‘Tis the season to be censored.
The internet lit up recently when a Canadian radio station issued a statement explaining why it was removing the much-covered Christmas-themed song Baby It’s Cold Outside from its song list.
In a statement, Star 102 Cleveland presenter Glenn Anderson said: “It seems very manipulative and wrong. The world we live in is extra sensitive now, and people get easily offended, but in a world where #MeToo has finally given women the voice they deserve, the song has no place.”
It’s not the first time a Christmas song has been censored.
Last year, debate in the UK reignited over whether the song Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl should censor the word “faggot” for being potentially offensive to the LGBTQI people.
This followed a move in 2007 by BBC Radio 1 to bleep out the offending word.
At the time, I managed the Press Office for Stonewall, the UK’s leading LGBTQI campaigning charity.
The phone rang off the hook (it was silly season), with calls from journalists asking if we supported this censoring.
The response surprised them: we didn’t.
At the time, we said we’d be happier to see Radio 1 take action against the persistently anti-gay DJ Chris Moyles (who regularly used ‘gay’ as a synonym for ‘inadequate’) rather than bleep one word of a Christmas classic.
In short: there were bigger fish to fry.
BBC Radio 1 reversed its decision: the song was played in all its uncensored, rambunctious glory.
It seems, in Australia, we’re a little more sensitive.
Michael Polh, music director at Australia’s LGBTQI radio station JOY 94.9, said any song with words like ‘faggot’ wouldn’t be played.
He told The New Daily: “Our communities have a zero tolerance of hateful language. Simply censoring the word doesn’t fix the problem – if an artist believes using that language in a particular context is appropriate, we cannot condone the song as a whole.
“While some might find owning those words empowering, for some it could be a painful experience.”
The station bans artists who “make public comments deemed homophobic, transphobic, racist or sexist” – currently their banned list includes Chris Brown (for violence against women) and Johnny Ruffo (for transphobic comments) – so Ruffo’s cover of White Christmas is also blacklisted.
JOY’s counterpart LGBTQI radio station in the UK, Gaydar Radio, has traditionally been more relaxed.
The New Daily spoke to Yannick Lawry, who has held a variety of programming roles across London and Sydney radio stations, including Gaydar Radio, Capital Radio, Nova 969, smoothfm and 2GB.
Mr Lawry said that ‘faggot’ had been reclaimed, and the context of the song’s drunken characters excused it:.
“When I worked at Gaydar Radio in the UK, we’d deviate from our house-heavy playlist and sprinkle in Christmas tunes to mark the season.” he recalled.
“I remember playing Fairytale of New York often. Staff sang along to every word. If anything there was a sense of re-appropriating the F-word which in its context is actually pretty funny.”
#MeToo sensitive songs?
Context, again, should be the guiding principle, according to the University of Melbourne’s Dr Lauren Rosewarne, who specialises in gender and pop culture.
“Going back and reviewing old pop culture and spotlighting all the ways that it looks ‘problematic’ through modern eyes keeps academics busy and fills out many think-pieces,” she said.
“My concern is the context of the original material often gets lost: in the case of Baby It’s Cold Outside, the song is 65 years old!
“While culturally we might’ve moved on and become more progressive, these cultural artefacts are fixed in time and so I think it’s ridiculous to judge them on the standards we apply to new cultural output.”
However, Dr Rosewarne also saw the need for radio stations to keep abreast of trends and audience appetites.
“I imagine that, for some stations, simply not playing the song in 2018 – i.e., under the #MeToo umbrella – is easier, particularly when there are 95,000 other Christmas songs to play instead,” she said.
Some artists choose to self-censor as they mature. In September, Guns N’ Roses reissued their most famous album, 1987’s Appetite for Destruction, but omitted the song One in a Million, which includes these lyrics: “Immigrants and faggots/ They make no sense to me/ They come to our country /And think they’ll do as they please /Like start some mini Iran /Or spread some f–king disease.”
Tastemakers and reflectors
Mr Lawry provided some insight into how these decisions were made in radio.
“Having worked in a bunch of programming roles across several Sydney commercial radio stations, we often test new songs with our audience,” he said.
“Radio stations are tastemakers but also culture reflectors – we’re there to serve and gently educate our audience. Testing Christmas songs gives audiences a say. We shouldn’t be moral guardians of our audiences!”
With Australian and Canadian radio seemingly more fearful of the cultural sensitivities of their listeners than the hard-nosed Brits, which ban could be next?
With a wry grin, Mr Lawry gave a prediction: “I foresee an environmentalist push to ban Katy Perry’s Firework within five years as plastic bags will be anathema to the general public. Actually, whatever the reason, that wouldn’t be a bad thing …”