That Ain’t Workin’

One of the first people I ever met in the musical blogosphere (“met” in the Internet sense, as opposed to the actual physical handshake sense) is Homercat of Good Rockin’ Tonight. Over the weekend, he went off on a strange decision by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council to forbid Canadian radio stations from playing “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits—which has never been off the radio in the quarter-century since it was released. It seems that a listener in Newfoundland complained about the song’s use of the word “faggot” (“little faggot got his own jet airplane/the little faggot he’s a millionaire”), and on the basis of a single complaint, the record was blacklisted. The CBSC is an arm of the Canadian broadcasting industry and not a government organization, so it doesn’t have much power to enforce its decrees—and in fact, three Canadian radio stations responded to the ban with marathon broadcasts of the record. Nevertheless, the decision tells us a lot about the world we live in right now. The listener’s complaint, that “by airing [‘Money for Nothing’] unapologetically on the radio, this station is indirectly propagating hate,” and the CBSC’s response, that the word is inappropriate in today’s context, make the incident remarkably similar to the recent decision by a publisher to edit the word “nigger” from a new edition of Huckleberry Finn.

George Carlin—who, if we had philosopher kings, would have been one—once observed that there are no bad words, only bad thoughts. Yet we have decreed that some words—regardless of their application, regardless of the thoughts behind them—are so bad that they must not be spoken by anybody, ever. The CBSC even observed that “faggot” is used in a “lightly sarcastic” fashion in “Money for Nothing” and is not in a “sneering, derisive, nasty tone,” but their decision means that the intent of the user doesn’t matter—it’s how the listener perceives the word that makes all the difference. And defining “offense” as “anything that offends anybody anywhere for any reason” is something no reasonable modern society can abide.

Similarly, Huckleberry Finn uses a word that contemporary culture has demonized beyond all other words—you’ll get in a lot more trouble in a lot more places for saying “nigger” than you’ll ever get into for saying “fuck,” so much so that we’ve euphemized it to “the n-word,” like we were all in first grade—but when Mark Twain used the word in 1884, he chose it for a particular purpose, and it was considered appropriate. It’s us, over a century later, who have attached such toxicity to the word, something that has nothing to do with Twain—or his book.

As a blogger for a Vancouver newspaper noted, context mattters. Treating the uses of these words in art like they were slurs shouted from passing cars is the sort of overreaction we’ve come to expect from a society obsessed with the appearance of “values”—which should not be confused with actually living by a coherent set of values. That such a manifestation of American priggishness is happening in Canada, which this American has always considered a less-wacky analogue to the land in which he lives, is unfortunate.

More Recommended Reading: Charlie at Bloggerhythms reviews an autobiography by Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine, which provides a look inside the life of one of the most popular American rock bands. In the city of Chicago nearly 40 years ago, the great Charlie Van Dyke (whose voice you would recognize even if you don’t know his name) held down morning drive at WLS—today, his son debuted on Chicago’s KISS-FM as morning guy. Chicago media-watcher Robert Feder has the surprising story. And over the weekend, I wrote a post at WNEW.com about the impact of the Persian Gulf War, which began 20 years ago, on popular music.

10 responses

  1. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    Isn’t “Money for Nothing” told from the point of view of a working class type, and thus the use of “faggot” is somewhat along the lines of the racial and ethnic slurs used by Archie Bunkie in “All in the Family”? If anything, that type of perspective is being somewhat subtly lampooned.

  2. Hey, Jim. I agree with your broader point, and I also agree that skittishness and censorship aren’t the way to go. My concern with the “Money for Nothing” example is that I’m a lot less bothered by its play and use when a station routinely plays full versions (what used to be called album cuts) of songs. It vexes me when a station that tends to play single versions of songs plays the full version of that one because then I start wondering why that particular song gets the different treatment. I want to assume the best (that is, what WestBerkeleyFlats references above). But as a radio listener and music lover who is gay, I have always been startled when I hear that slur in a pop hit. And the same stations that play it won’t play any variation on “the n-word” in rap songs.

    1. I believe Mark Knopfler intended “Money for Nothing” as a satire on working class types, yes. As for single versions versus album versions on radio, it’s often a matter of what stations can get. I don’t know if the single edit of “Money for Nothing” has ever been commercially released, so unless a station’s got access to radio library discs (and not all do), they may not be able to get it even if they’re inclined to. That stations would shy away from one slur and not the other makes an unfortunate commentary about the relative unacceptability of each one.

  3. This one isn’t just a simple “single edit”/”album cut” difference, either. Here’s a summary of some of the detective work unearthed over on Pat Downey’s Top 40 Music On CD chat board:

    Excluding cassette configurations, Warner Brothers concurrently released four different versions of “Money For Nothing” in the U.S.:

    The DJ 45, which ran 4:05
    The commercial 45 (4:38)
    The ‘Brothers In Arms’ vinyl LP track (7:00)
    The ‘Brothers In Arms’ CD track (8:24)

    The DJ 45 is the only one of the above four releases that edited out the controversial second verse and chorus. This is the version included on most – if not all – Dire Straits compilation CDs, such as ‘Money For Nothing’, so it has been available commercially for many years.

    The commercial 45 is the same as the DJ 45, except that the second verse and chorus are *not* edited out. It has never been issued on CD.

    The ‘Brothers In Arms’ vinyl LP track matches the ‘Brothers In Arms’ CD track up until the 5:23 mark, where the first of several edits occurs.

  4. Wow… so I guess we can assume that they don’t play much (if any) rap music on Canadian radio, huh?

  5. Words only have the power we give to them. I think Richard Pryor’s tactic back in the 70s was much more effective than the M.O. today. Pryor did his best to take the sting out of the “N” word by using it extensively, by “taking it back.” If an “offensive” word gets used often enough in an unoffensive or even self-deprecating (of its own offensiveness) manner it loses its bite and sting and overall its power.

    What the hell happened to “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?” And maybe, despite being a History major, I somehow missed it– was/is there something in the US Constitution protecting us from being offended?

  6. Thank you for the link to my site. Yours always offers some of the best reading around.

  7. So, now, a couple of years after my first reply, I’m having to think twice about it. Macklemore’s “Same Love” is starting to get play on our Top 40 station, and they’ve decided to edit out the word “faggot,” which makes the rest of the verse (decrying the casual use of the slur) sound ridiculous …

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