On Dire Straits and the Other F-Word

by | January 13, 2011
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, LGBT


There’s been a big uproar today over the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council’s ruling that the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” is unacceptable for play on Canadian radio because it includes the term “fa**ot”.  The ruling was prompted after a complaint to a Newfoundland radio station. According to the Vancouver Sun: “Co-written in 1985 by Mark Knopfler and Sting, Money For Nothing takes the perspective of a working-class man watching music videos, which were still a new medium at the time.” The lyric in question reads: “See 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.”

The council said: “The societal values at issue a quarter-century later have shifted and the broadcast of the song in 2010 must reflect those values, rather than those of 1985.”  As a result, Dire Straits has been trending on Twitter all day, and I’ve seen a lot of Facebook complaints from those who think the decision is a ridiculous example of censorship.

But honestly, the word is unacceptable to me, so I didn’t see what the big deal was, so I started asking around, trying to get a grasp of the arguments on the other side. So far I haven’t been really satisfied with any of them. Here are the ones I heard and my reactions, but I’m definitely open to hearing more and I’d love to see your comments on this post.

1. It’s an old song. No one’s ever complained before.

Twenty-five years ago the word might have been more acceptable, but it’s not anymore. I did find websites that said versions had been created that replaced the word or cut out the verse, so I’m interested to know the station’s rationale for not using them. And just because no one complained in the past doesn’t mean it’s okay that it’s upsetting people now.

2. It’s a product of its time and banning it is the same as banning the N-word from Huckleberry Finn. We can’t hide our shameful pasts.

I have some sympathy for this argument. I’m opposed to the new edition of Huckleberry Finn because it attempts to erase the lessons we can learn from discussing the racism in context. If  someone was discussing homophobic language and the historical acceptability of “fa**ot*, I wouldn’t have a problem with them playing Dire Straits as an example. But as far as I’m aware, “Money for Nothing” was being presented on the radio as musical entertainment, not to teach a lesson

3. It’s inconsistent application of the regulations. Ban none or ban them all.

It does seem there are some really negative, derogatory lyrics and themes in other mainstream music, that nonetheless seem to get quite a bit of air play. Several people I saw singled out rap music. However, the Globe and Mail reported today on other songs that had been banned, including several by Eminem and 50 Cent, so clearly rap music has not been exempt from CBSC scrutiny. I’d be really interested to hear if there have been songs that have received complaints but have not been banned. Then we’d be able to tell if it’s the complaint-driven process that causes the inconsistency, or actual inconsistency in CBSC rulings.

That said, I’d tend to agree with my co-worker, who said: “The inconsistency argument is kind of like getting pulled over for speeding and trying to argue you shouldn’t get a ticket because there were other drivers on the road speeding too.”

4. The song actually takes a stand against homophobia, but it’s been misinterpreted.

I read the lyrics and I thought it was pretty hard to get the reading that it was against homophobia. At most, it could cut both ways. If you take the perspective that the narrator of the song is not a sympathetic character, that becomes somewhat plausible, but again, without introductory context it’s problematic.

5. It’s censorship. There’s worse language in TV, movies, and books. Where do you stop regulating the language?

Can’t say I’m not sensitive to this argument, but it still doesn’t convince me for a couple reasons. For one, it’s not like the government has banned people listening to the song altogether. They can still buy the CD, download the mp3, even pick up the album from public libraries who carry it (I checked and the Vancouver Public Library has 3 copies of the CD that has the unedited track). And radios can play it if they edit out the offending word.

Another important thing to consider is the medium. Radio is regulated in a different way than TVs and movies because it’s disseminated differently. Movies have ratings that say certain ages can’t watch certain movies. TV regulations restrict language and content between certain hours and on certain channels, requiring warnings for language and violent and sexual content. Maybe it’d be different if radio stations were required to warn listeners when offensive language was going to occur, but they’re not and I suspect it’d be a harder sell than requiring stations to play versions edited for language.

Radio is also a different medium than books. No one can be forced to read a book, but radio stations play in shopping malls, elevators, doctors’ offices, and other public spaces. I know I’m happier knowing I can go to the dentist without having to worry I’m going to hear homophobic slurs while I’m getting a filling.

If you still think it’s unjustified, that the idea of the slippery slope of what else could be banned means that federal regulators shouldn’t have a say in what language artists put in music and whether that gets played on the radio, I can appreciate the feeling and thought behind that perspective. I just doubt whether what we’d end up hearing without any regulation would be worth it.


  • Joseph

    I’ve heard worse on CBC, both TV and especially radio during the day, the F-bomb seems to be a regular occurance. But I guess the CBC argument is the same for Money for Nothing, it’s the context in which the word is used.

    Don’t forget. You can turn the radio off.

  • Roo Phelps

    Joseph, radio stations have to protect themselves too though, as someone who works in radio we don’t want people turning us off haha, it’s not really a long term solution to the problem to just have people not listening to us.

  • “I know I’m happier knowing I can go to the dentist without having to worry I’m going to hear homophobic slurs while I’m getting a filling.”

    Jarrah and I almost always agree 100%, and the above quote is where she hits the nail on the head, or the nail on my head anyway.

    I feel like weighing in myself. Some thoughts..

    People wouldn’t be making such a resounding argument for the song staying on air if it were a nothing band. I think we can all agree on that. Dire Straits occupies a place in the 20th Century’s historical canon of music, so people against this censorship, I feel, are unfaily filtering their argument through an emotional attachment to the work done by the group. Kinda reminds me of the kerfuffle with Moore/Olbermann and Mr. Assange. Faggot apologism?

    As most art is a reflection of its time, we’re going to see some mega social insensitivities when we view works of the past, be it Shakespeare (Caliban), Kipling (everything), or old barbershop songs like “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” (yeah, I’m a barbershop singer, and my choir dropped that song after some complaints).

    The solution to reconciling these old insensitivities with our social advancement isn’t to destroy what we are ashamed of, but to discuss it. To use these old works to expand our appreciation of art, life, and of our fellow human beings.

    The question then becomes, is radio playlist a place where we can do this?

    The problem, to me, is that a radio playlist, CBC or elsewhere, is not a place for such a discussion to happen, unless you choose to devote a segment to it before or after you play the song, but I’m under the impression that the song is only being played in the context of a pre-chosen or randomized playlist, as you would hear while you’re trying to fit leather pants over your ass in a change room. Huckleberry Finn is going to be talked about in classrooms, that much I can assume, and we have too many socially competent teachers to just go banning the N-word from the book. But on a radio playlist, this song by Dire Straits isn’t going to be given the kind of context we need for the word “Faggot” not to be received from a desensitized or very sensitive place.

    The word, “Faggot” is historically oppressive, humiliating, and hurtful. Most of us in 2011 acknowledge this. If the band meant it to mean something other than that, I say too fucking bad, it’s now an ineffective word, and needs to be viewed in a socially responsible context. It doesn’t need to be burned. Just talked about reasonably. And a radio playlist is not the place for such specificity. So let’s hold it up high as a relic from the same group who wrote “Walk of Life” and say “We need to talk about this. Let’s allow it, and us, to be heard.”

    • jarrahpenguin

      Thanks for your thoughts on this, including your expansion of my point about the medium of radio (especially contrasting classic rock stations with talk/analysis/educational stations) and why this issue is different than Huck Finn. I also agree that this is being a bit clouded by people feeling defensive about liking the song.

  • David Black

    The context for the use of the term I’ve heard is that Mark Knopfler actually overheard all the words that became lyrics when he was in an electronics and home furnishings store being spoken by one employee to another. I accept that explanation and context.

    However, even though I’ve never thought of the use as objectionable in the past, I accept that others might, and that it’s better to have the word taken out.

    I also happen to believe, that if we ignore the context as we have above, “chicks for free” is equally offensive, and find it sad that phrase is “ok”, along with a lot of the other misogynist words in public radio airplay these days.

    • jarrahpenguin

      That’s interesting about the context. I agree “chicks for free” is also offensive and it is sad that these types of misogynist messages are treated as more acceptable. I’d say it’s probably partly a problem with the complaints-driven process (maybe these messsages aren’t seen as as shocking), as well as with the difficulties regulating overall messages rather than specific words. Maybe there should be more of an effort to file complaints over these types of messages. Definitely there should be more discussion and analysis and media literacy to help people consume the messages with a more critical ear.

  • This is a tricky one but being the dinosaur I am I remember when the song was released and vividly remember the video. I think just from reading the lyrics you wouldn’t get the impression that you do when you see the music video that was in heavy rotation at the time. The words are said by a man working as a furniture mover who is observing the musicians and commenting on the ease of their lifestyle and how it must be nice to be able to play a couple of songs and get “money for nothing and chicks for free.” The lyrics are NOT intended to be the voice of the musicians, rather something that they heard directed at themselves quite often.

    I don’t think the song should be censored. While it is an absolutely offensive word, and the “chicks for free” line is definitely misogynistic, those lyrics were always intended to be in the derogatory voice of an observer.

    Maybe the solution would be to bleep out those words.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Roxanna. Thanks for helping understand the context of the song in terms of the music video – I think you’re right that the words come across differently. That said, the song isn’t actually banned – the bleeped-out version or the version that cuts out that verse can still be played – it’s just the original version that can’t. And even still, it’s a complaint-driven process so I saw that some stations are going to play it in protest. They’ll only get fined if someone files a complaint with the CBSC.

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