December 20, 2011

5 Reasons Why 'Fairytale of New York' Is the Greatest Christmas Song Ever

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If you've never heard "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues (featuring Kirsty MacColl), stop what you're doing, grab yourself an eggnog, a hot toddy or an equally heartwarming beverage and prepare your ears for some Yuletide euphoria.

Released in 1987, and written by Pogues' founders Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer, "Fairytale of New York" is a sweeping ballad that follows the drunken Christmas Eve exploits of an Irish emigrant in New York City. As IrishCentral recently reported, the song is the "most played Christmas classic of the century."

So what is it about "Fairytale of New York" -- a song that National University of Ireland lecturer, Joe Cleary, once referred to as "a twisted love song" -- that makes it so popular? Here's what I've come up with: 

5. Unorthodox Narrative 

How many Christmas songs begin with the song's protagonist languishing away in a police station's drunk tank? Answer: none (although, that could change if I move forward with writing the much anticipated, "Fairytale of Boston"). In contrast to your typical Christmas songs, "Fairytale of New York" does not focus on the merrymaking of jovial characters, like Frosty, Santa or the mommy that kisses Santa. Instead, it focuses on two young people -- with a love/hate relationship -- who are struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. Merry Christmas!

4. Underlying Social Significance

In addition to having an unorthodox narrative, the backstory to "Fairytale of New York" is unusual for a Christmas song. While one might argue that "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a vehicle for promoting racial equality, the message becomes a bit convoluted by the flying reindeer and nasal luminescence. In comparison, "Fairytale of New York" has very clear social undertones, as the two bickering lovers in the song are undoubtedly Irish emigrants, who are bewildered by the "cars big as bars." As the song progresses, we learn about the realities of Irish emigration and how fairytale lives are not always possible (even in a city with "rivers of gold").

3. Duet Dynamics 

Think of a popular Christmas song that is almost always performed as a duet. Exactly, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Good job! Now, think of another one.

Apart from the 1944 Frank Loesser classic (mentioned above), "Fairytale of New York" is really the only Christmas song that unambiguously requires male and female  -- or low and high -- parts. The call-and-response portions of the song, when the two characters exchange blows, are especially entertaining. And in the original recording of "Fairytale of New York," the way MacGowan's crude, pagan voice contrasts with MacColl's sweet, angelic voice has a certain enchanting quality to it.

2. Memorable References

If you're going to write a song that references other songs, as well as a famous person, follow MacGowan's and Finer's lead: reference awesome, classic songs and an awesome, classic famous person. "Fairytale of New York" mentions two, well-known traditional Irish songs in the following lines: "And then he sang a song / 'The Rare Old Mountain Dew'" and "The boys of the NYPD choir /
Were singing 'Galway Bay'." By referencing these two classics, MacGowan and Finer illuminate the Irish roots of the characters, despite the fact that the all of the action takes place in New York. Conversely, to emphasize the New York setting, the songwriters' mention Frank in the memorable line, "Sinatra was swinging / All the drunks they were singing."

1. Offensive Language

Let's face it: Christmas songs suffer from a deplorable lack of profanity. MacGowan and Finer did their best to change that.

The first time you listen to "Fairytale of New York," you're swaying, you're getting in that Christmas spirit, you're feeling jolly and then all of a sudden you stop and think to yourself, "Wait, did he really just call her that?" And then soon after you think, "Holy crap, did she really just call him that?!?" Of course, the answer to both of these questions is "Yes." The lyrics are here for you to read. But before you label The Pogues a bunch of intolerant bigots, remember that the "F" word in question apparently has a different meaning in Irish/Liverpudlian slang: it refers to a lazy person.

Controversy aside, offensive language is a part of everyday life, both in New York and elsewhere. MacGowan and Finer use this language to bring a sense of realism to a genre of music that is typically overrun with whimsical, fairytale-like prose.

"Fairytale of New York" Chords and Lyrics 

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P.S. Hey there! If you liked this post, I have a hunch you'll love NEON DRUID: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy. It's a collection of 17 short stories all rooted in Celtic mythology.

P.P.S. You can also check out my new blog, Irish Myths, where I unveil the secrets of Celtic mythology, Irish mythology, and Irish folklore.

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