Money for Nothing

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 . . .

In an interview with author and music critic Bill Flanagan for his book Written in My Soul, Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler gave his account of the genesis of the song:

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.

Knopfler addressed the controversy specifically in a 1985 interview for Rolling Stone magazine:

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 . . .

[photo credit]

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30 thoughts on “Money for Nothing

  1. You know, even when the song came out, and yes I too remember it way back when, I never took those lyrics to be hate laden so much as ironic. As is “Oh yeah? That “Faggot” yea buddy, that so called “faggot” is a millionaire. Who’s laughing now buddy.” I always assumed Dire Straits were being prohomosexual. So go figure.

    Could you get away with it today? Meh. I have no idea. Apparently Beyonce is free to say “if you like it put a ring on it” So objectifying woman and making them “it’s” seems to be fairplay. Or whats her other song? “Check on it” Offensive to no end but so so innocuous lyrically.

    So I guess you can’t say meth or faggot in a song but it’s ok to Smack that all on the floor, Smack that give me some more, Smack that ’till you get sore, Smack that oh-oh!

  2. I actually did this same exact thing; was singing it and don’t think I ever even thought about that lyric but as it came out of my mouth, I sort of quieted down. Personally, I don’t think the song would be a hit today but mostly because of its sound. It’s not today’s sound. But if it were new and getting widespread radio play, SOMEone would be up in arms. Though, using the term “faggot” is a lot like using the N-word, which gets a lot of air time on Hip Hop stations. And that opens an entirely new can of worms!

  3. I don’t think Dire Straits could get airplay if they debuted today — not sexy or danceable enough.

    Given I think I saw the video before I heard the song when it came out (and I was also a teen at the time), it always seemed obvious that the character was voicing those thoughts, not Knopfler. I do think it’s interesting that I don’t recall ever hearing a bleeped version of that verse on the radio — now or then — even though dumb stuff like “I can go for miles, if you know what I mean” is edited from Pink’s “Get the Party Started” on Disney Radio and the classic rock station here still plays the “goody goody bull (blank)” version of Pink Floyd’s “Money.”

    • Yeah, there are obviously certain *words* that are always going to be bleeped, like bullshit. But it’s when *content* gets changed that the song loses it punch. Like when Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” got edited. That one hurt . . . but there’s a difference between singing about a “joint,” and about “faggot”s . . .

      Thanks for swinging by, Kevin . . . it’s an honor.

  4. I am currently not capable of composing a proper response due to the fact that “money for nothing” is blaring through my head and I can’t think of anything else.

  5. I wouldn’t be offended if a classic rock station played the unedited song today. Kind of like I’m not offended when I see old clips from “All in the Family”. Times have changed and will continue to (thank god). We can’t rewrite history, or songs, or television shows and it obviously was not Knopler’s intent to offend. Who knows if it would be a hit–musically or lyrically. Lyrically there would certainly be a louder collective voice objecting. That’s a good thing. Interesting “food for thought”.

  6. I don’t find it offensive but I’m not a homosexual. I am very anti-censorship. I feel like art forms should be reflecting life as it is or was and not necessarily the way people think it’s supposed to be. There are homophobic people in the world, unfortunately. I think highlighting that ignorance in a song is a good thing rather than offensive. I mean, obviously the song is a perspective, a shitty one, but still it’s a point of view. I think I get nervous when people get all up in arms about opinions. We can’t control people thoughts as much as we would like to. Not depicting racists or homophobes or misogynistic assholes in film and song, etc. is not going to change the fact that these types of people actually do exist. I hope I’m making sense here. Speaking from a female perspective, I couldn’t give a shit if there are men out there who don’t like woman or think we’re less than or whatever. As long as their opinions aren’t infringing on my civil rights, then fuck them, they can think whatever they want. Your wife sounds like a wise woman. If you don’t like it – change the channel. Amen. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

  7. Personally, I am a fan of controversial and even offensive works of art that make a point. Offense for offense’s sake is stupid, and try ignorance or bigotry repulses me. But using offense language to point a finger at ignorance is, in my opinion, brilliant, and a great way to beat someone at their own game.

    • And yet, isn’t the character in Money for Nothing the ultimate bigot? Knopfler goes so far as to call him an “ignoramus”. Is the song an attempt to point the finger at bigotry? I wonder . . .

      Thanks for your visit, Emily!

      • I absolutely believe that Knopfler is pointing the finger at bigotry, and I, like Emily, love the ironic twist of using someone’s ignorance against them.

        I don’t find the song offensive, but I haven’t dug up all the lyrics yet (just waded in with my opinion…)

        For the longest time, I didn’t understand that Bachman’s song “Takin’ Care of Business” was satire; I certainly draw parallels between the two songs. I like the thought-provoking aspect to the satire and irony, and I probably like that it makes me feel superior for NOT having those negative thoughts about the “li’l
        faggots”.

        Sigh.

        I like to think of myself as tolerant and accepting- these are very important characteristics for me, and are a good part of the reason that so many modern “Christians” make my eyes glaze over… But I digress.

        As a tolerant and accepting person, I really struggle with hate speech. I want us all to get along, and accept each other. I don’t want any hate in the world. But given that there IS hate, how do I find acceptance and tolerance of those people who publish hate material? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

        And, is it judgmental to point the bigotry finger? As you suggest, it might be.

        Defining what is acceptance and what is censorship and what is hate is a real struggle- I’m off to think (and maybe write) a bit.

        🙂

    • In researching the song a bit before I wrote the post, I learned that Knopfler was trying to imitate Billy Gibbons of ZZTop. It’s one of the very few songs where he doesn’t play his signature Strat . . .

  8. I really can’t see that there would be a problem with song today. There are plenty of offensive lyrics in today’s songs, and they aren’t making some third person commentary.

  9. Very interesting post; as much as I love Dire Straits, it has always been as a casual fan and nothing more serious and as such I wasn’t aware of the lyrics. I’m not sure whether there would be a problem with the song were it released today or not; Boomcoach is right that there a lot of other offensive songs/lyrics out there today – but most of those seem to be heavily edited on radio and only heard in their entirety if the CD or iTunes download is available.

    Of course, I combat this whole thing by taking the approach my parents took with me – exposing my daughters to lots of jazz and classical. I save my speaker-blasting music (if you can call the stuff I grew up with in the 70s and 80s speaker blasting) for my trips to and from work.

    Thanks so much for popping by the blog and for your comment. I’m going to include yours as a link on mine; I really enjoyed visiting here!

  10. The PC mindset has gotten out of hand. We are becoming a bunch of pansies wearing our fragile little hearts on our sleeves and god forbid anyone should dent or crack them. Drives me nuts! Fuck em all, I say!

    On the other hand….as a parent, I would probably have turned the station when it got to the second verse if my kids were in the car. How sick is that?

  11. knowing about Mark’s mindset and his capability of putting real life into words…………….it is a SONG folks – only a song, about reality – get over it! If you are true fans of this man, you would realize that there are other songs that he wrote that would be classified as “controversial” should you understand the contents and not just pick up the simple stories with simple words like “faggot”. No one has ever said anything about “the fat girl got left at the side” in a cut off of “Kill to Get Crimson”, however, it did not get air time, but it is a true part of life and what happens.

    Mark is not picking on any walk of life, just writing about it. I do not think these songs should be edited. If you don’t want to hear them, turn them off. For those of you who can’t stand it, If you really want to get bunched up about someone’s writing go listen to David Allen Coe’s unedited stuff. Now there is something to WRITE about! whew! I believe it is very entertaining.

    Ivrykeys

    • Hey there! Welcome to The Cheek . . .

      And I agree. Knopfler (and you’re obviously a fan) is a great writer, and this song does a superb job of showing how can get the rut of undercutting those who are radically different from themselves. To be clear, I love the song. Have since it first came out, and it’s the reason I turned it up. My point is whether a song that contains the word “faggot” would be tolerated as a hit song today. Sure it would be edited for radio, but in this world where songs can be downloaded uncut, for more people would get to hear the original, and the word. And with that, there is the potential that even more people would here it and, not recognizing the irony, adopt the attitude of the song’s character. Face it, there is always another bigot looking for ammo . . .

  12. I’ve always been a fan of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, so the lyrics in “Money For Nothing” didn’t disturb me – I knew he was writing a persona-based song.
    As for how it would be received as a new song today, uncut? I’m guessing the reactions would run from cognizant to clueless, just like they do with most anything.

  13. In much the same way that, as a much younger guy, my buds & I used to call each other “bitch” yet nobody ever took that to imply that any of us were female canines, I never thought Knopfler’s use of “faggot” was a sexual denotation. It was just a nasty jab by an embittered working stiff.

    But the lyrics were secondary to that song’s success anyway. I was hooked the very moment I heard the ZZ Top-esqe razzy guitar intro. I ran out and bought the cassette that very day!

    Rock ‘n Roll is about many things – rebellion, adrenaline, & testosterone, to name a few – but it ain’t ever been about political-correctness. Even some of the most socially-aware Rock music has an non-PC slant to it.

    Mostly, “Money For Nothing” couldn’t make it today because it lacks the skull-crushing bass and hyperkinetic drum beats that’re so prevalent in music now. Well that, and as mkhblink said, nobody wants MTV now!

  14. Good questions! I don’t know. I’m not offended by the song because I think of it as 1) a product of its times and 2) a parody of a certain type of individual. Plus it’s just a damn song.

    Should your radio station play it? Don’t know. All sorts of words that are less offensive are edited out of songs for radio play. So probably so, but its characteristic of America today, gays are the only group of people that it is still socially acceptable to make fun of.

    • A Free Man said, “[…] gays are the only group of people that it is still socially acceptable to make fun of.”

      Gotta disagree with ya a li’l bit. Tobacco smokers are a very large demographic that may even have a larger target on their back. (And I can only imagine the stigma that being a tobacco farmer must carry…) Somehow, it’s perfectly acceptable to treat smokers people like total scum inspite of the fact that our own government helped to create that very problem. And it’s become completely acceptable to villainize tobacco in general as a public safety hazard. Yet while nobody demonizes Coors Light, I’ll bet that there are far more serious and/or fatal automotive accidents due to D.W.I. than tobacco.

      I’m not saying that we should pick on gays, just that they aren’t the only group who’s become a socially-acceptable punching bag.

  15. This is certainly a question to ponder. There is so much that my generation grew up with that is now taboo. On one hand, I agree. On the other, while I may sing along with certain lyrics, it doesn’t mean that I agree with the vernacular. Maybe that makes me bigoted but then again, we are all bigots to some extent. I also tend to agree with your very smart wife…you can turn the channel. I guess if it were a similar situation/lyric with certain ethnic groups, I might disagree. That’s why there’s so much to ponder here. We can’t say it’s okay in one instance and not in another.

    Much to think about indeed!

  16. I don’t think there are clear-cut answers to any of your questions, Brian. I agree with A Free Man that the song is a product of the times, so it is what it is — AND its release today would give it a different meaning in our culture. I would expand his comment re. how gays fit into the macro society by saying that LGBT persons are the last group of people to be legally discriminated against, not simply made fun of. (While it’s a bit off topic, I disagree with Rob O. that smokers have it just as bad, if not worse, than gays. Smoking is an addiction, a behavior and a choice; being LGBT is not. Smoking effects the health of other people; being LGBT does not. But back to the use of the word “faggot”.) I don’t know…I wish I had something profound to offer as the token gay commenter here. When I hear the word “faggot”, I feel afraid and offended–moreso when I hear it being used by a straight person than when I do an LGBT person–regardless of context. It has to do with power and intention. In this particular song, I don’t think Knopfler intended to promote power over gay persons; at least, he’s not admitting that as his intention, so I do see it as the piece of art he intended it to be. However, the vast moajority of radio listeners do not read music interviews, do not analyze lyrics, and do not think beyond the imprint of the melody. So, because “faggot” as it is most commonly used in our culture, today and decades past, is derogatory against gay persons, since “faggot” is used in cases of school bulllying to demean children, to persecute them for being different, since “faggot” is used as an auxilliary weapon in cases of gay bashing, which happens daily by the way and is sanctioned through the laws, media, and language of dominant culture, “faggot” means what it means, regardless of what Knopfler intended. It’s not so much the word itself but the meaning of the word that I hope does not get branded into the collective subconscious. But then — how do we separate the two? I think this is much easier to do when you’re part of the dominant, heterosexist culture and homophobia is a whisper on the fringes of your reality. For persons who face homophobia in their daily lives, however, the two are inseparable.

    • Hey Erika, for whatever it’s worth, I wasn’t implying that being gay is a choice – only that it has become socially-acceptable to declare “open season” on that demographic as a whole. In fact, the gay people I know are not treated with anywhere near as much open, spiteful contempt as smokers.

      I might be a bit more sensitive to this plight since I’m married to a former smoker, but it certainly seems that treating those people like total scum is all but officially encouraged. They’re considered second-class citizens, to be sure.

      • Hey Rob – I agree with you that smokers are being targeted like they’ve never been targeted before. I, too, am partnered to a former smoker and have other family members who smoke, so I get it. The difference, however, is that smokers cannot be legally fired for being smokers, are not legally prohibited from serving openly in the military, and smokers will likely never be raped, beaten, or murdered for being smokers. Plus, I think there’s a remarkable difference between not being allowed to light up in a public place and not being allowed to participate in such bedrock organizations in our country like the Boy Scouts or the institution of marriage. The other difference is that the anti-smoking sentiment you reference is still pretty new, whereas the anti-gay sentiment is deeply embedded in every segment of our cultural infrastructure.

  17. Nice post.

    To me, the best kind of art is that which reflects reality. I’m not one of those people that doesn’t like hard movies, that goes to the movies to “feel good” and leave the theatre with a smile. I go to be shocked, made to think, laugh, cry, and (if it’s a really good film) told the truth.

    The same is true with the books I read and the blogs I read. Somedays they will get smiles out of me, tears, or deep thoughts, and if they are any good, at least at some points, I’ll be told the truth – the hard truths not the fluffy ones.

    With songwriting it’s the same for me. I’ve always liked that song precisely because I’m visualizing the person moving color TV’s and their attitude about their position in the stata of society. And I believe that character represents real people that exists out there, in which case I feel like I’m being told a truth, and so I can appreciate it.

    That said, it is shocking to hear it now because i don’t think it would have made it to radio nowadays, mainly because people are obsessed with songs and movies and books and video games having very simple messages telling you how you are supposed to be, instead of carrying critical messages.

  18. Actually I agree with the song. In most cases singers get money for nothing. Let’s take into account first the tons of singers that do playback. And get money in shows where they do not even actually sing. About the people that actual sing I do not find that the money they get from an activity that does not produce anything (it does not have impact to the everyday living of people) and is just entertainment are completely justified. The sums are greately exaggerated while people that actually produce something (food,clothing,electricity) that is necesary for all get very small waggers. I do not find the person singing this ignorant, just a bit frustrated that the beggers of the medieval times are now wildly rich.

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