Oh, hooray, first the Catholic League got all twisted up about a
crucifix in a work of art
, and now Canada is winding the clock back a few more years to revive the argument over whether
Dire Straits can say “faggot” on the radio
. By April, people will be arguing about whether it’s appropriate to show unmarried people in bed in the movies.
This time, at least, the dispute is about whether the lyrics of “Money for Nothing” are hurtful to homosexuals, which was not really the principal concern back in 1985 (side note: wow, Calvin and Hobbes sure called each other “sissy” a lot). Originally, it was more a question of the terrible creeping coarseness of our popular entertainment—the idea was not so much to protect gay people from a slur as to protect children from hearing it.
Nowadays our right-thinking northern neighbors see the song as a civil-rights problem, which marks them as more enlightened but also more dense than the first wave of critics. “Money for Nothing” falls in the tradition of songs that offend people because the lyrics are being sung in character; Mark Knopfler wasn’t calling anyone a “faggot” any more than Randy Newman was really disparaging people of small stature . “That little faggot got his own jet airplane” is remarkably close, in function and intent, to Pap Finn’s rant about the “free nigger there from Ohio…He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain`t a man in that town that`s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane.”
That’s not to say there’s no reason to wince a little at the song. Dire Straits wasn’t aiming the satire at slavery and white supremacy, and only incidentally at homophobia. The song’s narrator is slinging around the word “faggot” because he is a small-minded dope who resents the fame and riches he sees rock stars displaying “on the MTV.” That is, the song is a rock star disparaging someone for being envious of rock stars. Stupid proles! “We got to move these refrigerators,” Knopfler complains in the refrain. Translation: Ha, ha! You schmucks have to move refrigerators. My job is being an awesome rock star.
The cultural history and politics of the song are even more tangled up than that: “Money for Nothing” was a much bigger hit than anything that Dire Straits had done before; that is, Knopfler made himself into a successful rock star by way of a song about people resenting rock stars’ success. He also abandoned his own opposition to making music videos , so the song was marketed with an MTV video in which computer-animated characters disparaged MTV videos—expressing what had previously been Knopfler’s actual point of view—which won Video of the Year and helped make the song No. 1. And then, yes, alongside Knopfler’s grumbling, working-man’s-persona anti-MTV, anti-rock-star lyrics, there was another voice singing the video network’s actual marketing slogan , and that voice belonged to, of all people, Sting. So. If you’re looking for some moment when art and commerce, integrity and “selling out,” class solidarity and class envy, performer and spectator, content and advertisement, and assorted other tensions all collapsed into a lucrative and critic-proof singularity*, you could do worse. The Eighties! The ‘90s could never have happened without them.
* Thanks, in part, to one of the greatest straightforward rock-heroic guitar riffs ever recorded, which is the main reason people (including me) still want to hear the song on the radio 25 years later.