Friday, 14 January 2011

Freedom of speech in Dire Straits

It looks like those humourless censors are at it again - spoiling everyone else's fun for the sake of a few over-sensitive minorities. Who cares that the world has moved on, and we're trying to create a more tolerant society, when great art is at stake?

A couple of weeks ago, there was a big kerfuffle in the States when it was revealed that a publisher had excised the 'n' word in a reprint of Mark Twain's  'Huckleberry Finn'. Although many teachers have argued  that the word's 219 appearances make it an uncomfortable title to teach, many literary critics have opined that the contentious noun still has relevance in the context of one of the definitive anti-slavery novels.

The fact is, Twain chose his words carefully, even the objectionable ones. As Peter Messent argued in The Guardian last week, " tamper with the author's words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote."

This week, a new censorship controversy erupted, this time north of the border. Another classic work of art has found itself falling outside the realms of acceptability, due to some similarly incendiary nomenclature. The Canadian Broadcasts Standards Council has effectively banned Dire Straits' Money For Nothing because of its objectionable language. 

To be quite honest, I never even noticed the troubling epithet. Probably because I never get any further than Mark Knopfler's opening riff. That, and the fact that the offending verse is often dropped from airplay to suit radio's preference for tracks that are under 4 minutes long - as any Mondeo-driving sales rep worth his salt knows, the album version runs to 8:30.

The lyrics of the second verse include the lines "The little faggot with the earring and the makeup. Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair. That little faggot's got his own jet airplane. That little faggot he’s a millionaire". Following complaints from listeners that the song was offensive to LGBT audiences, the CBSC ruled that radio stations can only play the edited version of the song. You'd think that people would be happy to win back 30 precious seconds of their lives.

Even Knopfler himself acknowledged that maybe the song wasn't such a good idea, a view shared by most people who ever endured a long car journey with their parents during the heyday of 'Brothers In Arms'. He told Rolling Stone back in 1985, "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."

As the CBSC stated when they made their ruling, "The societal values at issue a quarter century later have shifted and the broadcast of the song in 2010 must reflect those values, rather than those of 1985." Unless, of course, someone wants to write extensive study notes to guide listeners through the linguistic complexities of Dire Straits' ouvre. 

While they're at it, they could explore the socio-political context of installed microwave ovens and custom kitchen deliveries. Or debate the gender ramifications of claiming one's "chicks for free". This is art people - it demands to be understood. 


  1. The Mark Twain thing, I think, got a little overblown. The publisher was not excising "nigger" from all copies. This was a special edition, prepared by a longtime Twain historian, that was specifically geared towards very young audiences.

    Personally, I'd rather they wait to teach a book like Huck Finn until the audience is old enough to understand it's complexities. However, this type of editing, in this case the "n" word, is no different than editing a film for television, or a song lyric for mainstream radio play. The original version remains intact and is freely available to all at your local bookstore. So, just in this case of Twain, I'm not sure one could call it outright censorship?

  2. I agree with you, and thought it was a shame that people neglected to mention that when they wrote about Twain being censored. Perhaps I should have made reference to that, rather being in such a rush to talk about Dire Straits!