Matthew Norman: Moral confusion worthy of topping the charts

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The Independent Online

Can you bear the tension? With two days to go until the singles chart is released, the race for the Christmas No 1 slot captures the imagination as seldom before. Will it be "What You Believe" as performed by shock X Factor winner Leon? Or The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl with so many people's favourite Christmas record, "Fairytale of New York"?

The contrast between these ballads couldn't represent a more telling vignette on our cultural values. Although a ringer for an 18-year-old Pete Doherty, Leon is a clean-living little angel who can't face a TV camera for four seconds without weeping for love of his ma and gran. As for "Fairytale's" co-author and co-singer Shane MacGowan, he was Pete Doherty long before Pete Doherty was born, with a capacity for drink and drugs to stagger the love child of Keith Richards and Betty Ford.

This is a Manichean struggle between the pretty boy with the gleaming white gnashers and the pug ugly, black-toothed troll; between the gruesomely real and the clinically synthesised; between the endearing self-destructive lunacy of old rockers and the sanitised mediocrity of the latest pubescent to roll off Simon Cowell's production line.

Ordinarily, there could only be one winner. Given the choice between a witty and raw song about sorely bruised love, and a glossily produced, sub-Pepsi commercial display of ersatz emotionalism, post-Diana Britain would plump for the latter. And yet the controversy over Radio 1 censoring "Fairytale" threatens to do for its chart position what Mike Reid's fatwah once did for Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax" a quarter century ago.

Once again homosexuality is the source of contention, albeit the genesis of these rows is different. What scandalised Mr Reid, later to write a sadly ill-received musical about Oscar Wilde, was Frankie's spirited proselytising of gay fellatio as a form of stress relief. Now Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt censors a song by removing the word "faggot", for fear of upsetting gay listeners rather than concern about encouraging them. I suppose this shift in sensibilities constitutes progress, although how much I'm not quite sure.

"You scumbag, you maggot," sings the wondrous Kirsty, the seventh anniversary of whose shamefully unavenged death beneath a Mexican plutocrat's speedboat fell on Tuesday, "You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it's our last." The record reached No 2 when first released in 1987, and although it's a clear sign of the anti-gay sentiment at work back then, that it was kept off the top spot only by The Pet Shop Boys, to what extent the use of "faggot" was homophobic isn't obvious.

Myself, I suspect the word was picked primarily as a rare duosyllabic rhyme for "maggot". It could be that the Kirsty character had caught the Shane character in bed with the entire NYPD choir preparatory to its rendition of "Galway Bay". But given that the heart of the lyric is a bitter-sweet exchange of insults between a male and a female lover, it isn't easy to detect the homophobic intent.

Well, it is easy enough for some. When Mr Parfitt was ridiculed for the bowdlerisation, by Kirsty's mother among others, and swiftly relaxed his ban on "faggot", Peter Tatchell wrote an article expressing his outrage. Now I'm almost as fond of Mr Tatchell's work as I am of Kirsty MacColl's, and regret once describing him as a single-issue human being. As his protests against other forms of oppression make plain, he is an exceedingly brave warrior against all manner of injustice, and his fearless harrying of visiting dictators should have earned him a knighthood long ago.

This time, however, you wonder if he has mislaid his sense of perspective. Likening "faggot" to such terms as "nigger", "yid" and "Paki" seems a bit lame. He doesn't advocate banning the word, but argues that the toleration of homophobic language where racist or anti-religious terminology would not be allowed means that, "We queers are yet again being sent to the back of the bus".

Whatever Rosa Parks might have made of the analogy, Mr Tatchell has every right to be cross. A friend remembers overhearing two elderly matrons in Bloom's finding, in a gentile radio presenter wishing his Jewish listeners a happy Hanukkah, blatant anti-Semitism. Taking offence where plainly none was intended is one of the consolations of belonging to any minority (or even, in the case of Christians objecting to the depiction of Jesus as "a bit gay" in the Jerry Springer opera, a majority).

As so often with these sterile debates about nomenclature, however, it is a matter not of words but of tone. If Channel 4 was cowardly and foolish to expel a nave white girl from Big Brother for trying to ingratiate herself with a black housemate by using the word "niggah", Mr Parfitt was even more craven and silly to bowdlerise "Fairytale of New York". For there is, as Mr Tatchell concedes, an obvious distinction between clumsiness or linguistic vulgarity and incitement to hatred and violence and while the latter cannot of course be tolerated, the former should be defended with Voltairian vigour. Allowing freedom of speech right up to the borderline with illegality is the essence of social liberalism, as Nick Clegg may wish to remind us in his new post. John Locke, the daddy of liberal philosophy, would have had no time for Mr Tatchell's musings.

Mr Clegg went to the same school, Westminster, as both John Locke and Shane MacGowan. Yet while he no doubt knows the former's work inside out, he knows nothing of the latter's, and his first faux pas as Liberal Democrat leader was admitting never having heard of "Fairytale of New York". As yet another old boy myself (I have a vague memory that young Clegg was my toast fag), I find this disregard for a fellow alumnus depressing. Worse still, it hints darkly at a swotty disdain for popular culture he needs to disown at once in this case by announcing that he has now listened to "Fairytale" a hundred times, loves it to bits, and calls on all liberal-minded souls to download it without pause between now and Sunday morning.

That's what I'll be doing anyway. A Christmas No 1 would keep Shane MacGowan in Guinness or whatever for years to come, refocus attention on the campaign for posthumous justice for Kirsty MacColl, reaffirm the human right to cause mild offence to those who sniff it out like truffle pigs, and act as an antidote to the pernicious dominion over our musical taste exerted by Simon Cowell. More than all that, though, "Fairytale of New York" is simply a wonderful song that captures the weirdly seductive cocktail of rancour and warmth, irritation and affection that is the true spirit of the family Christmas a little better than the cheap, lousy, faggoty mawkishness of "What You Believe" ever could.