The Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” was banned from Canadian radio by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), who ruled that “the song violates the industry’s code of ethics because the lyrics include the word “faggot” three times.” This comes on the heels of the recent sanitizing of the Mark Twain classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I was 16 years old when “Money for Nothing” was released in the summer of 1985. I wasn’t a huge Dire Straits fan, but I liked the song because it was catchy and the video was ground-breaking at the time. I don’t remember much ado being made about the word “faggot” being used; back then, in my high school, the word was part of the vernacular, often thrown about as an insult between teenage boys (a few of whom I’m sure have come out by now).
I was recently going through my old high-school journals and noticed that I used the term “fag” twice. It was disconcerting, to say the least, but that was close to thirty years ago. I didn’t know better back then; I was the product of my Catholic upbringing and homophobic high-school environment, where homosexuality was considered a sin. Guys who wore make-up (except those in new-wave or heavy-metal bands) or were even slightly less than the masculine ideal were called “fags”. (Which is ironic given that this and this were considered macho back then.) Twenty-five years have given me a perspective and an intelligence that one can never have as a teenager.
I now understand how terms like “faggot” can be painful to hear for some people. Over time, I’ve become a little sensitive to songs and videos that hint at misogynism. While I bop my head to Jay Z’s “99 Problems”, I cringe over the line “and a bitch ain’t one”. I struggled with with “Under My Thumb” by the Rolling Stones until I started thinking that the lyrics don’t necessarily have to be about all women. Even my beloved Beatles recorded a song, “Run for Your Life”, that had the lyric “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man…” It’s a conflict I deal with occassionally. Because the alternative — stop listening to popular music altogether — is simply not an option for me.
What I do is put everything into perspective. I consider the context surrounding the song. Back then, “Run For Your Life” may not have raised many eyebrows at the time - but it would certainly raise a furor now. And to me that shows how far we’ve come. Also, the song is not indicative of their entire creative output - the Beatles didn’t have a catalogue of songs dedicated to women-bashing. And lastly, the lyrics may be highly personal or reflective of the writer’s experience at the time. This same logic applies to “Money For Nothing”. (It’s also interesting to note the etymology behind the Dire Straits song: the lyrics are based on the comments of a real delivery man.)
Censorship is a slippery slope. You ban one song, you open the door to more. What about songs that use literary devices to make a point — do we ban those because some people don’t get the concept of irony? And how far back do we go? And when does it stop? When our airwaves are filled with non-threatening pap like Justin Bieber? “Baby, baby, baby” — God help us.
Instead of censoring and banning, let’s educate and empower. Music can be a powerful mirror - it can reflect things in society we don’t necessarily wish to see. It may also make us uncomfortable. But it there’s a song that incites bigotry or hatred of a specific group, let’s use that to start a discourse, let’s use it to enact change. Because no matter how hard we try to sweep something under a rug, it will still be there.
But the hullabaloo over the CBSC decision may be moot. Who actually listens to commercial radio anymore?