TORONTO — A Canadian broadcast watchdog says its decision to deem a 1985 Dire Straits smash unfit for radio just ain’t workin’.
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) has tempered a ruling on “Money For Nothing,” which includes the word “faggot,” saying that while the homophobic slur is inappropriate, it must be taken in context and that individual radio stations can decide if they should play an edited version of the song.
“The (council) wishes to make perfectly clear to those persons who have commended the CBSC for its ‘brave’ position regarding the disapproval of the hateful and painful term that it is not abandoning that position,” states the decision, released Wednesday.
“It is only saying that there may be circumstances in which even words designating unacceptably negative portrayal may be acceptable because of their contextual usage.”
On Jan. 12, the council responded to a listener in St. John’s who was offended by the song’s lyrics. The regional Atlantic panel of the council subsequently ruled the song contravened the human rights clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code.
When a public backlash ensued, the CRTC asked the council to review its decision.
So, what changed since the council made its original decision?
The song’s writer, Mark Knopfler, has long maintained that he was writing from the perspective of a “bonehead” whom he observed in a hardware store watching MTV, reacting with disgust to the fledgling network’s flamboyant rock stars.
The council simply hadn’t taken such context into account when making its original decision, said the organization’s national chairman, Ron Cohen. But with that information in hand, the majority of the council’s panel felt the word was intended satirically and not in a hateful manner.
“(The context) wasn’t as evident without the explanations that have been provided,” Cohen said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We don’t go out and research — the CBSC just doesn’t do that. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the time.
“This background information was drawn out of the public and provided to us and (we said), ‘A-ha! Had the Atlantic panel had this information in the first place, it may well have come to a different conclusion.’”
The council’s decision earlier this year elicited impassioned response from all over the country, nabbed international headlines and even prompted erstwhile members of the band — which broke up in 1995 — to weigh in online.
Meanwhile, a handful of Canadian radio stations defied the ruling by putting the original version of the tune on repeat (Cohen considers such actions “fairly constructive,” since they often included discussion of the issue and the song’s context).
The song was a massive hit upon its release in 1985, winning a Grammy and reaching No. 1 on the charts in Canada and the U.S., and spawned a famous music video that featured crude computer animation and became a signature of the young music channel, MTV.
Critics of the council argued Wednesday that the initial decision never should have been reached without examining the intent behind the lyrics.
“A complaint without context is kind of a waste of time,” said Queen’s University adjunct music professor Robb MacKay in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“I don’t think you can consider any art without the context.”
MacKay points out that the song’s once-ubiquitous video made clear the lyrics were meant to be a conversation between labourers, and that it was equally clear the band didn’t hold the opinions they were expressing in high regard.
“It’s a nice piece of rock ’n’ roll, but it’s also a very interesting critique on all the stuff that was happening in the 1980s, vis-a-vis gender comportment in music videos. Race was still quite problematic in videos at that point, so yeah, it’s a pretty contentious time,” he said.
“It’s important that we keep discussing the songs. I think it’s pretty ludicrous the discussion has to be based in wrongheaded rulings.”
But the controversy over the song’s contents isn’t new. Cohen says the council pored over archival footage of the band’s live performances, and he notes that even in the ’80s, the band often omitted the offensive word or reduced the number of times it was uttered in the song (“We have watched more YouTube on this than you can imagine,” he says).
So, the council — an independent watchdog organization with more than 700 member radio and TV stations — is recommending that individual stations consider the sensitivities of their listeners in deciding whether to play the original song or an edited version.
“They’re free to make that choice,” said Cohen, who noted that the council received feedback from people who supported their original decision, as well as people who didn’t.
“There are people who are really troubled by the usage of the word. … So even if it’s kind of OK (in the context), there are connotations to it which are problematic.”