That Little Blank

(Pictured: Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Sting perform at Live Aid in 1985.)

Back in 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, an industry group, blacklisted the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” based on a single complaint from a listener about the song’s use of the word “faggot.” The CBSC had no power to enforce the ban, however, and some Canadian rock stations responded with marathon broadcasts of the song.

I blogged about the decision at the time, saying there’s a big difference between the casual use of the term (“lightly sarcastic,” as the CBSC described it themselves) and a conscious effort to propagate hate (as the listener complaint had it). I wrote: “[The CBSC] 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.”

Fast-forward to the fall of 2015. During my recent trip to the East Coast, I spent hours in the car with the radio on, surfing from station to station. I heard “Money for Nothing” on two different American stations over a period of days, and in both cases, they blanked out the word “faggot”: “That little [blank] got his own jet airplane / That little [blank] he’s a millionaire.”

If you don’t like the portrayal of sex or violence on TV or at the movies, watch something else. If you don’t like the obscenities used in rap or metal, listen to something else. And further: don’t judge the past by the standards of the present. Understand that Mark Twain’s use of “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn was appropriate in its time, and that it’s better for high school kids to confront the word, discuss its history, and deal with it squarely than to shut the word away and tell students it’s too inflammatory even to think about.

But: it occurs to me that the blanking of “faggot” in “Money for Nothing” isn’t a case of hysterical bluenoses telling people what is acceptable to think. We have moved past the era in which “nigger” could be casually thrown around. (This is not to suggest that American society is no longer racist. Maybe the best we can say is that the language of white supremacy has changed, but even a baby step is a step.) In 2015, gays and lesbians are accepted in American society to a degree we could scarcely imagine as recently as 2011. So perhaps, just as greater acceptance of African Americans took “nigger” out of polite discourse, “faggot” has become another word that can no longer be casually thrown around, and for similar reasons.

But that’s just my opinion. I could be completely wrong.

On Another Matter: During my East Coast trip, I occasionally switched from FM to AM, looking for sports talk or play-by-play. There was a time when it was easy to find national broadcasts of sporting events on those 50,000-watt clear-channel sticks licensed to major cities, or 5,000-watt regional stations from smaller cities. But on my trip, it was extremely difficult to find what I was looking for. The migration of sports talk (and talk formats generally) from AM to FM has turned the AM band into a desert. The strongest signals I could get tended to be either Spanish or religious. This is a positive thing for diversity—it allows different voices to be heard—but it’s another way in which the industry has given away some of its romance. It’s more difficult to ride the skywave at night than it used to be. Radio seems less exotic when you can find four stations playing Katy Perry, all in perfect stereo, and all within 40 miles of where you are.

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