Dire Straits' song should be censored, council rules
Published Thursday, January 13, 2011 5:25PM EST
TORONTO - Music fans around the world were up in arms Thursday after a broadcast watchdog deemed the Dire Straits hit "Money for Nothing" unfit for Canadian radio because of a gay slur in the lyrics, while others applauded the decision and argued society has changed since the song came out in 1985.
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled Wednesday that the song violates the industry's code of ethics because the lyrics include the word "faggot" three times.
The scrutiny of the Dire Straits song was prompted by a complaint from a listener of radio station CHOZ-FM in St. John's, N.L. The panel noted that "Money for Nothing" would be acceptable for broadcast if suitably edited.
The decision nabbed international headlines (with Fox News and TV Guide among the U.S. websites to pick up on the story) and prompted furious debate on Twitter, where "Dire Straits" and "CBSC" were both trending topics in Canada.
Observers were divided over whether the decision was justified or, ultimately, all for nothin'.
"I think it's extremely important to take these words out of lyrics in popular culture," said Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, an organization that promotes equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified people.
"It perpetuates the stereotype, it's negative and it's offensive. If you look to the origin of the word, it's disgusting."
Radio veteran Alan Cross says the issue isn't necessarily the song, but the inconsistency of the rules. And he points out that it only takes one complaint to set such changes in motion.
"When the decision is rendered in favour of the complainant, it's like: 'Wait a second, it's 34 million to one against?"' said Cross, the host of "The Ongoing History of New Music" and the curator of exploremusic.com.
"It's the perceived inconsistencies: 'Why can I watch "Family Guy" at 7 o'clock and there doesn't seem to be a problem there ... but now I can't listen to a song that I've been listening to my whole life?"'
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is an independent watchdog that deals with complaints from the public. CHOZ-FM must announce the council's latest decision -- which carries no monetary penalty -- on air.
The station would not comment on the decision Thursday, but non-compliance could conceivably have an impact on its next licence renewal.
The standards council did not immediately return calls for comment.
Brad Muir, director of operations for classic rock stations C103 in Moncton and FRED FM in Fredericton, says he wasn't "all that surprised" by the ruling.
His stations actually decided to edit "Money for Nothing" about two years ago after a listener complained.
"Whether the intent of the word is meant to be offensive or not, it doesn't really matter -- it's how kids hear it nowadays," he said in a telephone interview.
"So it wasn't that big of a deal for me. I just went and edited it and I've never heard anybody complain about it being edited either."
The decision by the standards council comes a controversy continues to rage over a Montgomery, Ala., publisher that has issued a censored version of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The new edition replaces the word "nigger" with "slave."
Cross, meanwhile, says the "Money for Nothing" decision isn't censorship so much as an example of a shift in what's considered acceptable language.
"Maybe when it came to homosexuality, things were a little bit less enlightened (in 1985)," he said.
"It was just an epithet that was thrown around and (people) didn't think too much of it. However, in the ensuing 26 years, it has become a word that has caused hurt and offence to a number of people."
The controversy over "Money for Nothing" actually isn't new.
The song was a massive hit upon its release in '85. It won a Grammy, reached No. 1 on the charts in Canada and the U.S. and spawned a famous music video that featured crude computer animation and became interwoven with the popularity of the then-fledgling music network MTV.
Yet Cross points out that sanitized versions of the song have always existed -- even its original seven-inch pressing, he said, arrived without the verse in question.
At the time, there was debate over whether the song was homophobic. But songwriter Mark Knopfler responded by pointing out that the lyric was meant with some irony. He has said he actually wrote the song in a hardware store, after he heard an employee watching MTV and complaining about what he saw.
"There are people who are going to take (the council) to task and say: 'Look, the lyrics are written from the perspective of a character who was observed by the songwriter actually saying these things,"' Cross said. "So it is dialogue. It is not social commentary, it is not hate speech."
"So there's a contextual thing there that seems to be absent from this particular ruling. I don't know why. And that's what a lot of people seem to be pointing to, is that you're taking the words of an artist -- in this case Mark Knopfler -- and you're taking them out of context. You're making it sound like he's throwing around these words when he's not."
That sentiment was indeed echoed around the Internet.
"I hope to add to a backlash against this lunacy," wrote Prince George, B.C., resident Rick Krehbiel in a message to The Canadian Press.
"Clearly neither the complainant nor the pandering CBSC panel understands the song, which is actually a 'spoof' of the mindset that uses (these) words. ... At some point, this mindless rush to political correctness has to be stopped."
Cross notes there are many other pop songs that could be subject to similar scrutiny, including the Tragically Hip's "Locked in the Trunk of a Car," the Who's "Who Are You" (which contains an objectionable F-bomb of a different variety) and even Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," which Cross said has been targeted as encouraging violence against women, even though it's actually meant to take the opposite stance.
Muir says that there's plenty of grey area when it comes to what's acceptable on the radio.
"All the radio people know the songs that have offensive words in them," he said. "Most of us sit around and wait for the phone to ring and go, 'OK, when is someone going to hear that and who is going to complain about that?'
"Because we always want to play the music as it's recorded, that's what we feel we have an obligation to do. ... (But) the standards, the tolerance levels are a bit different in each city, town, province."
Muir says "Money for Nothing" remains an essential for radio playlists. In fact, he suggests that its enduring popularity is part of the reason people on both sides of the issue are so upset.
"That song is a staple in classic rock formats, absolutely," he said. "That's one of the top testing songs, that's one of the primary songs that all classic-rock stations play, all the time."
"I think it's kind one of those hot buttons. It's a favourite song that everybody likes, it represents a generational time with MTV and all of that stuff, it was a classic video, everybody remembers it. And I think everybody might just be a little oversensitive ... I think, on both sides."