The peril of singing in character and wearing a headband: ‘Money for Nothing’

“’Money For Nothing’ was a sort of satirical broadside against MTV that also worked as an advertisement for MTV,” Tom Breihan observes in his post on Dire Straits’ only American #1. “It’s complicated. Everything about it is complicated.” Well, possibly. Breihan:

There are a lot of divides at work in “Money For Nothing” — between the appliance-store worker and the people on MTV, but also between the appliance-store worker and [Mark] Knopfler, and between Knopfler and the people on MTV. There are class divides and generational divides. There might be racial divides, too. (Knopfler has never mentioned the race of the guy working in the appliance store.) And then, of course, there’s the divide caused by the use of one particular word — an anti-gay slur that I don’t really feel like typing out here.

Analyzing Knopfler’s use of “faggot,” he writes, “Even if you’re just singing in character, that word isn’t really the type of thing that a straight white rocker should play around with.” And, yes, the slur offended rock critics in 1985 too. “Money for Nothing” wasn’t the first time Knopfler, Playing a Character, disparaged homosexuals. Perhaps he meant 1990’s “Les Boys” as a poignant account of Weimar-era cabaret life; in Knopfler’s hands and thanks to his mouth, the song plays like an attenuated, delighted sneer, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine pointed out in a review last month of the Dire Straits box set, lord save him. All it lacks is a lisp.

I have the same problem with Knopfler that I do with Randy Newman. I don’t believe them when they Sing In Character. While it’s probable the assholes and rednecks they “play” would’ve luxuriated in their misanthropy years before the Trump era, what would be the point of satirizing them? Often reduced to its most unenforceable denotation as if it were a liberal act of Congress before the Roberts Court, satire isn’t merely a lampoon: successful attempts require a moral redress. Newman does this better than Knofler. The string arrangement on “Sail Away” ironizes the lyrics, revealing the rot of the so-called American Dream for the chained Africans breathing the air of liberty to the beat of the overseer’s lash. By contrast Knopfler, stuck with that potholed Highway 61 vocal tone and his expert, pinched guitar leads and fills, sings like he’s the appliance store dude in “Money for Nothing” clocking in for another day’s work.

I do like a few Newman and Knopfler tunes when they drop the distancing games: when they are assholes. For example, I offer Newman’s “It’s Money That Matters”, on which Knofler, whaddya know, plays a variant on the “Money for Nothing” riff to pungent effect; and Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet,” where an expression of love is an excuse for unveiling the contempt animating his side of the failed relationship.

5 thoughts on “The peril of singing in character and wearing a headband: ‘Money for Nothing’

  1. Interesting…

    I find “Les Boys” pointless much more than offensive. The problem is that Knopfler is a chronicler, not a moralist. So you probably won’t find a moral redress in his songs other than your opinion about HIM. Which is totally valid. But I find it tricky projecting my image or opinion about anybody into a particular song, even though I certainly understand that happens. A lot.

    When he wrote “Private Dancer” I didn’t know he thought a woman would sing that. But, besides who sung it, it’s another chronicle. A sort of descriptive “another day at the job” for a prostitute who, we assume, had no feelings for what she does other than making money. Another “character” song that would have become a “sing in character” song had not he offered to Turner. What should he know about prostitution, anyway? It’s Tina Tirner who adds “existential tedium” to the song. But in its origins, I don’t see neither a condemnation nor an endorsement of what se does. At least, I don’t hear it.

    Then, there’s “Money for Nothing”. Of course, I would be flat-out lying if the word “maricón” wouldn’t had affect me as a young boy. It’s the word my older brothers used to insult me when feeling like getting me hurt I was a little kid, go figure. I hATED that slur more than any other. It made me cry countless times. When I first heard it on that song; when I could comprehend was was all about which costed me no more than three or four listens and a lyric sheet provided by our English teacher in high school (don’t worry, he was gay and we did “Karma Chameleon” and “Flashdance” as well), before I bought the vynil or even saw the video (MTV didn’t exist in those times for us) I understood the people who were speaking on behalf were watching the MTV and possibly depot workers in a Tech Store cursing their own, miserable lives for not being the “rock stars”. I remember my fellow students, all in Catholic School for good measure, getting to the same conclusion. The word faggot of course were discussed. Some knuckleheads laught at it, as it happens, but the majority didn’t made a fuss about it and stay on the side of the workers “wishing another life”. It made us more interested about what was all the fuss around the “MTV”.
    Then, the video appeared somewhere in those weekly shows of “videoclips” and the story couldn’t have been more clear. We were 13 at the time.

    I didn’t know “Les Boys” and not a damn thing about Knopfler then. What stuck to me, over the years, as an adult now working in Journalism, is that he used a similar technique for songwriting. I won’t say I own all of his output because that’s not a band I would listen on purpose nor I was a fanboy or anything. But from what I did hear, he was clearly trying to be a storyteller. With what degree of success at that, is obviously debatable.

    On the other hand, when I heard Newman’s “Good Old Boys” for the first time, many years later, it struck me as a satirist through and through. He constantly put on the shoes of the characters he was about to “lampoon”. The slaver, the clueless redneck, the blue-collar worker begging mercy to the President. I agree with you there is a peril to “sing in character”. It requires a delicate balancing act between being articulate, insightful and NOT being prejudiced. Being “funny” helps sometimes.

    Its funny the last thing when “sing in character” is try not to be prejudiced. For I believe it applies the same rules as actors: “We can’t judge our characters”.
    Wich many times over Newman does as opposed to say “Borat”, who uses his own prejudice to expose the prejudice in others. There’s the moral redress in function.
    “Money for Nothing”, if I want to find a nitpick and flaw, is that Knopfler judges,if ever slightly, the workers, NOT gay people. Unless we are able to find the workers speaked for HIM. Once again, projecting. Which I would find extremely clever instead of offensive: He would have been able to accept what the workers said about him. And move on.

    1. Read Breiham analysis. I’m generally against too much info about the song that has nothing to do with it. It spoils the way you hear it. The whole “I hate MTV” Knopfler seemed to say at the time changes completely the way you hear it. I supposed it was about mocking the working-class prejudices about rock stars more than the medium itself. Alas, as MTV satire is tepid and a bit too long. Still think the intro slays, tho. Anyway, he’s never done anything near as dreamy as “So Far Away”. Nor better.

    2. Booming post! I hope I’m clear that my reservations concern the song, not Knopfler, about whom I know nothing except his execrable taste in headwear.

      1. Lol. True!! Here we call that “pendeviejo” for pendejo – rascal- and viejo. -old- A middle age acting way younger. It goes for his selection of cloth, too.
        It is a tightrope walk these kind of songs, no? What I meant all along there’s more than the “slur”. Perhaps Christgau is right and he should had self-edited. Then again, a news reporter (incredible I didn’t know that: it is clear in the songwriting) isn’t an essayist. So even if what these people said is verbatim, he picked the wrong people to satirize MTV. Because it appears more as a satire to THESE PEOPLE. If that makes any sense.

  2. I enjoy Knopfler on occasions but he’s a suspicious and at times downright judgemental son of a bitch. Money for Nothing oozes bad faith from every pore. If I’m looking for a critique of the zeitgeist I’m not gonna apply to the guy who valorises the Sultans of Swing. Les Boys sounds like affection trending condescension trending contempt. At least Randy Newman acknowledges this stuff is complicated.

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