One of the first people I ever met in the musical blogosphere (“met” in the Internet sense, as opposed to the actual physical handshake sense) is Homercat of Good Rockin’ Tonight. Over the weekend, he went off on a strange decision by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council to forbid Canadian radio stations from playing “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits—which has never been off the radio in the quarter-century since it was released. It seems that a listener in Newfoundland complained about the song’s use of the word “faggot” (“little faggot got his own jet airplane/the little faggot he’s a millionaire”), and on the basis of a single complaint, the record was blacklisted. The CBSC is an arm of the Canadian broadcasting industry and not a government organization, so it doesn’t have much power to enforce its decrees—and in fact, three Canadian radio stations responded to the ban with marathon broadcasts of the record. Nevertheless, the decision tells us a lot about the world we live in right now. The listener’s complaint, that “by airing [‘Money for Nothing’] unapologetically on the radio, this station is indirectly propagating hate,” and the CBSC’s response, that the word is inappropriate in today’s context, make the incident remarkably similar to the recent decision by a publisher to edit the word “nigger” from a new edition of Huckleberry Finn.
George Carlin—who, if we had philosopher kings, would have been one—once observed that there are no bad words, only bad thoughts. Yet we have decreed that some words—regardless of their application, regardless of the thoughts behind them—are so bad that they must not be spoken by anybody, ever. The CBSC even observed that “faggot” is used in a “lightly sarcastic” fashion in “Money for Nothing” and is not in a “sneering, derisive, nasty tone,” but their decision means that the intent of the user doesn’t matter—it’s how the listener perceives the word that makes all the difference. And defining “offense” as “anything that offends anybody anywhere for any reason” is something no reasonable modern society can abide.
Similarly, Huckleberry Finn uses a word that contemporary culture has demonized beyond all other words—you’ll get in a lot more trouble in a lot more places for saying “nigger” than you’ll ever get into for saying “fuck,” so much so that we’ve euphemized it to “the n-word,” like we were all in first grade—but when Mark Twain used the word in 1884, he chose it for a particular purpose, and it was considered appropriate. It’s us, over a century later, who have attached such toxicity to the word, something that has nothing to do with Twain—or his book.
As a blogger for a Vancouver newspaper noted, context mattters. Treating the uses of these words in art like they were slurs shouted from passing cars is the sort of overreaction we’ve come to expect from a society obsessed with the appearance of “values”—which should not be confused with actually living by a coherent set of values. That such a manifestation of American priggishness is happening in Canada, which this American has always considered a less-wacky analogue to the land in which he lives, is unfortunate.
More Recommended Reading: Charlie at Bloggerhythms reviews an autobiography by Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine, which provides a look inside the life of one of the most popular American rock bands. In the city of Chicago nearly 40 years ago, the great Charlie Van Dyke (whose voice you would recognize even if you don’t know his name) held down morning drive at WLS—today, his son debuted on Chicago’s KISS-FM as morning guy. Chicago media-watcher Robert Feder has the surprising story. And over the weekend, I wrote a post at WNEW.com about the impact of the Persian Gulf War, which began 20 years ago, on popular music.