Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Dire Straits, Artistic Freedom and Censorship

[Since I haven't been updating the blog too regularly- due to my uberbusy schedule- here is a piece of mine that was recently published in a local newspaper. Thought I should share it with you! And the issue is one that is debatable; so if you want to share your point of view, please do so. I'd love to hear what others have to say on the issue.]

Dire Straits is a British Rock band that was a cultural staple in the 80s and the 90s. Arguably, their most successful hit, “Money for Nothing,” is a classic. It was released in 1985, as part of the album “Brothers in Arms,” and the music video featured early computer-animated human characters, which for many at the time, was a first. The Grammy winning song (Best Rock Performance, 1985) has been and still is symbolic of many other things: the song is written from the point of view of a blue-collar worker carrying heavy loads in a hardware store. When he stumbles on the video of a rock-band on TV, the man complains that he has to install microwave ovens, handle kitchen deliveries and move fridges to earn a living, while rock-stars just play the guitar on the MTV and get “money for nothing, and chicks for free.”

In a ruling released on January 12, 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CSBC) banned the broadcast of “Money for Nothing” from Canadian airwaves. The decision came after a listener from Newfoundland complained that the song was played on CHOZ-FM (OZ FM, Newfoundland) and it included the word “faggot” three times. Indeed, the lyrics of “Money for Nothing” contain the following: “The little faggot with the earring and the make-up/ Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair/ That little faggot’s got his own jetplane/ That little faggot, he’s a millionaire.” The listener mentioned “[being] aware of other versions of the song, in which the word was replaced with another, and yet OZ FM chose to play and not censor this particular version,” and added, “I find this extremely offensive as a member of the LGBT community and feel that there is absolutely no valid reason for such discriminatory marks to be played on-air.”

The CSBC made its decision based on the fact that the lyrics of the song are a violation of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ “Code of Ethics” and the “Equitable Portrayal Code.” Clause 2 of both these codes specify that “broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.” 

Since there have been numerous misunderstandings around this issue, it may be relevant to first get the facts straight: “Money for Nothing” is not banned in Canada. The original and unedited version of the song is still available for sale and for download. When it comes to the broadcast of the song on radio channels, edited versions of the song can still be aired. As a matter of fact, Dire Straits recorded an edited version of the song for the radio, where the word “faggot” had been replaced by the word “mother” (itself short for “mother f*cker”). In addition, the CSBC is a self-governing regulatory body for Canada’s private broadcasters and it has no power to fine or sue radio stations that defy its edicts. Membership to the CSBC is entirely voluntary, only members of the CSBC are required to adhere to its code of ethics, and private radio stations can leave the association if they so desire.

Yet, the CSBC’s decision to censor the original version of “Money for Nothing” created a ripple of reactions from all sides. The backlash included Dire Straits’ fans writing to the CSBC, explaining their outrage that the original version of the song that had been aired for the past 25 years could not be aired anymore. In Halifax, the radio station Q104, and in Edmonton, Classic Rock channel K-97 (CIRK-FM) repeatedly played the unedited version of the song for an entire hour on Friday, January 14, as a form of protest against CSBC’s decision. The decision has fueled debates about where to draw the line between censorship, artistic license, and freedom of speech. Furthermore, questions are now being raised about the evolution of language and whether terms that teach us something about the past (however offensive these terms may be) should be censored at all.

The CSBC’s position is rather easy to understand: Clause 9 (b) of the “Equitable Portrayal Code” of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters specifically mentions that “it is to be understood that language and terminology evolve over time. Some language and terminology may be inappropriate when used with respect to identifiable groups . . . Broadcasters shall remain vigilant with respect to the evolving of appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular words and phrases, keeping in mind prevailing community standards.” Seen from the CSBC’s perspective, the word “faggot” is now unacceptable, even if it was acceptable in 1985, when the song was released.

However, the word “faggot” might not have been as acceptable as we think it was in the 1980s. On, a commentator from Vancouver argues: “[w]hen Dire Straits released Money for Nothing back in the 80s, it made me sick. As a teenager growing up in a small hick town in Ontario, it really bothered me as a closeted gay kid. I’ve been waiting 30 years for something to be done about it.” Along the same lines, Mark Knopfler (lead singer of Dire Straits) was aware of how offensive the lyrics of his song were when it was released: in the November 21, 1985, issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, Knopfler confessed that he had received an objection from the editor of a major gay newspaper in London. Quite interestingly, in Dire Straits’ “Best of” compilation, actually titled “Money for Nothing,” the problematic verse of the song is edited entirely.

The debate around the censorship of the song has also been likened to the ongoing debate about the edited versions of Mark Twain’s novels, “Tom Sawyer,” and “Huckleberry Finn.” The new edition of these two literary classics will now replace the word “nigger” by the word “slave.” While the books have been widely banned and criticized because of the use of the racial slur (4 times in “Tom Sawyer,” and 219 times in “Huck Finn”), many argue that racism will not be eradicated by erasing words and sanitizing literary history. Rather, since the books are often taught in schools and universities, the racial slur could be used as a pedagogic moment to acknowledge history, speak about it, understand the ways that it affects contemporary culture, and learn from past mistakes.

Can the comparison between Mark Twain’s novels and the Dire Straits’ song hold? “Money for Nothing” is not taught in schools, and, unlike books, editing a song for the radio does not stop the unedited versions from circulating: the unedited version of “Money for Nothing” still is and will always be available for sale and download, but the old editions of Mark Twain’s novels may eventually disappear in the long run. In addition, one also chooses which book to read, and if a book is offensive, one can always stop reading it. The same can be said of one’s personal music collection, where one can get rid of music that one finds offensive, but the same cannot be said of music being played on the radio: one does not choose what one will hear on a radio station.

And yet, can “Money for Nothing” be a teaching moment? The proponents of “artistic license,” and “freedom of speech” argue that “Money for Nothing” is a parody, it is ironical, and thus, it is not meant to be homophobic. If one takes into account the context of the song, one would understand that it is a social commentary: this song teaches us that there was a time where men were overtly homophobic when it came to “men with make-up,” and they were envious of rock-stars, whom they thought, did no work at all. Assuming this claim holds ground, there still are details that need to be addressed: do we really listen to the radio by taking into account the context of each and every single song being played? Besides, how many of us can actually decipher the subtleties of irony? How many of us are actually receptive to parody? Keith M., a 20 year old student at Trent University argues he wouldn’t want to hear the word “faggot” on the radio. He adds: “Since I was born in the 90s, I wouldn’t know the context of a song that was produced before I was born. If Kanye West’s songs can have an edited versions for the radio, I don’t see why this shouldn’t be the case for all artists.”


Neil said...

Very thought-provoking. I think it's all about context, but who is the judge of what is in context and what is out of context? I do appreciate watching raw and engaging dramatic films, but those films wouldn't have as much impact if certain words/actions were omitted.

I actually wrote a poem using the words "faggot" and "nigger," comparing their use in social vocabulary. It's so true though: the edges between parody and slander can be very blurred. Ultimately, why would someone even want to listen/read an edited version of a song/novel that they find offensive in its original form?

Hmm, I'm still thining, but my comment is getting too long...

Amak said...

Thanks, Neil!

I think that there are certain offensive things that one can always avoid. A book is offensive, then don't read it. A movie is offensive, then walk out of the theatre.

I think the issue really is that such a song is being thrust into people's ears over the radio. They always have the option to turn it off, but it's not quite the same as putting a book down, is it?

Anyway, after weeks of thinking, I FINALLY have a point of view on this song: other than it's racist and sexist lyrics (that I didn't get into in this article), I think it's homophobic independent of whose point of view it was written from!