Homophobic Lyrics Addressed By CBSC

January 17th, 2011

Characters from the Dire Straits Video wonder aloud if they've been deemed obsolete.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council announced last week that the song “Money for Nothing by Dire Straits was found to be unfit for broadcast, containing lyrics in violation with the industry’s code of ethics.

The song (and its crazy, Nintendo-era video) is a cultural staple from my childhood years, but I mustn’t have paid attention to the words, because I was shocked to learn that they’re actually pretty bad:

The little faggot with the earring and the make-up
Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair
That little faggot’s got his own jet airplane
That little faggot, he’s a millionaire

In context, the lyrics represent the words of a working class man, watching MTV with disdain over the fame and rewards that many rock stars enjoy for very little effort and talent. The homophobic slurs—even more powerful in the 80s—insult the effeminate style of these rock stars as being like that of gay men.

With the CBSC’s decision, broadcast members are asked to play a version of the song edited for the radio, which replaces the word “faggot,” with “mother.”

Sounds like a reasonable decision to me. Hateful slurs have no place in popular culture, certainly not in their intended pejorative sense. Gay people—particularly gay youth—are hurt by this word enough already, and having it played by public broadcasters in this context gives it legitimacy.

My opinion doesn’t appear to be very popular, though. A lot of people are furious with the CBSC, decrying the decision as censorship and against freedom of expression. A quick look on the  iTunes music store shows that “Money for Nothing” is inching up the charts, with commenters encouraging others to buy the song in protest.

First, I think it’s important to clarify some misinformation: Despite sensationalist headlines, “Money for Nothing” has not been banned in Canada. As iTunes protesters have easily discovered, you’re free to buy the song on iTunes (or an old timey record store, if you still know of one), set your iPod to repeat it indefinitely, and flood your ears with concentrated eighties essence until your eardrums sag with age, if you’re so inclined.

The song hasn’t even been banned from the public airwaves. The CBSC is the Canadian broadcast industry’s self-regulatory body. It is not a government organisation, membership is voluntary, and only members are asked to adhere to its code of ethics. Violators can’t even be fined. In fact, two Canadian radio stations have already played the unedited song nonstop for an hour on Friday as some kind of crass protest. The worst that will happen to those stations, if they’re even members of the CBSC, is that they’ll have to issue an on-air apology or leave the CBSC—and only if someone complains. (As an aside, I’m pretty sure I’d complain if a radio station played the same song over and over for an entire hour, but that’s just me.)

I don’t even see this decision as effective censorship. The full song is still available for purchase to anyone who wishes to hear it, its distribution channels are unaffected, and the artist’s funding and royalties haven’t been cut. On top of that, it’s standard practice for songs to have special versions created for broadcast radio. You’ve all heard them—versions that awkwardly blank out swear words and cut out offensive verses. Slurs are far more hurtful than common swears, so if one type of F word is fair game for editing, why isn’t the other F word? The “mother” version of “Money for Nothing” has existed for years, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask CBSC members to play that version instead over the public airwaves.

Malarkey for nothing, I say.