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The Other F-Word: Is ‘Money for Nothing’ Censorship Overdue?

Rock music and controversy have always been comfortable bedfellows, though more boundary-pushing genres have more recently incited more public ire. It makes sense then, in an odd way, for a 25-year-old song to be the new object of censorship. But does it really make sense for the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) to ban the uncensored version of Dire Straits’s classic rock hit “Money for Nothing”?

For its indiscriminate use of the word “f----t,” the CBSC has banned “Money for Nothing” from the airwaves. There is a popular censored version of the song that substitutes the word “mother” (short for…) that stations have been playing for decades, though.

Mark Knopfler, the principle songwriter of “Money for Nothing,” was aware at the time that the song’s release that its lyrics were controversial. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Knopfler suggests that “f----t” is an ignoramus’ way of showing “grudging respect.”

Like the other F-word, though, it’s not a cognomen usually reserved for respectable conversation, though. Robert Christgau notes on his own website that “Money for Nothing” is a “benchmark for pop hypocrisy” with its working man populism serving as cover for viscously regressive rhetoric. (He also asks the prescient question about how the lyrics could slip past censors.)

Where Knopfler sees offensively coarse language as an accurate reflection of how people are, Christgau sees it as an atavistic signpost of how far we as a culture have to go.

It’s a little unclear why the CBSC chose to act now, rather than twenty-five years ago. Even though the song has been at least somewhat controversial throughout its history, it seems like there would be some sort of statute of limitations on these things. Right? Rather, the CBSC worked on behalf of one person who only recently complained. But with its evergreen, classic rock radio staple status, it’s entirely possible that the person who complained could be significantly younger than the song itself.

One Canadian program director lamented the loss of such a rock classic over the hurt feelings of one person. Though it’s hard to believe that the song could have offended only one person over its lifespan. Even though it’s a cliche of the rock and roll lifestyle, the idea of getting “chicks for free” can’t be entirely palatable to all women and men. The entire rhetorical tack of the song is that women are gotten by men with glamorous jobs, an unflattering portrait. This theme makes the liberal use of “f----t” pretty ironic, as well.

In fact, even though Knopfler supposes himself to be lampooning the working man, “Money for Nothing” only serves to reinforce strange stereotypes about music, stardom, and sexuality. Knopfler was familiar with a bit of stardom before “Money For Nothing” was released, reaching the top 5 on both the UK album charts and singles charts with previous releases. His work in the studio—producing Bob Dylan’s Infidels, pushing for more high-fidelity recordings, and expanding the musical complexity of pop guitar music—must have shown him how much hard work goes into being one of those easy-money musicians playing guitar on MTV. And the lyrics of “Money for Nothing” do read as satirical. The song’s catchiness, though, plays against it.

Kind of like how Wrangler jeans just used a few lines of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” to make a patriotic statement (out of a decidedly bitter protest song), the chorus of “Money for Nothing” has been taken out of context to stand in for the supposedly easy life of the working musician. As a highly accomplished musician, Knopfler knows the time and energy it takes to get your chops up. It’s likely he really did intend "Money for Nothing" as a snide rejoinder to everyone who thinks it’s easy work.

At the end of the day, though, “Money for Nothing” may have been slightly victimized by its own success. As a song, the story it tells is too pervasive and too seductive to be resisted. And the other overwhelming irony of the song is that the narrator is complaining about delivering all those color TVs, which TVs will be used shortly to show the very music videos he complains about. It’s a neat little parable about how we enable the very cultural trends that we tend to despise. Judged in this way, “Money for Nothing” ends up failing its listeners, though, by perpetrating language of hate even as it tries to ridicule the people who use it.

Fuse January 18, 2011

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