The Nightmares Beyond the F-Slur: The Deeper Homophobia of "Fairytale of New York"

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” could be about a woman back in the day taking agency of her sexuality, feeling brazen after imbibing a little bit, not wanting to seem “easy,” but wanting to get laid. On the other hand, in 2018, it could be about a man literally slipping something into a woman’s drink and telling her it’s snowing, so she ought to stay the night, even though she’s saying “no no no.” Either way, it’s polarizing; is it a feminist anthem or an ode to rape culture? I see both arguments.

Christmas songs have fucked-up lyrics! Grandma’s getting run over by a reindeer, Mommy’s kissing Santa Claus and the kids are pleading for Daddy not to get drunk at Christmas. Bono howling “thank God it’s them instead of yooooouuuu” in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is steeped in self-parody.

Christmas movies aren’t an exception, with A Christmas Story’s cringey Chinese restaurant caricatures, White Christmas glorifying the days of minstrel shows and the countless garbage men of Love, Actually. But in light of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” being pulled from Canadian radio this holiday season, I want to focus on another song that really has no place in 2018 - The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”

“Fairytale of New York” is a wildly popular Christmas standard in the UK. Over the past few years, there’s been debate about its lyrical inappropriateness, with censorings and un-censorings over the past few years.

In its original context, “Fairytale of New York” is a punky Celtic pop ditty about a guy in the drunk tank, reminiscing about an old love turned sour over the course of various Christmases.

But listening to it today? All I hear is a hetero couple going from gleefully partying in the streets with NYC cops to drunkenly yelling slurs at each other. Infamously, Kirsty MacColl calls Shane MacGowan the f-slur.

“Fairytale of New York” was released on November 23, 1987, and stayed at number one for five weeks. But ever the underdogs, The Pogues failed to get the coveted UK #1 Christmas spot -- Pet Shop Boys’ “You Were Always On My Mind” snatched it. Shane MacGowan allegedly complained, “We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine.”

Charming.

The pedantic “well, actually”ing of the f-slur being “old Irish slang for a lazy person,” thus removing it of any homophobia, is nonsense. The meanings of words change. And the f-slur is loaded.

It’s not just about the word, though; it’s about the context.

The New York City that MacGowan romanticized in 1987 was hardly a fairytale for its LGBTQ+ community. In that decade, NYC was America’s most-affected city of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Homophobia extended further to doctors who refused to treat patients and politicians who ignored pleas to help. We lost countless people to this then-deadly disease. We shouldn’t have.

New York’s LGBTQ+ community still has rightful grievances with the NYPD. And it’s no better in my home city of Toronto. In fact, it’s much worse than some of us knew.

Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community has a long and fraught history with cops, stemming from the Operation Soap bathhouse raids in 1981. In 2016, Black Lives Matter demanded that uniformed cops not participate in future pride parades. Pride Toronto abided by this, acknowledging they needed to prioritize making Pride a space more inclusive of people of color, and that police presence creates an unwelcoming atmosphere towards the groups of folks it targets the most. There was no police presence in the Toronto Pride Parade in 2017 and 2018.

In a shocking move, Pride Toronto’s Executive Director, Olivia Nuamah, is welcoming Toronto police to apply to march in 2019 after a nightmarishly horrible 2018 for Toronto’s gay community.

2018 was the year that, after years of denying that there was a serial killer in Toronto’s gay village, Bruce McArthur was charged in the murders of at least eight different men. At least six of the eight men identified were men of color. LGBTQ+ people, particularly those of color, continue to be oppressed by authoritative figures. Nuamah inviting police participation in the Pride Parade next year in light of the murders is beyond sickening.

It doesn’t matter what the f-slur meant at one point in history. Its evolution as a violent epithet towards LGBTQ+ folks is what matters. MacGowan recently released a statement, justifying its use in only the way an old, out-of-touch cis hetero man could, saying it’s a character using the slur, “but she is not intended to offend!” At the end of his statement, he brushes the controversy off, saying “I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word but I don’t want to get into an argument.” Which… that’s your privilege, Shane MacGowan.

In the year 2018, the f-slur has no place in popular music, so let’s give it a rest with “Fairytale of New York.” We’ve got “Last Christmas.” We’ve got “Christmas Wrapping.” We’ve got all of the classics, especially “All I Want for Christmas is You”! And even better? None of these faves have cloying, overly-jaunty penny whistles, let alone anti-gay slurs!

Forgive Me, Lana, for I Have Sinned

Last summer I needed new music. I got in the habit of putting on a couple of playlists on my streaming service at the time, Apple Music – mostly The A-List: Pop and The A-List: Alternative. I found a few bops here and there, and even ended up discovering a new favorite Scandinavian songstress, Anna of the North.

I’m not sure which playlist it was on, but one song captivated me. A woman breathily singing about climbing up the “H” of the Hollywood sign, then a falsetto voice joining her, proclaiming that saying the good die young just ain’t right.

I stopped chopping vegetables to see exactly who was singing this dreamy ballad. It was Lana del Rey and The Weeknd.

The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face” was already an established bop. I hadn’t paid much mind to Lana del Rey, though. I mean, I remembered when “Video Games” came out and, sure. It was fine. And I remembered the disastrous Saturday Night Live performance. And there was that one night I was white wine white girl drunk with “Young and Beautiful” on repeat. I didn’t’ get my friends’ obsessions with her.  But “Lust for Life” was different. All of a sudden, I was yet another unsuspecting victim of Lana del Rey’s enchantment.

lana.gif

The thing was, when Lana came out, I was told not to like her. She had a fake name and a fake face and a rich dad. She’d done music under her birth name, Lizzy Grant, to little success. Lana was a fabrication. She called herself “The Gangster Nancy Sinatra.” Sure, it was all very eyeroll-y, but you know what? So was my deflection of my original instincts. Truth be told, even though “Video Games” was mediocre, I kinda liked “Blue Jeans.” Unfortunately, I bought into the Hipster Runoff-fueled backlash against a new, young woman who seemingly ascended to unprecedented popularity overnight.

The thing was… no one cared about all of this! And I shouldn’t have, either! I love me my manufactured pop stars, so why couldn’t I love this one?! By the time I came around to Lana del Rey, she was no longer the enigma who came out of nowhere—she was a bona fide pop star. She’d dated Axl Rose and G-Eazy! She was five albums deep, Grammy-nominated and had achieved gay icon status.

I didn’t realize at the time how sexist and silly all of the Lana backlash was. No one cares about Hollywood stars’ plastic surgeries! No one cares about men with stage names like Iggy Pop, Sting and Meat Loaf, let alone women with stage names like Lady Gaga and P!nk. What made Lana so different? Sure, her ~*~aesthetic~*~ was carefully curated, but really, what pop star’s isn’t? What made her old Hollywood noir glamor with hip hop flourishes less valid than Bjork’s avant-garde alien sexuality or the Pet Shop Boys’ geometric minimalism? And Lana wasn’t the first musical guest to bomb on SNL, and certainly was not the last.

I fell in love with the album, Lust for Life, when I’d forgotten my medication while in Niagara Falls for a weekend last year. I was hypomanic, which was better than being depressed, but I had a tough time calming down and an even tougher time trying to sleep. Hearing this beautiful person with beautiful problems helped soothe me, and eventually I drifted off. The next day, while the rest of my in-laws napped, I hummed one of my favorites, “God Bless America (And All the Beautiful Women in It)” while walking the Canada/US footbridge, just to take photos at the borderline and admire the Falls.

SQ between two worlds at the Niagara Falls US-Canada boundary line, July 22, 2017

SQ between two worlds at the Niagara Falls US-Canada boundary line, July 22, 2017

Since becoming enamored of Lust for Life, I’ve had the pleasure of digging through the back catalog. I’d say Ultraviolence is her best album, Paradise is great, Born to Die is inconsistent but promising and, other than a couple tracks, Honeymoon is kind of a slog.

My favorite song was “Brooklyn Baby,” because I loved the clever, self-aware, self-deprecating humor in the lyrics. “Well, my boyfriend's in the band/ He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed/ I've got feathers in my hair/ I get down to Beat poetry/ And my jazz collection's rare/ I can play most anything/ I'm a Brooklyn baby.”

Well, it was my favorite Lana track until a few days ago when she released a 9+ minute epic called “Venice Bitch.”

 

“Venice Bitch” opens with a slow guitar riff that doesn’t get much faster, but the additional instruments come in gradually and flesh out the sound. It reminds me a bit of Sun Kil Moon’s “Duk Koo Kim,” a song I was obsessed with in 2003/4. Sun Kil Moon is singer-songwriter, Mark Kozelek’s on-and-off moniker over the past two decades. Kozelek’s 90s band, Red House Painters, were pioneers of the sadcore genre, along with other favored artists of my early 20s, such as Low, Ida and Cat Power.

Lana del Rey’s music has been described in the past as “Hollywood sadcore,” which I’d call apt. But with “Venice Bitch,” Lana has finally released a song that can stand alongside the actual sadcore greats!

“Venice Bitch” is the third song from Lana’s to-be-released album, Norman Fucking Rockwell (because, of course it’s called that!) to make it onto streaming services. The album is said to be a co-production between herself and pop production superstar, Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde). The first single, “Mariners Apartment Complex,” opens with piano not dissimilar to Britney Spears’ “Born to Make You Happy,” and continues in a contemplative, but uncomplex classic Lana ballad similar to previous album openers such as “Love” and “Ride.” Second single, “Serial Killer,” is pure Antonoff, with trademark Lana flourishes over a tempo not dissimilar to Taylor Swift’s “Getaway Car” or Lorde’s “Green Light.” If these three new songs are indicative of what’s to come from Norman Fucking Rockwell, my premature evaluation is that it’ll knock Ultraviolence out of my top Lana album slot!

So, forgive me, Lana, for my past sins. Like you, I’ve been misjudged. Like you, I’ve tried and failed. Like you, I hope to succeed doing what I love. Like you, I’ve been addicted to substances and struggle with my mental health. But most of all, Lana, you can bet your ass that this baby Lana Stana, Shaunna Fucking Quin will be seeing you on your next tour!

Queer Frequency: R.E.M.'s Monster & Michael Stipe as a Queer Icon

If you’re a bit older than me, R.E.M. was the college rock band you loved, then your interest probably petered out once they became more mainstream. If you’re younger than me, R.E.M. is that band your parents liked with the skinny bald guy.

If you’re part of my generation, both you and your parents liked R.E.M. You both discovered them via “Losing My Religion”’s incessant MuchMusic/MTV play. My parents bought Out of Time on cassette. A few years later, I bought Monster on CD.

Monster’s been a punchline for almost two decades for being the biggest used-CD store staple. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, though. As a tween, I’d program my CD player to play “I Don’t Sleep I Dream,” “Strange Currencies,” “Tongue,” “Bang and Blame” and “You” as I fell asleep. These songs were the closest the album had to ballads. And at the same time, they’re some of the queerest songs on the album.

In “I Don’t Sleep I Dream,” singer, Michael Stipe is “looking for an interruption” and asks his lover, “do you give good head/ am I good in bed?” In “Strange Currencies,” Stipe plays an obsessive ex-lover, repeating over again, “these words/ you will be mine” and tells his “secret love” of his goal to “Take you in and make you mine.” “Tongue” has Stipe singing from the perspective of a girl with low self-esteem, someone’s “last ditch lay.” “You” is the most beautiful song-poem about being horny for someone.

“Bang and Blame” was a top 40 hit and probably the queerest song on the album. Stipe sings from the perspective of someone in a relationship where their lover who “used to be so in control” now has a “secret life of indiscreet discretions.” The lover knows this isn’t Stipe’s thing. The song ends with, “you kiss on me/ tug on me/ rub on me/ jump on me/ you bang on me/ beat on me/hit on me/let go on me” and eventually fades out without resolution. It’s haunting, it’s dangerous, it’s sexual. But only if you listen closely.

Monster is R.E.M.’s most overtly “rock” album, with guitarist Peter Buck using tremolo guitar effects. There are only slight traces of his “jangle”-style that helped define R.E.M.’s sound in the 80s. The same boys in my class that used the f-slur as an insult thought Monster rocked. Beavis and Butthead probably called them wusses at some point, but “Star 69” was definitely enough of a rocker for them to even approve of (“uhh, huh uh, 69, huh huh!”). And when Monster rocked, it was really quite glam. My favorite song on the album, “Crush with Eyeliner,” is a glam-inspired strut about a woman who’s “her own invention” and sometimes I am that woman and other times she’s who I’m smitten with.

“Crush with Eyeliner” struck me as a kid. I was coming to terms with my own queerness at the time, and Stipe admitted to have had lovers of both sexes. Another bicon for me at the time was Brett Anderson of Suede, who had declared at one point that he was “a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience.” When Sophie B. Hawkins came out as “omnisexual,” my instincts about “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” and the feelings it gave me weren’t so mixed-up after all.

The 90s had tons of successful, openly-queer (albeit mostly cis, white) celebrities. kd lang, Melissa Etheridge and George Michael all came out and continued to thrive. Elton John won an Oscar for a Disney movie. Later in the decade, John had the biggest single of all-time with “Candle in the Wind 1997” (tied with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”). RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” was a mainstream and club hit (and still an anthem today!), and Ru’s popularity garnered him a MAC campaign, a talk show and radio work before he eventually founded his Drag Race empire. Ellen DeGeneres’ 90s sitcom, Ellen, was cancelled shortly after she came out, but now she’s all our moms’ favorite talk show host.

For a time in the 90s, R.E.M. was the biggest band in the world, and their singer happened to be queer. You need look no further than another big hit in the 90s to find R.E.M.’s best comparison. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Though Queen were European and Freddie Mercury had one of the best rock voices of all-time and R.E.M. were American and Michael Stipe was famous for his “mumbling”-style of singing, both bands had broad mainstream appeal due to timeless songs and enchantingly charismatic, openly queer frontmen.

Mercury is obviously an unquestionable queer icon. But Stipe seems to rarely be mentioned as an important queer trailblazer. R.E.M. are seen as the influential rock band that they were as a whole, but Stipe deserves more.

Stipe’s influence on queer culture is still relevant today. Last year, he co-produced Fischerspooner’s Sir, 2017’s gayest album and one of the steamiest, grimiest most sexual albums I’ve ever heard. Sure, the album had filler, but its lead single, “Have Fun Tonight” is a pumping celebration of gay polyamory, with a falsetto refrain of “we come together sweetly, man!” Last week, I went to see Ezra Miller’s “genre-queer” band, Sons of an Illustrious Father, and complimented a fellow concertgoer on their outfit. “It’s very Fischerspooner!” I told them. They didn’t know who Fischerspooner were. I wonder if they know who Michael Stipe is? But does it matter? Ezra Miller is a Hollywood actor – in superhero movies! – who’s  openly queer, and blazing his own incredible trail. And that’s who they were there for; a queer icon in the making.

Movies and books about “outsider” teenagers in small towns in the 80s and the 90s often have its protagonist obsessed with one band only – The Smiths. I liked The Smiths, but they weren’t my obsession of choice. One queer friend in high school was obsessed with Hole and Madonna. Another was partial to Toni Braxton. But R.E.M. was my coolest, artsiest, queer friend’s favorite band. R.E.M. made more sense to me than The Smiths as a queer guy’s favorite band. Especially one living in a small Canadian town of 7,000 in the 90s, before the internet. He can’t have been the only one.

Most of the conversation about R.E.M. comes from the majority  – cis straight white men. As much as I enjoy Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? Podcast (I only call Peter Buck “Peter Dollar Bill” now!), I’d love for there to be more queer perspectives about Michael Stipe’s and R.E.M.’s impact. In the process of writing this piece, I found Sex & Trash Aesthetics: R.E.M.’s Monster Revisited, a piece by Stewart Smith for the Quietus. I was both happy to find that an article about Monster’s unsung queerness was out there, but at the same time wary of writing about the same subject. But why not put out my perspective as a queer woman? Especially a queer woman who considers Michael Stipe to be one of her personal queer heroes.

As Pride Month wraps up, let’s hold Michael Stipe on a higher queer icon pedestal! After all, it is #20GAYTEEN! It’s what he deserves!

UnPhairly Maligned: Liz Phair's 2003 Self-Titled Record

Liz Phair’s been on the interview circuit round for today’s release of the 25th anniversary edition of her [insert your own adjective here about how groundbreaking it was] first album, Exile in Guyville.

I was late to Liz Phair. I’d seen few videos on MuchMusic’s The Wedge in my adolescence – “Stratford-On-Guy,” “Supernova,” “Polyester Bride.” I liked the songs but they never really grabbed me. I was more into Tori, PJ, Bjork, and most of all, Courtney.

I don’t know how or why – probably because I knew it was an important record, or maybe a friend played it for me – but I bought the CD at some point in my very early 20s. It was probably better that I’d waited; at this point, I’d experienced casual sex, dating with no sense of direction and actual heartbreak. It was the first record I related to as a twentysomething, no longer a teen, even though I wasn’t even a teenager when it was released.

I bought her next three albums, Whip-Smart, Whitechocolatespaceegg and liked, but didn’t love them. The first album Liz Phair released while I was an active fan was her 2003 self-titled one. It was a slickly-produced fun power-pop album with lyrics celebrating post-divorce relationships.

I liked the record! I was (am!) a fan of both indie and pop. I quietly enjoyed the Spice Girls and Madonna in high school along with more prestigious alt rock, and accepted Britney Spears as my lord and saviour shortly thereafter. To me, it was cool that one of my indie heroes was making new songs with big choruses. I could listen to Exile in Guyville if I was in one mood, and the self-titled for another! Sure, "HWC" was extremely corny, but it was harmless fun! The album wasn't perfect, but it was perfectly enjoyable.

A couple of months before Liz Phair came out, a guy sent me a mixed CD. Not a boyfriend, not a crush, but someone I felt I had a connection with. He was extremely pretentious, but I was just the right age for that. There were tens of long emails and  two days together in May 2002. The CD had stuff on it like Calexico and Jonathan Richman and of course, “If You Wanna Be Happy” by Jimmy Soul. In the middle of this painstakingly precious tracklist was Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You.” I hadn’t really thought much of Avril, but somehow, it was different hearing the ballad in my headphones. Pretentious Guy seemed so deep to me (ha!) and he said that the song just “resonated” with him. It was my most listened-to song on the long-gone CD. He broke my heart when we reunited in May 2004. But it's still my favorite Avril song.

Avril’s songwriting team, The Matrix, helped co-write some of the songs on Liz Phair. Critics hated it.

Pitchfork gave the album an infamous 0.0 . Earlier this week, Slate’s Amos Barshad wrote a piece about trying to get in contact with Pitchfork’s bad reviewees. He didn’t have a lot of success with getting the artists to talk about how it felt, except for Thurston Moore. The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison eventually emailed his feelings about his album, Travistan’s 0.0 and included these words about Phair:

“I did not know Liz Phair got a 0.0. I see it was for her “pop” record… I think that record was not her most completely executed. But I do think it was her most visionary gesture. I always admired her for it. Now hipsters listen to Carly Rae Jepsen and no one thinks about it. But Liz Phair was pretty ahead of that curve. And she really got some nasty shit about it. Mostly, of course, from white male “critics.” What a bunch of fucking garbage.”

Morrison isn’t wrong. Besides that, Guyville was Phair's response to the male-dominated 90s Chicago music scene. Pop music is considered a “feminine” interest, therefore, not taken seriously. Lead singles, “Why Can’t I” and “Extraordinary,” are perfect romcom songs of the era, and the former was featured in 13 Going on 30, the latter in Raising Helen. Both flicks are perfectly charming, beloved romcoms of the time. You know what else male critics hate? Romcoms.

It wasn’t just male critics. Meghan O’Rourke’s New York Times review was infamously titled Exile in Avril-ville and reads as an immature indie-elitist takedown of the “pop monster,” erroneously putting Britney Spears in a schoolgirl outfit in the year 2003 (not to mention that Britney’s Matrix-penned song, “Shadow,” would not be released until five months after O’Rourke’s review).

Last month on Twitter, the author, Emily Gould tweeted this, regarding O’Rourke’s sexist and ageist perception of the record:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It stands out that O’Rourke moaned, “underneath this sunny soundscape lies the darkness of life's hard-won lessons. This is a superficial way of jolting us,” when this has been a fixture in every genre of music forever! I mean, The Smiths’ trademark was pairing Morrissey’s morose lyrics with Johnny Marr’s jangly guitar!

I can understand that some women felt a little hurt and betrayed by the self-titled album. But it seems pretty anti-feminist to begrudge a woman for wanting to take a different direction in her career, especially if you consider that woman to be one of your feminist heroes. I mean, you could just say something like, "It's not for me, but good for her!" and focus on music you do like more in vein with Guyville instead of telling a woman she should "act her age" (ugh).

As a woman near Phair’s age in 2003 and Beyoncé’s age in 2018, I’m experiencing my own new beginning, finding my voice as a writer. It feels extremely rewarding. Just as rewarding as Phair recording her self-titled album must have felt. Just as rewarding as Beyoncé headlining Coachella was. Okay, the Beyoncé thing is definitely hyperbole! But still... 38-year-old Tiffany Haddish and 36-year-old Amy Schumer had recent career breakouts in their mid-30s. And 36-year-old Britney Jean Spears? She’s got a world tour this summer and is living her best life, working out with her hot younger boyfriend! I have some great peers in my age group, let me tell ya!

Looking back at my early-20s self in 2003, I found value in both Exile in Guyville and Liz Phair, unlike many of my peers. I guess I was a “poptimist” before that was a thing. I don’t listen to a lot of Liz Phair these days, but I can hear her echoes in Angel Olsen and Lana del Rey, as well as in Demi Lovato and – especiallyHalsey. Whether or not they are directly influenced by Phair, the empowering sexual frankness that defined her first album trickled from indie to pop stars, and there’s more hooks in indie records these days. Liz Phair wasn’t just ahead of the curve; turns out she is the curve.