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.