Song 345: The Pogues, “Fairytale of New York” (1987)

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The most remarkable thing about the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” is that it’s ultimately so heartwarming. Despite its drunk tanks, characters calling each other “slut” and “faggot,” and lines like “Happy Christmas your arse, I pray god it’s our last,” the thing is like a rotten Christmas tree that somehow stays alive.

The reason this combination works is that “Fairytale of New York” is exactly what its title implies: it’s a fantasy, and it’s all in the imagination of its drunk protagonist. “I love you, baby,” sings Shane McGowan, drunkenly slurring his words. “I can see a better time when all our dreams come true.” Then the song kicks into high gear, as if McGowan has shifted from half-hearted daydream to full-on hallucination.

But what a hallucination. McGowan and his true love, played by singer Kirsty MacColl, cavort around a storybook version of Manhattan, joined by Frank Sinatra and the NYPD choir (which, by the way, isn’t a thing). Because this part of the song is in McGowan’s head, MacColl’s brilliant vocals pop up like McGowan’s distant memory, comforting and chiding him in equal measure. It’s a romantic Christmas as only the Pogues could do it: through seasonal delusion.

They pull it off, don’t they? You end up buying all of it, thanks to that blend of fantasy and reality. In a way, that combination is what Christmas means for all of us; we all deal with the stress of the holiday season while trying to hold on to the parts that make us happy. In other words, “Fairytale of New York,” in all its drunken, wide-eyed glory, is Christmas.

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