So. This week, due to one complaint in Newfoundland the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has legislated that the song “Money For Nothing” off Dire Straits’ seminal “Brothers In Arms” record qualifies as hate speech thanks to Mark Knopfler mentioning, in the third verse, the word “f****t” three times. This song’s been around for around 25 years, a regular rock staple the whole time. How come only now are we dictating whether or not it can be played?
Mainstream radio has had no issue censoring the lyrics of other mainstream artists, particularly hip-hop and rap musicians. But, as far as I can tell, this is the first time we’ve gone back and retroactively decided something is wrong. Especially something so… well, pop.
Let’s be clear on a few things, though. In no way do I condone hate speech of this kind; if Knopfler was saying something like this to my face, I’d be the first to threaten to knock his teeth out the back of his throat (and I’ve got the story to prove it. Just ask Jay Davy about a little incident the last time we saw Grady at the El Mocambo.) But is Knopfler serious?
As we all know, the song’s written from the point of view of an appliance-store shipping guy, talkin’ about how easy it is to be a rock star. He’s breaking his back, movin’ microwave ovens, custom kitchen deliveries, and is simply ruminating upon the situations he sees on the MTV. It’s a real conversation that Knopfler overheard at an English department store in the ‘80s that prompted the song. Knopfler himself isn’t the speaker; it’s a vernacular piece.
So when does it stop being a vernacular piece and become hate speech?
I think that all has to do with how you see Knopfler, the songwriter. If the point of the song was to really criticize the idiots playing guitar on the MTV, get your money for nothing and your chicks for free, then we’d have issue; but, because Knopfler isn’t the speaker, I think we need to take a step back. After all, Knopfler was one of those yo-yos. There’s no way he intended those statements as offensive or slanderous in any way.
Lots of people are comparing the lyrics to this song to Michelangelo’s David or other works of art featuring nudity—how dare you try to censor capital-A Art?!—that, over the centuries, many have deemed offensive. But that doesn’t really work. Since the ‘80s, Knopfler’s been singing this song live… with different lyrics. I think this shows that even he knows the things the speaker says in the song… aren’t right. I just keep coming back to that situation at the ElMo. I know that if someone was going to say something like that to my face about someone onstage or off, I’d feel like I had no choice but to speak up. Is it really different when it’s being broadcast over the radio?
Censorship of art is a horrible, awful thing. But should the spirit of art ever to be to insult and demean? Art’s purpose is to challenge the quotidian. At its heart, that’s what every good piece of art needs to do. Knopfler should show us this deliveryman writing sonnets in his offtime. That’d show ‘em.
I guess my point is that this isn’t quite so cut and dry as everyone seems to think. Sure, you shouldn’t censor art, but the world’s bigoted and prejudiced enough without turning it into a joke about delivery people. And with Knopfler himself changing the lyrics in all but the first official release of the song… You can see how this leads down a slippery slope. Censorship such as this needs to have some sort of a time limit or grandfathering or something on it; otherwise, it’s just going to creep farther into our everyday lives. Who knows how many other classic songs and movies are now open to being edited, changed or simply removed from the public consciousness like plucking loose thread. Have you seen “Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby?
Go see it. You may not be able to later.
It’s not like any of these controversial pieces are propaganda, though. Each is a multi-faceted, layered piece of work—like any good piece of art—and we are only taking issue with one piece of it at a time. A modern audience should be able to intelligently discuss issues such as this instead of running from them with this easy out. And I feel that we really can. But maybe the Canadian government doesn’t see it that way. It’s probably just easier for them to ban the song—come on, how many rockin’ guitar-driven tunes from the ‘80s are there? Play one of those.
After all, like the man says, that’s the way you do it.