Thoughts on the Canadian ‘ban’ of “Money for Nothing”

I appreciate why outrage is so appealing. There’s something fundamentally human about the way in which we occasionally define ourselves through opposition, finding self-satisfaction in how the world—or certain people in it—seems off-kilter and unacceptable to our tastes. I do it, you do it, we all do it. Heck, sometimes we go all meta with it: we get outraged about others’ outrage.

So I completely understand why everyone got a bit riled up yesterday by the news that a complaint filed against a Newfoundland radio station has led the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council to declare that the album version of Dire Straits’ 1985 hit single “Money for Nothing” breaches its code of ethics and is not to be played on Canadian radio. The offending lyrics:

“That little faggot with the earring and the make-up.
Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire”

As the news broke and people took to Twitter/Facebook/blogs to vent, everyone seemed up in arms about how they could ‘ban’ a song that’s been a staple of rock radio for over 25 years—which is what the radio station argued was reason to keep it—or about how quick people are to judge music independent of its context. After all, “Money for Nothing” is written from a perspective of a blue-collar working-class man trying to understand the MTV generation. Mark Knopfler, the song’s writer, was expressing a character’s homophobia, not embracing it. How dare the standards council bow to a single complaint about such a silly thing?

But it’s the outrage over the decision that I found a bit outrageous, far more so than the decision itself. It was almost as if people were eager to be upset about this, not taking the time to read deeper into the story or to consider it in its context—such as, for example, the fact that not only has an edited version of “Money for Nothing” existed for years, but that its use on both radio and music video is so common that many listeners likely went years before even realizing the word “faggot” was in the song. (In this particular case, the issue was over a radio station that believed in playing album versions of tracks, not singles or radio edits.)

For me, the council’s decision is supported with two questions, my answers to which might make me seem a bit stodgy and old-fashioned but which, as I consider them, still ring right to me:

1. Should we have broadcast standards that limit (among other things) the use of certain words on the airways?

I sympathize with those who wish we lived in a world where people were less uptight, or less outraged by things like profanity. And in practice, there’s no question that we handle profanity poorly as as society, whether it’s leveling outrageous fines against networks when an awards show winner accidentally blurts out an f-bomb, or the MPAA’s hilariously silly stipulation that any film with more than one “fuck” automatically gets an ‘R’ rating (as recently happened with the totally-otherwise-family-approved The King’s Speech in the U.S.).

But this doesn’t mean that the idea of standards is wrong in principle. After all, the public airways like radio are public, and we’re well within our rights as a society to place reasonable limitations on how they are used. And most people believe that limiting profanity is reasonable—and welcome. When polling has been done about attitudes towards swearing, strong majorities (especially women) say that they are bothered by profanity at least some of the time. Other studies have found that upwards of 70 per cent of adults are very or at least somewhat concerned about inappropriate language on television. So while I have my own attitudes about things like language and violence in media—ie. I’m fine with it in its context—I also feel that broadcast is a space where democracy and shared ideas about language should determine sets of standards.

But isn’t this akin to collective ‘censorship,’ or at least similar to the way the way stores like Wal-Mart and Blockbuster have refused to stock movies or albums with controversial content? Hardly. Active media—when the user chooses to interact with the artistic creation in question by buying it, visiting a website, etc.—is wholly different than passive broadcast media, such as radio or television stations that are free and/or easy to access, available to adults AND children, and which play a wide variety of content. Restricting the selection in a store, for example, denies people the choice to engage with the work in question; in mass broadcast media, that choice doesn’t even exist. The most choice available is whether or not to engage with a particular station or genre.

Given this, I see absolutely no problem in placing reasonable restrictions on things such as profanity, sex, violence, etc. in public-airways broadcasting, provided these majority sentiments are not an unfair infringement on minority interests and that there is a fair review process in place. After all, it’s not like a record label’s choice to send an edited version of “Money for Nothing”  to radio prevents people from experiencing the original version should they so choose.

Which brings me to our second question…

2. Is “faggot” a word that should be limited under broadcast standards?

Above all else, this is why I treated this news story so favorably. Our society has finally begun to treat slurs against homosexuals—or queer/LGBT persons in general, to use all-encompassing terms—the same way we treat slurs against other minority groups. And it’s about time. Is there any less hurt in “faggot” than in “nigger”? There may be less historical blood spilt, but any less blood felt? Any less discomfort in reading/speaking/writing it? There shouldn’t be. And if one is inappropriate on music radio by our agreed-upon standards, then the other should be as well.*

Sidenote: I saw several online commentators yesterday make a comparison between this decision and the recent announcement of a censored version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I don’t see them as equal, for a couple of reasons. One is the broadcast vs. active media issue as I earlier explained. Secondly—and this is something I’ll get to in a minute—the power of literature (and those who teach/present literature) to contextualize such harsh words is much, much higher than pop music.

Now let’s qualify this. Do I think that Knopfler shouldn’t have written the word? No. Should we view its use in the song poorly with our 25 years of hindsight? Probably not, though I’m going to complicate this in just a second. Should we call for the banning of digital tracks of the song, or remove Brothers In Arms from store shelves? Hell no. But just as we don’t necessarily hear hardcore rap lyrics blaring from Top 40 radio on the drive home from work—even when words such as “nigger” are powerfully used as language reclamation—restrictions that limit the use of “faggot” on the dial aren’t at all unreasonable; if anything, they’re overdue.

*For this article, I made the editorial decision that if I had to write one of the words to discuss it in this context, then I should write about both, without kid gloves.  Consider this hypocritical with my argument if you’d like, but I’m not a pop song on the radio. And as I’m about to explain, THAT context may be as important as the context within Knopfler’s lyric.

—-

Given this, and the fact that there is a readily-available and commonly-used edited version of “Money for Nothing” for radio play, I was prepared to just end my thoughts here and declare all this “much ado about nothing.” But then, as I considered the issue some more, a third question came to me. And while I think my answer to it is ultimately, “probably not,” I was surprised enough by my struggle over it that I think it’s worth exploring.

3. Independent of the issue of broadcast standards, there something actually wrong with “Money for Nothing”?

The reasons to say “no” here come fast and furious. Knopfler is writing through a character, the way countless other writers in all artistic forms have done for centuries. And if we can’t use characters to explore issues like homophobia and racism—yes, the song’s protagonist is racist too, with the distressing description of “Hawaiian noises” made by “banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee”—then all we’d likely be left with is boring platitudes like “Ebony and Ivory” and similar tripe.

But does Knopfler do enough to tip off the listener that he’s writing in character? The song’s chorus does talk about a working class job moving TVs and refrigerators, but that’s not entirely cut and dry, and one could easily hypothesize other meanings to the lyrics (like, for example, a critique of product-based consumerism). The closest to a clear giveaway is when Knopfler sings about owning a guitar, since he’s clearly a famed guitarist in his own right. But would someone have to see the music video—or at least, know the band’s history—to pick up on that? This CBC article argues that the song “drips with irony,” but is it really so soaking wet?

If it feels like I’m grasping here a bit, well, that’s because I probably am. But I feel compelled to complicate “Money for Nothing,” not just because it provides only slight context to its homophobic and racist sentiments, but that the context in which it was originally experienced—and is often experienced today—may actually empower them.

Consider that the song is by an artist that generally falls within the “classic rock” genre. Consider that it’s being released in the mid-1980s, only a couple of years removed from the rockist backlash against disco—a backlash, it’s been argued, that dripped with homophobia and racism. Consider that the protagonist’s sentiments about the MTV era likely rang true to some traditionalist rock listeners of the Reagan era, and may still hold sway to some members of the generation that clings to classic rock radio today. (Consider, too, that one Halifax’s classic rock station earned the scorn of some members of the queer community in Halifax last year for a Christmastime commercial noting that “We deck the halls, but draw the line at ‘gay apparel’; even if you consider that a mostly harmless joke, why did they think it would connect with their listeners?)

Knopfler’s song isn’t racist or homophobic; its character was. But does an artist have a moral or social obligation to contextualize that distinction? And where does that line get drawn? An artistic purist would argue that no such obligation exists, but does that hold true for art with commercial ambition, such as popular music? What about rock music in particular, where authenticity and vocal authority are strongly-held tenants of the genre?  Should we expect artists to contextualize smaller, more common sins like homophobic or racist slurs, but let larger sins like murder stand alone (Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” or Eminem’s “Kim”), because we automatically understand that a songwriter would never endorse such extreme horrors?

Ultimately, wrestling with these questions, I come out on Knopfler’s side. Sure, the song could have done more to flag it’s actual meaning, but countless songs that did so in the 1980s were every bit as misunderstood: Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Moreover, I worry about a culture where Knopfler would self-censor and be afraid to explore the disconnect between the blue-collar world and the MTV generation in character.

But my point here is that these things are rarely cut and dry. We can’t separate music from the structures of our society that it connects with; in the case of “Money for Nothing” in the 21st century, not just sexuality and race but government policy, social class, broadcast standards, artistic expression, popular consumption and more. We shouldn’t necessarily let these structures define music, but nor should we expect music to exist independent of them.

It’s a dialogue, one that ebbs, flows and changes with time. And one where sometimes it’s best to keep our outrage in check.

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3 responses to “Thoughts on the Canadian ‘ban’ of “Money for Nothing”

  1. Great article. Censorship is indeed a dynamic issue.

    Just to poke a small hole in your #1 item, people do have the choice as to whether they watch certain tv programs which may contain offensive content through the use of “viewer discretion” warnings. Care to comment on this?

    Again, great article. Ps, I love Dire Straits.
    -Mark

  2. Thanks Mark, that’s a valid point. One of the other tricky elements of trying to contextualize broadcast media, though, is that you can never guarantee at what point the viewer/listener will encounter the work in question; they may just find it while flipping through the stations or turning the dial and come in right at the distressing/concerning moment. The ‘viewer discretion’ warnings are a somewhat inelegant way of dealing with this, but it is at least something. (The airing of certain programs later at night is another).

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