Canada's broadcast standards council has reached back to 1985's Top 40 to ban an anti-gay epithet in an old Dire Straits hit from the radio.
The song Money for Nothing was a smash when an animated music video seemed new and cool. But its lyrics, in which a loutish store worker ridicules a pop star as a "faggot," don't meet the test for 2011's public airwaves, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled.
St. John's OZ FM aired the song last year, sparking a complaint that has essentially resulted in a ban on the word from radio airplay in any song - a victory, according to a major gay-rights group, against a slur often hurled by violent gay bashers.
The ruling also brought criticism from those who argued the censors ignored the context of the song, and complaints to the council from many who feel a 25-year-old hit should be left alone.
"Most of them are certainly saying that this is a song that's been around for a long time and they don't think it should be interfered with," CBSC chair Ron Cohen said of the response so far. "Virtually nobody is saying that the word is okay."
The council never ruled on the song before because no one had complained, Mr. Cohen said. The panel judged that if the epithet once squeaked through, it shouldn't now.
"The panel concludes that, like other racially driven words in the English language, 'faggot' is one that, even if entirely or marginally accepted in earlier days, is no longer so," the decision states. Helen Kennedy, executive director of gay-rights group Egale, said: "It's the word that is used most often in hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation, which we know are the most violent, against gay men."
OZ FM's general manager, Don Neil, said the station will abide by the decision, and play an altered version without the slur, but doesn't like it. "I feel that this is a form of censorship," he said. "What they're saying is that the word was acceptable 25 years ago and it's not acceptable any more. But music is an art form."
The debate echoes one raging in the United States over changing language in well-known and years-old art after the publication of a version of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that substituted the word "slave" for a slur referring to black people.
The standards council decision doesn't affect versions of Money for Nothing available on CDs or the Internet. And the song has been consistently altered for decades, including by its writer, Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler.
A common radio version replaced the epithet with a term not related to sexual orientation, and Dire Straits' greatest-hits albums include a version without the entire verse. Mr. Knopfler has long substituted other words in performances.
The lyrics portray the character who uses the epithets as ridiculous. But in a 1985 Rolling Stone interview, Mr. Knopfler said complaints made him wonder whether having the word spoken by a fictional character was too subtle for song. "It suggests that maybe you can't let it have so many meanings - you have to be direct," he said.
Other songwriters argue that using the word in context can defuse its power as a slur.
Luke Doucet, a Canadian roots-rock singer-songwriter who addresses stark social issues in his music, uses anti-gay slurs in his song New York, about a transgender boy looking to escape abuse and alienation by moving to New York. The intentionally hurtful words are spouted by another character as abuse. For the singer, they are necessary to portray what the boy, modelled on an actual person, was going through.
"I'm all for trying to restructure our popular vernacular or the lexicon ... so it doesn't put minorities in harm's way," Mr. Doucet said. "But I also think that censoring a song like [ Money For Nothing] with a lyric like that, will only serve to fetishize those words in the first place."