Whining for nothing (and the hits for free)

Columnists desperate for something to whine about this week were given a big gift by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which ruled that the Dire Straits song Money for Nothing was unfit for air because it contained the word “faggot”.

I won’t begin to try to put together an exhaustive list of everything that’s been said. But to give you an idea, there’s a column by Mark Lepage in The Gazette. Matt Gurney in the National Post tries to prove a point suggesting other songs that must be banned. Kelly McParland adds it to a couple of other unrelated stories to advance the hypothesis that Canada is an easily offended country. CTV and CBC in Calgary interviewed former CHOM personality Terry DiMonte, who said the CBSC took the song out of context. Current CHOM personality Rob Kemp wrote about it in a Facebook post, questioning how such a decision could be made based on a single complaint, and saying that “CHOM’s position is, rather than have a butchered version of the song on the air…we’re just not going to play it.” Sharon Hyland also wrote about it on her CHOM blog.

The news reached across the border, with a piece in the Washington Times, which notes the decision is unappealable.

Even (part of) the band itself reacted. Guitarist Guy Fletcher called the decision “unbelievable,” but said the word would be substituted.

The news has spread so much that the album the song is on has climbed the iTunes charts in Canada.

I understand, but…

I’m not here to defend the CBSC’s decision. I don’t particularly agree with their reasoning, and the decision itself is a bit unclear, as you can tell from the following excerpt:

… the Panel acknowledges that the word “faggot”, although lightly sarcastic in its application in the song, was not used in a “sneering, derisive, nasty tone”, as the Comedy Now decision anticipated in its evaluation of “fag”.

Still, the Panel concludes that, like other racially driven words in the English language, “faggot” is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so.

In other words, the panel doesn’t think the word was used in a bad way, but it thinks the word shouldn’t be used at all.

My issue is with the response to this, which has been one-sided and very repetitive. People complaining on one hand that the decision came out of a single complaint for a song that was released decades ago and has been popular for a long time, as if either of those things should automatically disquality something from being judged as obscene or discriminatory.

And then there are the outraged classic rock radio DJs who stand up on principle and declare that the artistic integrity of classic songs cannot be violated. Two stations even decided to protest the decision by airing the song over and over for an hour.

Forgive me for raising an eyebrow, but it’s hard for me to feel moved by outrage from radio stations that air the radio edit of Brown Eyed Girl, and cut Layla in two to save time. It’s hard for me to feel moved by the need for keeping songs untouched after seeing Cee-Lo Green appear on Saturday Night Live and have to change the lyrics (and title) of his first song.

And then there’s Money for Nothing itself. As the decision notes, the song is regularly played in an abridged version, mainly for length, that doesn’t include the offending lyrics (actually, the more popular abridged versions do include those lyrics). And the “F” word is often changed when the song is performed live, as you can see in the above video.

I understand the need for debate about censorship of music (and censorship for broadcast in general), and I think it should continue (particularly at the political level, because it’s the federal government that ultimately sets the rules). But let’s not pretend that this form of government censorship is new, or that radio stations playing popular music really care that much about artistic integrity.

UPDATE (Jan. 19): CHOM has decided to defy the council’s ruling and play the song with the offending lyrics included (I’d say they’re playing the original song, but they don’t care about artistic integrity that much – half the time they’re playing a shorter version). Astral Radio, which owns CHOM, tells the Journal de Montréal it doesn’t agree with the decision.

Meanwhile, Marc Weisblott looks at how this controversy has affected iTunes sales of the song and album.

UPDATE (Jan. 21): The CRTC has asked the CSBC to review the decision in light of the controversy.

10 thoughts on “Whining for nothing (and the hits for free)

  1. Vahan

    The CBSC and commercial radio are dinosaurs. I’m in my mid forties and have stopped listening to radio. I got a free version of the Gorillaz new album online and the same with a Radiohead album a while back and I think a Nine inch Nails album also. I dont need radio to tell me what is new and trendy in music anymore and I don’t care about censorship. They could all go fuck themselves silly because they are irrelevant today.

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  2. Alex H

    What is objectionable isn’t the idea of censorship per se, but rather that such censorship can happen with the complain of a single person, and be applied 25 years after the fact.

    It isn’t like this is an obscure song, something that wasn’t out there in the public eye. It was, in it’s day, probably the most played music video around, and was a major hit on radio as well. It has been part of classic rock playlists for all of those 25 years.

    It is objectionable that a single person can make one complaint, and suddenly poof, things need to be censored.

    I can’t wait to hear them censoring Coronation Street every time someone wants to “slip out to get a pack of fags”.

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  3. Soupdragon

    Big yawn. As if commercial radio was relevant in this day and age. As if commercial radio ever gave a fig about “artistic integrity.”

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  4. Paul W

    This whole decision by the CBSC is a complete joke. Rock stations continue to play songs with even more questionable lyrics ie Guns and Roses It’s so Easy, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison, Hey Joe by Jimmy Hendrix , JJ Cale’s Cocaine just to name a few.
    Why was the decision rendered now ? The song was written some 25 years ago.

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      Why was the decision rendered now ? The song was written some 25 years ago.

      Because someone complained now. The CBSC doesn’t pre-vet programming.

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  5. Stephane

    So. Since three companies own 98% of radio stations in Canada someone should organize a playathon where all rock stations play the original at the same time. Shame on the CBSC and whoever who made the complaint.

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  6. becks

    A totally ridiculous decision…not to mention embarrassing…talk about making themselves a laughingstock

    Faggot (unit), an archaic unit of measurement for bundles of sticks
    Faggot (food), a British meatball commonly made of pork offal

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  7. wkh

    In addition to what you said, I’m offended “faggot” is offensive but the word “chicks” (equally offensively used in the song) is totally cool. WTF.

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  8. Fassero

    To wkh – I think the term “faggot” was focused on because that was the word complained about by the listener. Had the complaint been about “chicks” too, I’m sure there would have been a ruling about that. Heck, if somebody complained about the title track from the same album, that song could technically be subject to alteration under the same standards clause (because of the inequitible exclusion of “sisters”) regardless of the theme of the tune.

    Despite all of that, I have to go with Steve on this one in terms of the overpublicity. I can’t even remember seeing one Dire Straits live performance where the word was repeated. When I saw them tour on the album way back when, Knopfler used the word “queenie” instead (which may or may not be as “offensive”) Is dealing with a 25-year old song silly? Sure. But so what? If the stations have to play it with the word bleeped out, you can sing the word in the car yourself. I don’t think it’s all that much different than what has been done with, say, all those old Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes” shorts that have been dumped, severely edited down, or otherwise sanitized beyond recognition. And if all these radio station “program managers” [cough, cough] are making all this stink, they’re doing it more to solicit ratings in an industry that has been in decline, especially with youth, and not to act on principle.

    And, for Steve, a mild correction is due. The song has been played in the past in edited form not for anything to do with lyrical content, but because of the runtime of the album version of the track which is something like over six minutes. What is typically cut is the extended instrumental portions of the song at the beginning and around midway through the song (and some reduction of the “I want my MTV” chorus at the end which is funny because, at least in that late eighties-to-mid-nineties stretch, I’d bet a lot radio stations were editing that part almost entirely if only to not promote their competition.)

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