The fairytale of new lyrics

Published By
Mark Lehain
Published On
Published In

Is it just me getting old or does the row about the Fairytale of New York start earlier every year?

This year the kerfuffle was started by the BBC itself, when it announced that Radio 1 would be using only the sanitised version. There’ll be no “slut” or “faggot” for the yoof this Xmas.

The powers-that-be have decided the station’s audience would be offended by these words and so the clean version is more “relevant” for them. Radio 2 listeners are apparently hardy enough to be able to cope with the rude bits, and 6 Music hipsters will hear both versions, depending on a DJ’s personal preference.

Cue social media furore, but confession – I actually think that Aunty has got this call right, albeit for the wrong reason.

The thing is, Radio 1’s target audience these days is very different to what it was in the past. They’re after 15 to 24 year olds. It’s deliberately not aimed at grown ups, and this means it is mindful of younger siblings and other kids hearing its output in passing too. 

Us oldies will remember it as being something much more universal in coverage – but this was in a pre-internet age when there were far fewer stations and those were aimed at a much broader audience. You started on Radio 1 as part of your teen rebellion, and stuck with it until you hit 30, when you went off to listen to Radio 2 in 501s, or Radio 4 in cardigans*.

And talking of cardis: this summer Cardi B, who Google tells me “is an American rapper, songwriter, and actress”, released the sexually explicit song “WAP”. The original wasn’t exactly a composition of lyrical majesty but it, er, got its message over pretty clearly shall we say. It wasn’t a message little Johnny should probably hear, so Radio 1 also played a censored version which bleeped out the rude words and sounded like hip-hop morse code**. 

[There wasn’t outrage at the time about this particular act of censorship as a) the song passed us oldies by and b) youngsters generally consume their music unfiltered on YouTube and Spotify, so get the hard stuff regardless.]

So given that the BBC is aiming Radio 1 at youngsters, I think that it makes sense to air clean edits of material. Put it another way: imagine the outrage if they routinely played uncensored versions that little kids could hear. We have a broadcast “watershed” time, and children-specific channels – and Radio 1 is basically for kids.

That said… While I think it was the right decision, I do think it was for the wrong reason. And it illustrates that the BBC has a long way still to go in understanding its role as an impartial broadcaster.

Radio 1 said that young listeners were “particularly sensitive to derogatory terms for gender and sexuality”, and the BBC said it was allowing its stations to choose “the version of the song most relevant for their audience.”

I actually think they’re wrong on this – and they had it right when they justified playing the “rude” version back in 2007.

Andy Parfitt, who ran Radio 1 at the time, said its audience was “smart enough to distinguish between maliciousness and creative freedom”, and there was no “negative intent behind the use of the words”.

I think the BBC should trust that people are sophisticated enough to handle “problematic” language and lyrics, and differentiate between art, artist, and real life. 

I mean, blimey – if we don’t allow for this, we probably shouldn’t play most blues given the endemic themes of misogyny, substance abuse, and pacts with Satan. And then obviously we would have to move onto sanitising Every Breath You Take (obsessive ex-lover/stalker alert), Living Doll (how could you Cliff?!?), and any other number of classics, including Cold Outside. Oh wait, people have already tried to cancel that!

Treating its audience as adults would mean that it played original versions of songs, relaxed that they knew Shane MacGowen & Kirsty MacColl were playing characters, not themselves. After all, we’re trusted to know that Sting isn’t actually a weirdo stalker, Cliff a possessive lover, or Tom Jones an old lech…

Alas, when it comes to woke issues, Aunty still thinks it knows best. Hopefully the new boss Tim Davie can change things in this regard. That really would be a Fairytale of New Broadcasting House this Christmas!

* Second confession – I made the shift aged 20, and still enjoy Start the Week in my fav M&S cardi.

** Third confession – I’ve not actually listened to either version, but am reliably informed of this by my popular culture consultant Amy.

Mark Lehain


Become a part of our movement...