Have we hit peak cancel culture?

The culture of ‘cancelling’ problematic people and things hit its stride in 2018, with it's targets including Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Kevin Hart, but going up against Christmas songs proved to be its biggest challenge.

The online act of 'cancelling' problematic people and things, including Christmas songs, hit its stride

Actor Kevin Hart speaks onstage during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

There's a term commonly used on social media when it's decided that somebody or something is no longer worthy of public support — they are "cancelled."

This year, cancel culture came home for Christmas, moving beyond the realm of social media and challenging long-standing preferences for certain holiday songs.

As you probably know by now, Baby It's Cold Outside was removed from rotation on many radio stations, including two CBC Music streams. This happened after a groundswell of criticism toward the song arose on social media, kicked off by a Cleveland station that decided to remove it from their playlist. But less than a week later, after even more public upheaval, it was returned to CBC Music. (No word yet on what other Canadian broadcasters are doing.)

"Because we value our audience input which was overwhelmingly to include the song, we have put it back on the two playlists where it had been removed," said CBC public affairs head Chuck Thompson in a statement.

This raises a key point. While being cancelled has become the red scarlet letter of the social media age, it's written in washable marker, for things can be cancelled just as quickly as they can be renewed.

At the same time that the history and context of Baby It's Cold Outside were being discussed at great length, across the Atlantic the Irish national broadcaster (RTE) was dealing with pressure to cancel, or at the very least censor, Fairytale of New York, a Christmas song released by Irish band the Pogues in 1987.

The song tells the story of an argument between a couple, and includes the phrase "You scum bag, you maggot, you cheap lousy f--got." RTE host Eoghan McDermott asked Twitter whether the F-word should be censored from the song.

"This debate rolls around again. I asked the two gay members of my team how they feel, since f***** is their N-word," he wrote. "If people want to slur the gay community, this is their most powerful weapon. One favours censoring, the other outright not playing it. Neither like it. Simples," he wrote, adding, "comparatively benign words such as s***, f***, ass and weed are all censored on the national broadcaster."

The BBC, for its part, attempted to censor the song in 2007, but ultimately backed down after complaints. Even the Pogues have censored the song in the past, particularly when they performed it on the BBC's Top of the Pops in 1991. The late singer Kirsty Maccoll subbed in the phrase, "you're cheap and your haggard" in place of the offending line.

Historically speaking, the F-word was Irish slang for a lazy person, but it obviously cannot be divorced from the powerful and hateful anti-gay context it has today. Pogues' frontman and songwriter Shane MacGowan even weighed in on it in order to explain his original intent and why he wanted his character in the song to use the word.

"She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate," he said in a statement. "Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it but she is not intended to offend!"

That said, MacGowan added that he has no problems censoring the word.

"If people don't understand that I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible then I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word but I don't want to get into an argument", he said.

I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word but I don't want to get into an argument.- Shane MacGowan of the Pogues

Ultimately, after a tense couple of days, which included calls to cancel Fairytale of New York and it leave it as is, the RTE decided against censoring the song. "They'll play it like they always have, so let's all breathe," McDermott wrote.

That all these calls for cancellations are leading to actions, and then reversals, within the span of a few days is indicative of where cancel culture comes from and the rapid pace at which things happen on social media. It also speaks to the true power of trying to cancel something in real life, which can be as anemic as it is effective.

Cancel culture

The idea of being cancelled has been around since at least 2015 (although likely longer), where it is believed to have originated on Black Twitter, a loose collective of users on the social media platform, but has since come to widespread usage, especially in 2018.

 Google searches for 'Cancel Culture' in the past 12 months.

It is often used in a lighthearted way, and anything from products to relationships, to the act of actually using the word "cancelled" have all in fact been, well, cancelled. This year, it seems to have hit a peak, and a number of high profile people have been cancelled, first on Twitter, and then in real life. Roseanne Barr comes to mind, whose Roseanne TV reboot was cancelled from ABC this summer after she made racist remarks on Twitter. Even though the show was rebooted once again under the name The Connors, Barr was not involved.

Disney fired director James Gunn from shooting Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 this summer when tweets written between 2008 and 2012 that joked about child abuse and pedophilia resurfaced. This, despite the main stars from Guardians writing an open letter in support of Gunn.

"We believe the theme of redemption has never been more relevant," the letter read, and asked that we "ease up on the character assassination and stop weaponizing mob mentality."

'I'm cancelled. I'm cancelled because I didn't cancel Trump.'- Kanye West

But not all cancellations are equally as effective. Logan Paul was cancelled after he posted a deeply disturbing video involving suicide on YouTube, and while his video output has decreased, he was still the 10th top earning YouTuber of 2018, bringing in $14.5 million US.

Taylor Swift has been cancelled many times in the past, and she failed to receive any Grammy nominations this year. In turn, Swift cancelled the Grammys (despite this, the Grammys will be broadcast as usual in February).

Kanye West has been cancelled more than any other celebrity this year, to the point where you have to wonder if it means anything at all. "I'm cancelled. I'm cancelled because I didn't cancel Trump," Kanye West frustratingly told the New York Times this summer.

And yet, when he released his eighth studio album, Ye, in April, it opened at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart.

More recently, Kevin Hart, in a matter of days, was announced as the new Oscar host, only to be cancelled online and forced to step down from the role after facing criticism for a history of homophobic comments and tweets (which he rushed to delete).

Hart announced that he was stepping down so as not to be a "distraction" to the awards show.

Hart, however, continues to sell out his standup shows, and other comedians have come to his defence. Nick Cannon resurfaced old tweets from Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler, all in which they disparagingly used the word f-g or f--got, in order to make a point about double standards, but it also displayed how full-blown cancel culture could become. "I'm just saying ... should we keep going???" he tweeted. 

Billy Eichner, who named one of his standup tours Gay, White and Terrified!, also added that "I don't like that [F] word but I also don't like cancellation culture," tweeting that "many of us, myself included, have made jokes/tweets in the past that we deeply regret."

"I'm not into people being permanently 'cancelled' over something like this. To me, 'cancellation' is childish," actor Billy Eichner ha said over the controversy surrounding Kevin Hart. ((MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images))

He raises a point that, if we're too quick to cancel someone or something, we miss out on the opportunity to grow and to engage in any sort of nuanced back and forth.

"I'm not into people being permanently 'cancelled' over something like this. To me, 'cancellation' is childish," he wrote. "I'm into conversation, not cancellation."

As such, while the Oscars frantically look for a new host who is beyond the reproach of cancel culture — including, tellingly, the idea of no host at all — listeners this holiday season will continue to hear songs like Baby It's Cold Outside and Fairytale of New York, baggage and all. While that may anger people, at the very least, it could lead to more meaningful conversations.


Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Senior Producer, CBC Music

Jesse Kinos-Goodin has been a journalist and producer at CBC since 2012. He focuses on music and the arts. He is currently the senior producer for social at CBC Music. Reach him on Twitter @JesseKG or email