Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.
~ G. K. Chesterton
Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.
~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy
I’m tooling down the freeway this morning after applying for yet another job, the radio cranking the local Classic Rock station, WFWI – 92.3 The Fort. There’s Rush. And some Head East. And some not-so-classic-but-doable Aerosmith. I’m thinking about my lack of work and the bills that need paying, so I’m not really paying attention.
And then, there’s Sting, all falsetto-ey and smooth:
. . . I want my MTV . . .
Suddenly, I’m sixteen again, working at McDonald’s, and without even noticing I nudge the volume up a notch or three, just as the drums kick in. Soon, I’m singing along, embarrassingly loud:
. . . that ain’t working / that’s the way you do it / you play the guitar on the MTV . . .
No doubt, the song is a classic: “Money for Nothing” spent three weeks at #1 on a couple different charts in the fall of 1985, and came from Brothers in Arms, the first album to sell a million copies on CD. The song, of course, was also quite controversial: the version that scored on the charts didn’t include the second verse . . .
. . . see the little faggot with the earring and the makeup / yeah buddy that’s his own hair / the little faggot got his own jet airplane / the little faggot he’s a millionaire . . .
The lead character in “Money for Nothing” is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/custom kitchen/refrigerator/microwave appliance store. He’s singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real. It just went better with the song, it was more muscular. I actually used “little faggot,” but there are a couple of good “motherfuckers” in there.
The layers of irony in “Money for Nothing” have certainly confused people. I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London – he actually said it was “below the belt.” Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can’t let it have so many meanings – you have to be direct.
In fact, I’m still in two minds as to whether it’s a good idea to write songs that aren’t in the first person, to take on other characters. The singer in “Money for Nothing” is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality – somebody who sees everything in financial terms. I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that’s not working and yet the guys rich: that’s a good scam. He isn’t sneering.
Now I’m all in favor of irony, and I’m more than willing to allow an artist the creative freedom to assume the stance of a working stiff and voice that individual’s commentary, no matter how belligerent, about the state of the world; this sort of thing is the staple of many an excellent songwriter. But as I sang along, and found myself growing self-conscious and quiet during that controversial second verse (being a Classic Rock station with an appreciation for playing cuts from the album unedited, they played the entire song, not the official, edited single) I got to wondering . . . would a song like this be suitable for airplay, in its entirety, if it were released today? Would today’s society, with its heightened sensitivity regarding anything even closely resembling “hate speech,” let Mark Knopfler and company get away with lyrics like these? They’d probably still edit the song, but would that be enough, at this moment in time?
Would “Money for Nothing” be a hit today?
And, perhaps more to the point of my post, should I be offended that my local Classic Rock radio station played this song unedited?
I realize that there are plenty of other classic rock songs that would just as easily fall into this category. And I also agree with my wife: If you find it wrong, then turn the channel.
Food for thought. And, as always, I welcome your opinions . . .