Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A Dire ruling

The recent ruling by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) banning the 1985 Dire Straits song "Money for nothing" from the airwaves of Canada has brought on reactions ranging from furious to laughingly dismissive. Many however do not really deal with the issue of how to judge the song, any song, in the first place. In the aftermath of the ruling a number of radio stations reacted by immediately and ostentatiously defying the ban by playing the song over and over for a hour, which is all very amusing, but not very enlightening. It misses an opportunity to have a discussion, or even debate about the issue of how to judge a song at all in the context in which it was written.

First a reminder of the lyrics in question from the song "Money for nothing";
"That little faggot with the earing and the makeup,
Yeah Buddy, that's his own hair.
That little faggot got his own jet airplane.
That little faggot, he's a millionaire."

Dire Straits ~ Money for nothing;

A single listener in Newfoundland, who is herself gay, made a complaint to the CBSC who eventually ruled that because of the use of the word "faggot" the song was offensive and could not be played on the air in Canada in that version, however an edited version could be played. In fact it turns out Dire Straits (or their record company) had already anticipated this reaction when the song first came out twenty five years earlier and in fact an edited version had long been made available to radio stations and even the version on the greatest hits album is different from the original and does not contain the offending lyrics. The band had even played the song live with the offending word changed to "That little queenie". Why that would be less offensive I'm sure I don't know. Clearly the song had generated some criticism in the past, those complaints were not in Canada however, and were not made official so all this escaped most public notice till now. The CBSC ruled the song offensive solely due to the use of the word "faggot" and banned it from the airwaves of it's member stations.

A few words here about the CBSC. The Standards Council is not, as many assume, a government regulator unlike the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), though many confuse the two. The CBSC is a body set up by private broadcast networks (both radio and television) to self regulate the industry and respond to listener complaints so the CRTC doesn't have to. Unlike the CRTC, the CBSC has no actual enforcement powers, although in theory a station which racked up a large number of complaints and refused to adhere to industry standards could find itself in front of the CRTC to answer complaints and risk losing their license. I know of only one station that has actually pushed things that far however, and that was Quebec station CHOI in 2004 who did end up losing their license but then the owners sold it anyway while they were appealing the ruling. The only power the CBSC has is to order the offending station to air their ruling as an ad. It should also be pointed out that the CBSC rulings only apply to it's own members, which include all the major networks and stations but which do not include public broadcasters like the CBC and TVO, nor does it apply to campus and community stations. Most religious stations are also not members.

The questions raised by the ruling are many; the CBSC ruled that the word "faggot" was now so offensive that it could not be aired, although they conceded that the song had already been heavily aired for over twenty years and was a huge chart topping hit off one of the biggest selling albums of all time without generating any controversy the whole time. The CBSC decided that now however the word was no longer acceptable. But at what point did this shift happen? And why based on a single complaint? Is that really enough to assume a broadly based public consensus on the issue? Those few who supported the ban would inevitably point to the use of the "n-word" as a comparison. However few would deny that there is, and has been a longstanding consensus around the offensiveness of the "n-word". In contrary to popular belief fact that term has actually been offensive for at least a century. Even a look back at stereotype racist entertainment of decades ago such as "Amos and Andy" and minstrel songs do not show the use of the "N-Word". Outside of a few very rural country records from the 1920's it seems that nobody was prepared to use the word in polite or even semi-respectable society. The use of the "N-word" has always been seen as an especially cruel insult and nothing but and use of it would identify the user as not only a bigot but an uneducated one at that. I see no longstanding consensus here. Instead what we have here is an attempt to enforce such a consensus from above, and given the almost universal outcry it has clearly failed.

The argument has been made that standards change, and that a word that was once considered inoffensive can be considered on longer acceptable years later. The example of the "n-word" may be overblown but there are plenty of other only slightly less racist terms that used to be used on radio and t.v. as late as the 1960's that would not be allowed now. But this process came from below, after a public consensus was formed, it was not enforced from above on the unwilling.

There is another issue as well over the matter of context. Any reading of the song lyrics as a whole make it clear that Dire Straits singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler was using a common device of placing the song in the third person and putting himself in the role of the character narrating the song in that character's point of view. This a songwriting device he has used before and since. There is no question that he is not advocating or presenting his own views. The ground breaking video makes this even more clear.

In his rare interviews Knopfler has said that the song is based on a long rant he overheard at an appliance store in which one of the resentful blue collar workers was complaining about the easy life rock stars have compared to his own. The song also portrays not only the character's bitterness over the easy life of rockstars (like Knopfler) but also his envy;

"Now that ain't working, that's the way you do it
Let me tell you them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Baby get a blister on your thumb"

and the character makes it clear he would gladly change places;

"I should have learned to play the guitar
I should have learned to play them drums
Look at that mama, she got it sticking in the camera
Man we could have some."

Thus the song shows quite effectively one of the dirty secrets of dead end working class resentments that have been exploited by those with real money and power to keep them distracted and divided. This has been seen in the racism of the Jim Crow era (and beyond) to the the hate campaigns waged against immigrants, "welfare queens" and teachers ever since. And does so in a manner that is so blatant in it's resentment vs. envy juxtaposition that it's actually amusing rather than simply preachy, which is not that easy to do. It's also more effective. Not mention clearly more popular.

Oddly the inconsistent and arbitrary nature of such censorship meant that while the word "faggot" was deemed too offensive to live, other veiled racist insults were not;

"And he's up there, what's that? Hawaiian noises?
Banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee"

Anyone with any sense of rock and roll history would recognize that Knopfler was both using and mocking the "rock and roll" is "jungle music" insult that has been aimed at rock by racists since the 1950's here but for some reason this isn't offensive even though it's being said by the same character in the same song.

The issue of context and songwriting reminded me of a controversy over another song of the same era from a very different group, Guns n' Roses and the song "One in a million". This song was never going to be a single and there is no video for it, which is not surprising since it is clearly offensive. The lines that caused immediate controversy were;

"Only some niggers, that's right
Get out of my way
Don't need to buy any of your gold chains today"

"Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
Think they come to our country
And think they'll do as they please.
Like start some kinda mini Iran
Or spread some fucking disease.
They talk so many God Damn ways
it's all Greek to me."

Guns n'Roses ~ One in a million;

There should have no surprise that radio wouldn't touch the song or that protests ensued but oddly enough singer/songwriter Axel Rose seemed genuinely surprised and offended that anyone would question his motives. His reactions in the media ranged from the dismissive "can't everybody take a joke?" to the defensive "you haven't walked in my shoes" variety to a convoluted explanation claiming that he wasn't writing from his own point of view after all. He also pointed to a line further on in the song which he claimed distanced himself from politics at all and was simply displaying another strain of the working class white guy portrayed in the Dire Straits song, or for that matter any number of Merle Haggard songs;

"Radicals and racists? Don't point you finger at me.
I'm just a small town white boy trying to make ends meet.
Don't need your religion, don't watch that much TV.
Just making my living Baby
Well that enough for me."

I think there differences here between the Dire Straits and Guns n'Roses songs however;

a) The Dire Straits song is consistent in it's theme;
"Money for nothing" establishes it's simple theme from the start and sticks to it throughout. While "One in a million" is all over the map, at times it is a typical heavy metal power ballad love song and the next line it's a racist rant. The two parts seem to have nothing to do with each other.

b) The use of humour and the vocal delivery;
Knopfler makes it clear that he is paying a role by adopting a somewhat exaggerated yobbish voice while in character, another device he has used elsewhere, such is in the song "Industrial Disease". The character's often incoherent ranting is so nonsensical and ill informed that there is no doubt that the character is not Knopfler himself, quite apart from the subject matter which makes it unlikely that Knopfler, a famous rock star would be complaining about how he has to install appliances while rock stars like Mark Knopfler get all the chicks on their private jets.
Rose on the other hand delivers the lines in his usual singing voice and in fact does so with with such venom that there is no distance and no way it can be seen as a joke. It just plain sounds like something Rose would say. It is hard to see references to "Immigrants" who "talk so many Goddamn ways" and "think they can come to our country and think they'll do as they please" or "faggots" "spreading some fucking disease" as being humorous to anyone who isn't a hateful bigot, they are simply hate filled rants. You will notice that there is in fact some laughter in the above live video when he says the word "faggot", but this seems to be of the "wasn't it cool he said faggot" variety and it is hard not to think that was not his real intent. This at least gives Rose the benefit of the doubt in assuming that he is not really a vile homophobic racist but was merely engaged in adolescent "Hey look how offensive I can be" posing. But after having struck that pose he can't very well be offended that people were offended.

c) Songwriting styles;
As stated Mark Knopfler has often used the "third person" device in his songwriting, in fact it is his usual device. When Axel Rose tried to make the same claim however that claim was undermined by his usual insistence that his songs were real and always came from his own hard life experiences (broken home, drugs etc) and were therefore authentic and "real". To make a claim for gritty rock and roll authenticity only to back away and claim "I was only joking this time" is such a transparent attempt to have it both ways that it was dismissed.

Taking all this into account I would have no problem supporting a radio ban on "One in a million", and there was no real controversy about doing so at the time or since, even from those who actually like the song on musical grounds, as do I actually.

Another example from the same era was the comic Andrew Dice Clay who you may recall was very big for a few years with his standup routine in which he posed as a chain smoking Gino and spewed racist, sexist and homophobic insults. This caught on and led to a couple of best selling albums and sell out tours and even a few movies before people got tired of his act. He also got a lot of flack for his rants of course and was also banned from MTV and Letterman. He eventually defended himself by pointing out that he was just playing a character, like Pee Wee Herman, that he was actually a struggling Jewish (not Italian) actor named Andrew Silverstein who had appeared in a Woody Allen movie before stumbling on to the Diceman character. He didn't really mean any of the stuff he said really, it was all just an act. This as no doubt true but he kept up the act for so long as it made money and made no attempt provide any sort of context either in the act or outside of it, he simply insulted and offended entire groups for the amusement for his audience of mostly adolescent males that as he the media tired of his act he would get little sympathy. His career petered out on it's own without any need to ban him.

When the Dire Straits ruling came down an incident occurred which showed the implication of using censorship to bring about social change. CBC did a feature (I think hosted by Evan Soloman) to discuss the issue. It the interest of balance he had to find someone who actually supported censorship. After no doubt much searching he managed to find a pro-censorship voice in the person of...wait for it..."Now Magazine" editor Susan G Cole. Excuse me the editor of the nation's largest "progressive arts and entertainment weekly" is suddenly in favour of censorship? WTF? Hasn't "Now" always prided itself on been in the forefront against censorship? Think the "Little Sisters Bookstore" case. Think their support of the "Anti-Isreali Apartheid" movement and campus freedom of speech. Think about the classified sex ads and sex advice columns in now itself. Well it turns out that this is totally different because Susan G. Cole was offended over the use of the word "faggot" so naturally it has to be banned. That seems totally fair and not even a little hypocritical. Naturally I expect that "Now" will now ban all the sex ads they make their living from since these clearly offend far more people than Dire Straits does. And the same for the use of the word "apartheid" which deeply offends many people. No? Hmmm.

Cole also had a another argument to back that up of course. When the other guest (whose name I can't recall) pointed out the rather obvious fact that the intent and context of the song were not in fact homophobic or racist nor were any of Knopfler's other songs, Cole conceded the point but then actually went on the say that of course she was capable of getting the song's context but most Rock and Roll fans were not capable of such nuance. Gee thanks Susan, glad we have you here to do our thinking for us. As insulting as Cole's almost ludicrous impression of every patronizing "elitist liberal" that right wingers rail against, she accidentally illustrates a point here. Censorship from above, no matter how noble the stated aims, is always elitist and hypocritical.

Dire Straits "Money For Nothing" lyrics;

"I want my, I want my M.T.V.

Now look at them yo-yo's, that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the M.T.V.
That ain't working, that's the way you do it
Money for nothing and your chicks for free

Now that ain't working, that's the way you do it
Let me tell you them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Baby get a blister on your thumb
We got to install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We got to move these refrigerators
We got to move these colour T.V.'s

The little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy, that's his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he's a millionaire


Look at that, look at that
I should have learned to play the guitar
I should have learned to play them drums
Look at that mama, she got it sticking in the camera
Man we can have some
And he's up there, what's that? Hawaiian noises?
Banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee
Oh, that ain't working, that's the way you do it
Get your money for nothing get your chicks for free


Listen here
Now that ain't working, that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the M.T.V.
That ain't working, that's the way you do it
Money for nothing and your chicks for free
Money for nothing and chicks for free

Get your money for nothing, get your chicks for free
Money for nothing, chicks for free
Look at that, look at that
Get your money for nothing, get your chicks for free (I want my, I want my, I want my M.T.V.)
Money for nothing and chicks for free
Easy, easy

That ain't working

Guns n' Roses "One in a million" lyrics;

"Guess I needed sometime to get away
I needed some piece of mind
Some piece of mind that'll stay
So I thumbed it down to Sixth and L.A.
Maybe a Greyhound could be my way

Police and Niggers, that's right
Get out of my way
Don't need to buy none of your
Gold chains today
I don't need no bracelets
Clamped in front of my back
Just need my ticket; 'til then
Won't you cut me some slack?
You're one in a million
Yeah, that's what you are
You're one in a million, babe
You're a shooting star
Maybe someday we'll see you
Before you make us cry
You know we tried to reach you
But you were much too high.

Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
They come to our country
And think they'll do as they please
Like start some mini Iran,
Or spread some fuckin' disease
They talk so many goddamn ways
It's all Greek to me

Well some say I'm lazy
And others say that's just me
Some say I'm crazy
I guess I'll always be
But it's been such a long time
Since I knew right from wrong
It's all the means to an end, I
I keep it movin' along


Radicals and Racists
Don't point your finger at me
I'm a small town white boy
Just tryin' to make ends meet
Don't need your religion
Don't watch that much T.V.
Just makin' my livin', baby
Well that's enough for me


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