News
5 min

Queer musicians denounce ‘faggot’ decision

Members of Hidden Cameras, Tomboyfriend say free speech is in Dire Straits

Ron Cohen is feeling unappreciated.  

“I’m disappointed,” says the national chair of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), a non-government, self-regulatory association of more than 730 radio and TV stations across Canada.

“The CBSC,” Cohen explains, “has had a very consistent record since the mid-’90s of dealing with issues related to abusive and discriminatory comments based on sexual orientation.” But the council has been widely, and internationally, mocked since its Jan 12 censure of a Newfoundland classic-rock radio station for playing the 1985 Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing,” with its lyrics that include the word “faggot.”

“It is an ugly word,” Cohen insists. “It is a word that, in our view, does not have a place on the airwaves.” Cohen is proud of the council’s stance in banning the slur but has been surprised by the lack of kudos from the gay community. “Years ago, we took a position against [talk radio host] Laura Schlessinger’s description of gays and lesbians as ‘deviant… aberrant… a biological error,'” he says.

“No one in the gay community argued on her behalf; instead, GLAAD had our decision on their website within maybe 12 hours.”

The CBSC, Cohen says, “was supported, applauded and had a significant role to play in the disappearance of her show from the airwaves.” With this latest decision, Cohen says, “I don’t understand why there has not been some acknowledgement of the important step the CBSC has taken here.”

But there is an obvious distinction: while the self-titled “Dr Laura” was stridently pushing her lazy prejudices as medical science, Dire Straits made a song that actually mocks homophobia, a song now defended by several Toronto queer musicians.

Ryan Kamstra, lead singer of Tomboyfriend, says “Money for Nothing” commemorates (“albeit not graciously”) a real breakthrough in gay male visibility, when Boy George, Erasure, Jimmy Somerville and the Pet Shop Boys, among others, became international stars. The characters in the Dire Straits song are voicing a shock to the straight system. “Without a doubt,” says Kamstra, “it is no more homophobic than, say, Aerosmith’s juvenile ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady.'”

Andrew Awesome, one-half of DJ duo Gangbangaz, mocks the single listener complaint that started it all. “I heard no complaints from gay groups when that useless slag Uffie used the word ‘faggots’ in her track ‘Dismissed,’ which is much more aggressive and recent,” he says. Unlike the Dire Straits track, “Uffie is calling people out directly, so by the CBSC standards, isn’t that worse?”

The outpouring of criticism from musicians and music lovers prompted the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to urge the CBSC to reconsider its decision on Jan 21.

Cohen insists the CBSC responds solely to public complaints, with panels comprising both broadcasters and members of the general public, but not music critics. “I am surprised that some people and groups don’t recognize that this was a decision about a word, not a song.” The CBSC, he says, “never, never deals with a person’s actual views. Our issue is not whether Laura Schlessinger or Dire Straits or Howard Stern are themselves personally homophobic or not; our issue is simply about keeping an objectionable word off the airwaves. Today, it may be used benignly within ‘Money for Nothing,’ but tomorrow it may be used in a very different way.”

Joel Gibb, frontman for the Hidden Cameras, says even well-meaning censorship is still censorship.

“I recently heard a Kanye West song on a Toronto station and the word ‘douchebag’ was censored,” Gibb says. “It seems like North American society is getting more puritanical about language. Our fixation on words unnecessarily gives them more power then they deserve. When you censor a word, it draws much more attention to it than if you leave it alone.”

Gibb has dealt with this himself. The first two Hidden Cameras albums, he explains, “had the ‘Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics’ label put on the cover against my wishes. There were no traditional curse words, but there was the word ‘hard-on’ used in the song ‘Smells Like Happiness.’ Apparently you can mention a penis, but you can’t refer to it being erect.”

Again, says Cohen, that’s not what the CBSC is interested in.

“Do we care in this country if someone sees Janet Jackson’s nipple for a fraction of a second?” he asks. “No, we don’t, but we do care about abusive comments. I would think people would be saying, ‘About time! About time someone has equated this with the N-word.’ Why shouldn’t gay people have the same protection as black people in Canada?”

Cabaret performer and Xtra columnist Ryan G Hinds doesn’t feel it’s needed.

“Most uses of the word ‘nigger’ in music set me off, so I don’t buy or download Nas or 50 Cent or whoever,” he says. “Bottom line is, if the consumer doesn’t want to hear certain words or content, they won’t buy it.” The CBSC, he says, “bowed too quickly to pressure, and the fact that it was over a 30-year-old song really made them look silly.”

Cohen bristles at this, since the reason Dire Straits’ use of “faggot” hasn’t been an issue for 30 years is because “nearly every time ‘Money for Nothing’ has ever been played, it’s been the edited version, like so many other songs.” He points out that there is next to no footage of the band themselves playing the longer version in concert, nor did they put it on their best-of album. “We’ve been excoriated for rendering a decision which in fact reflects the largest percentage of available versions of that song,” Cohen says.

Is it censorship when artists edit themselves? The majority of hip-hop tracks are bleeped and altered without much complaint, so why are people suddenly lionizing Dire Straits as free-speech martyrs, arguing for their artistic integrity instead of, say, Jay-Z’s?

Until this flap, the most attention-grabbing song of the past year was arguably Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” a monster hit that initially bypassed radio — and hence the CBSC — altogether. Proving, says Hinds, “In this digital age, radio is almost obsolete.” Yet Green then immediately recorded a “clean” take called “Forget You.” Awesome calls it “the cubicle-safe version,” while the other songwriters debate the pros and cons of making the “radio edit.”

Unlike Gibb, Hinds says, “I would much prefer a parental advisory sticker or beeped-out words to having to change a lyric… ‘Forget You’ is an entirely different song from ‘Fuck You.'”

Singer/songwriter James Collins says, “It would depend on the song.” One of his “bubblegum pop” tunes could be altered, he says, but he’d refuse to edit a “message” song like his crystal-meth warning “Since Tina Moved In.”

Jazz crooner Vincent Wolfe says, “I don’t have to worry as much about this kind of thing in my genre of music, thank God. I think by walking on eggshells and over-sanitizing creative expression, you end up pleasing nobody.”

That said, he insists, “I do think if a song is hate-based, though, yes, we don’t need to spread those messages.”

Banning the “shoot him in the head” school of anti-gay dancehall is the one thing all these men agree on. “Unless it is directly inciting violence, I think censors should leave songs alone,” says Gibb, while Kamstra says organizations like the CBSC “have to be on the watch for things like hate speech, ideology that expressly militates for the harm of another group. But we possibly weaken notions of hate speech when we apply it to things that are merely offensive in that they are not polite speech or look bad in the light of the future.”

“If, as in this case,” Kamstra concludes, “a bureaucratic body was denying inclusion of material based on an inelegant critique of some word as blanketly offensive, I would feel censored and, more so, question the usefulness of that body.”

Cohen offers no apologies. “We consider this important,” he says. “Abusive comments, discriminatory comments made by individuals who have the power of a microphone — a mighty power — could desensitize the public to some truly harmful attitudes and discourse.” It’s the responsibility of broadcasters, Cohen says, “to draw that line with great care. Not everyone’s going to agree with every decision we make, but we will draw these lines.”