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Open Thread: The Story Behind 'Fairytale Of New York'

The real Christmas miracle? Shane MacGowan is still with us.

When "Fairytale" first came out, it didn't really speak to me; I just wasn't old enough, or beat up by life enough. Fortunately, I outgrew that phase and each year, settled further into a song that's the aural equivalent of Edward Hopper's painting "Nighthawks at The Diner'. What a heartbreaker:

One notable song to earn seemingly permanent residence on Christmas-themed playlists (particularly in the British Isles) in recent times is the Pogues’ 25-year-old ditty “Fairytale of New York”. Based around a duet between Pogues mouthpiece Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl, the song is these days so beloved that digital sales send it back onto the British charts every time the calendar is about to run out, not to mention that it has become a new perennial favorite in seasonal fan polls.

What accounts for “Fairytale of New York”’s enduring popularity? With Christmas on the horizon and the group’s 30th anniversary boxset (The Best of the Pogues) due out on December 16, Sound Affects has worked out five reason why this bleary-eyed Celtic ballad has become a new holiday standard.

[...] Tying into the first point, “Fairytale of New York’s” spirit of irreverence allows it to be a warts-and-all reflection of what the holiday season is actually like, instead of the aspirational ideal of what it should be. The popular conception is that the holidays should be a time to put aside resentments and emphasize togetherness. “Fairytale” captures the reality of what the season actually entails for the more miserable side of humanity: a time of estranged relationships, lonely nights, and the numbing escape of a good drink or five. “Fairytale of New York” is about two lovers who can’t stand each other any longer, but continue to trudge on using the warm memories they share as fuel. Though the romance of the past is cherished, the song readily points out hard truths, best exemplified when MacGowan sulks, “I could have been someone” and MacColl immediately deflates his self-pitying with a well-placed “Well, so could anyone”.

Despite its rough edges and bitter barbs, “Fairytale of New York” is at its heart an incredibly touching and moving song. Its true character is evident in its in first verse, when MacGowan’s soused schlub hears an elderly companion singing “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” in the drunk tank, which instantly inspires thoughts of his beloved. Even from MacGowan’s first inebriated slurs and the mournful tinkling of the piano keys, the wistfulness of the song is never in doubt. No matter how rueful the lyrics become, the song manages to keep everything on the right side of hopeful (not the least aided by the band’s spirited performance). When MacColl complains, “You took my dreams from me / When I first found you”, MacGowan answers, “I kept them with me, babe / I put them with my own / Can’t make it all alone / I’ve built my dreams around you”, a reply as pitiful as it is endearing. On an awful night when you are spending Christmas Eve in jail instead of in the arms of a loved one, dreams are all you have to go on, and that means everything in that circumstance.


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