“’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.