It is often said of Kurt Cobain, the late Nirvana singer, that he wasn’t half as good a musician in life as he became after he died. Much the same could now be said for Mark Knopfler who, while not dead, has suffered a fate far more damaging to a musician’s spirit: censorship.
Knopfler, whose popularity peaked at the dawn of MTV era as frontman of rock band Dire Straits, has seen his previously unheralded lyrical ability upgraded in some quarters to that of a master satirist in light of a Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) ruling on his band’s 1985 hit ‘Money for Nothing. The CBSC, the Canuck equivalent of the United States’ FCC, informed the nation’s radio stations that in future broadcasting the unedited recording of the track, which features repeated use of an offensive term aimed at homosexuals, would be considered a violation of the its Code of Ethics. In short: don’t play it.
The prohibition came about in response to a complaint from a member of the public – a 21-year-old gay woman from Newfoundland – who heard the full unedited version broadcast on regional classic rock station CHOZ-FM. The song contains the word “faggot” three times in quick succession, spoken from the perspective of a character voiced by Knopfler. The track was heavily criticised at the time of its release for vague implications of racism and sexism, though the CBSC’s edict relates only to the actual wording of the song.
The issue quickly gained traction following the publication of the ruling on Thursday. Two stations, Q104 in Halifax and K97 in Edmonton, issued separate releases declaring their intention to broadcast the unedited track continuously for an hour on Friday, January 14. Cynical observers have pointed out that both stations are owned by the same media conglomerate. Meanwhile, the decision has found no shortage of opponents in the print media, with (invariably male and straight) columnists, first in Canada and later the rest of the world, voicing their opposition to what many have erroneously referred to as a “ban.”
The song’s defenders counter that its language is not meant to offend, but to educate; that the listener is supposed to be disgusted by the use of such ugly terminology. There is something to be said for this view. Indeed, the lyrics themselves are voiced from the perspective of a blue-collar delivery man, based on a real furniture mover encountered by Knopfler. This working-class anti-hero aims a series of homophobic, sexist and arguably racist barbs at the pop stars he sees making “money for nothing” on TV while he installs microwaves for a modest wage.
Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue claims to have been the real-life recipient of the “faggot” remark, which is made three times in quick succession: “The little faggot with the earring and the makeup / Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair / That little faggot got his own jet airplane / That little faggot he’s a millionaire.” Reading the lyrics in full, it is reasonably clear that the context is satirical, but without the aid of a lyric sheet, you’ve got to contend with Knopfler’s muffled vocals, and that’s no easy feat to accomplish.
Ordinarily, few people would consider such an obvious case of aural narcissism a particularly biting example of social satire. ‘Money for Nothing’ is, at its core, a plea for sympathy from a rich rock star poking fun at the working-class slobs who can barely conceal their jealousy of rich rock stars, i.e. Knopfler himself. It’s difficult to ignore the latent sense of self-pity that permeates the song’s every crevice. However, for many commentators, defending the principle of artistic expression appears to be more important than the actual content of the song.
Undoubtedly the most naked example of arrogant privilege revealed itself in the radio station’s initial response to the complainant. The station held up the song’s Grammy award for “Record of the Year” and 9 Video Music Awards in part-argument that she was wrong to be offended. The implication seems to be that a slur is legitimate as long as people don’t mind that much – better still if the 1986 Grammy panel and the good folks at MTV’s marketing department happen to agree.
There is no suggestion that Knopfler’s lyrics were intended to cause offense, but his words heard outside of context are overwhelmingly likely to do just that. Pop music does have the capability to educate and enlighten us on otherwise complex social issues, but context is vital and, despite what some opinion-formers would have us believe, pop radio is not a platform that encourages this type of thoughtful reflection. They play the hits, they play the ads and occasionally they break for the news – but they do not pause to explain the social context the way a middle-school English class would to discuss Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Canadian radio stations surrendered to state-imposed censorship in 1990 when they agreed to (and indeed lobbied for) the creation of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. Before and since, it has been common practice to censor racist slurs, many sexist slurs and even casual swearing at certain times of the day. So it’s interesting to note that, in the 20 years since the body’s creation, this is the first instance where all strands of the media have been more or less unanimous in their opposition to an particular regulatory stance. It’s just unfortunate that the cause they’ve chosen is the freedom to broadcast a word that debases and demeans homosexuals.