, and we are all the less for it.

Perusal of Cave’s Red Hand Files over the past two years or so has evoked in me something akin to what software engineer Moxie Marlinspike said in a Wired article a few years back, that as a kid spinning his wheels in school in the nineties, discovering the internet “felt like a secret world hidden within this one.”

Much like Marlinspike’s main tenets (sorry, but I’ve been on a deep dive of the guy since seeing him on the Joe Rogan Experience), Cave has no fear of letting his beliefs be known.

In a world that is being increasingly sanded down, it’s fun to see people punch back against the dying of the light. They are committing no harm, simply using words to tell a story. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to listen. Strangely, that option is never entertained seriously by the pro-censorship crowd. At the very least, check your ego and get out of the fucking way.

I remember reading profiles of Jack White and Adam Driver in Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, respectively. The journalists in both cases took their subject to task for … the content they consume.

According to Brian Hiatt, of Rolling Stone,

“White does mention a fondness for the controversial author and YouTube philosopher Jordan Peterson, though he’s apparently only seen him talking about religion. “He’s got more intelligence in his brain than his body can handle,” he says. Later, I mention the anti-feminist, anti-political-correctness screeds for which Peterson is also known. “I didn’t know about that,” White says. “Maybe we should drop that whole thing now!”

Then, Michael Schulman on Driver: “The first time he saw Fight Club,” (Driver) said, “I felt kind of sick. It made me feel very strange. But then I watched it again almost immediately.”

A little further down the piece, Schulman adds:

“While discussing Fight Club, he asked what I thought of the movie. I said that I hadn’t seen it in years but wondered how it would play in an era when people are hyperaware of toxic masculinity. ‘What do you mean, ‘toxic masculinity’?’ he asked. I suggested that male aggression is seen as less purifying now than it may have been portrayed as being in Fight Club. ‘I’d have to think about it,’ Driver said. ‘I mean, I haven’t heard much about toxic masculinity.’ He chuckled. ‘Maybe because I’m part of the problem!’

At the time of reading both articles, I felt much like Driver watching Fight Club with fresh eyes. Queasy. Then, I went back and read over the passages that provoked me. A fire raged in my head. When it died down a bit, and I had allowed enough space for a bit of reflection, I realized that what had upset me so was exactly what drove Cave to offer up a stringent defense of Fairytale of New York. It has become accepted—even encouraged, in some instances—behavior to get one’s grubby little hands on another’s art—the process or the product, it matters not. The journalist was inserting himself into the article. For a moment, he was the star.

This, from Peter C. Baker’s piece for the New Yorker researching “the men who still love Fight Club,” which dropped a week or so after the Driver profile appeared. Decide for yourself if the timing is incidental.

Recently, when I checked out Palahniuk’s novel from my local library, the librarian, a woman in her thirties, visibly struggled to hide her displeasure. She had bad memories, she explained, of an ex-boyfriend who badgered her not just to watch the movie and read the book but also to acknowledge its genius. Experiences like these seem to be fairly widespread, and are referred to often on social media. Of course, “Fight Club” (both the book and the movie) has its share of female fans. But it’s also a symbol for certain insistent myopias of masculinity. The story has just one female character of any significance: Marla Singer (portrayed in the film by Helena Bonham Carter). The nameless narrator pines for Marla, though we never see him getting to know her well; Tyler uses her for acrobatic sex followed by emotional neglect. What does it mean for a man to tell his girlfriend that this, of every movie in the world, is his favorite, or the one with the most to say about gender today? Among women who get in touch with Dr. NerdLove, O’Malley told me, “It’s kind of, like, Yeah, if his favorite author is Bret Easton Ellis, his favorite movie is ‘Fight Club,’ and he wants to talk about Bitcoin or Jordan Peterson — these are all warning signs.”

Reeling from this dystopian, censorious bilge, Lias Saoudi’s monthly musings in The Social quickly became another tonic after I stumbled upon them in September and proceeded to feast on his previous posts. The latest was a perfect illustration of the BBC’s Pogues pièce de résistance, as well as Hiatt’s and Schulman’s ill-conceived attempts to inform artists’ creative process.

…Fat White Family was never going to be that kind of band. It was formed out of sheer spite. Spite unto the world that rejected me and my companions on account of our obvious defects. Our being drug addled, socially crippled, mentally ill reprobates wasn’t posturing. It was like a club for useless, angry young men driven to breaking point by the job office. We pooled our collective sense of embittered enfeeblement, our childhood traumas, our flaccid rage, turning them into a kind of public exorcism, one that eventually became too vulgar for people to ignore.

The first thing about Fat White Family that got me was their sheer, infectious enthusiasm, set to some sublimely catchy sound. It’s hard not to keep a little hope for humanity when you see that they played “Is It Raining in Your Mouth?” on Letterman. It made me think anything is possible.

I was surprised to hear of Saoudi express the torpor of touring. But after some reflection, it made sense. I can only comment upon a concert experience based upon my experience as a fan. I’m coming in for one show, to hear a favorite song or three, in the inimitable context of live performance. I don’t have to think about being the lead singer up on stage, singing the songs for the hundredth time. Of course fatigue would set in.

But this is exactly what is lacking in Hiatt and Schulman—a realization that they do not know what stokes the fire of the artist they’re interviewing. How interaction with some perceived “questionable content” might be taken in and gestate in the mind, emerging down the line in the form of an unalterable good—art. Censorship denies the opportunity for that kind of transformation to take place.

It is a worldview that goes hand in hand with living through history in real-time and considering yourself capable of delivering the definitive commentary upon it. Any historian worth his salt would slap that notion out of your head, informing you that truth only arises when it is treated with the priceless commodity of perspective.

Think of a good friend who was mired in a destructive relationship. Try as you might to reason with him, he would not heed your well-intentioned advice. He was too close to it; he couldn’t see it from your vantage point. Therein lies part of the tragedy; in a way, it’s not really fair for you to comment upon it, either, because you can’t see it from his up-close angle. Into this disconnect, with two contrasting theories of what will work, we get the messy nature of life.

The only saving grace would be to approach each other as equals, and try to take advice without feeling threatened by it. But of course that’s not what happens today.

One of my favorite features of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series is his steadfast devotion to telling the story, without implicating the participants or rendering judgment upon them. It would be a profound disservice. Put yourself in the shoes of anyone going through “history”, and you quickly realize how easy it is to get ground up in the gears of the rapidly moving current. To quote Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age, when you really get down to it, about anything, “No One Knows.”

Songs are a world all their own. Cave understands that. So does Saoudi. They should be held sacrosanct. And in terms of what is acceptable? It’s all OK, or none of it is. Every time an election rolls around, we’re bombarded with the sound byte so favored by politicians: I believe in the (insert country of choice) people.

Funny how that belief evaporates when it comes to trusting the people to be mature enough to deal with, say, a naughty lyric in a song. But that’s just par for the course. Actions speak louder than words.



Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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