This challenge comes courtesy of Swine Tax. Read our interview with them in the features section.
Upside Down by the Jesus and Mary Chain, chosen by Roobin
This was a really hard challenge. I’m not entirely happy with my choice but it does open up a window to write about some things that I really want to explore any ways so I’ll take it.
I usually try to find a tune where the music rather than the lyrics is what qualifies it as my pick for the challenge but this week I will be talking a lot about lyrics.
I have picked Dire Straits’ 1985 rocker Money for Nothing. This tune is sporting what is probably Mark Knopfler’s best as well as one of rock’s all time great guitar riffs. There is no doubt that I think this tune is brilliant
It is also deeply flawed.
In many ways.
Most of these flaws would not have been perceived as such or at least not in the same way, at the time the tune was written. Even Knopfler has felt uncomfortable enough about one such flaw to adjust for it when he performs the tune live but more on that below.
So yeah I’m not chiefly talking about the production here either (which I assume is what bothers Roobin the most about this tune). Though it has to be noted that the intro is very weird and that the choices of keyboard sounds are… let’s go with odd. No, as jarring as I might have found this production some years ago, as with so much else, as time has passed have come into a new appreciation for it. Especially the guitar sound and its interplay with the heavily processed drums now strikes me as genius since it is trying to emulate the production of ZZ Top’s at the time chart topping string of MTV videos. This is in the context of the lyrics a clever and actually multilayered choice. Well as I said the production is not what I want to talk about here.
I want to talk about political correctness.
I am PC and I am proud of it. So, there is that…
It is often made out to be a problem that the PC norm is stifling debate as well as art. So let’s use this challenge as an opportunity to examine that.
The most obvious way we could look at this in this context is to bring up the controversy surrounding the use of the word “faggot” in these lyrics. The original version of the tune is banned from air on many radio stations these days, most famously it was attempted to have it banned throughout all of Canada in 2011. The CBSC, the Canadian regulatory body for private radio stations, motivated their attempted ban like this:
“like other racially driven words in the English language, ‘faggot’ is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so.”
in their original decision. This sentiment nails down the concept we are looking at and is ultimately a good illustration of what makes this pick good for this challenge. If the CBSC is indeed correct in their assertion that this word was but is no longer acceptable …well then this tune is a great example of a tune that hasn’t aged well, right? Well a lot of Canadian radio stations didn’t agree and protested the decision vigorously enough that it was changed into a recommendation not to play the song rather than a ban.
Well now how bad is it really that the word faggot is used in these lyrics? Personally I don’t think that Mark Knopfler’s opinion on the matter is any more or less valid than anyone else’s but he was so uncomfortable with his use of the word that he replaced it for live performances (and some recorded versions) already way back in 86.
However, if we look at the context in the lyrics in which the word shows up, it could be argued that the word has a meaningful and not hurtful place in these lyrics. The tune is written from the perspective of a guy working in the back of an appliance store where he has MTV on all day as he carries around heavy boxes of home appliances. He expresses derogatory remarks about the rock stars he sees while he seems to be somewhat jealous of them at the same time. The word is used a couple of times as he (the man working in the store) sneers at the way the rock stars dress and behave but he seems to simultaneously be in awe of what he looks upon as a good scam, getting money for nothing and chicks for free. The character of the guy working in the store is actually based on a real life encounter that Knopfler had in New York with a guy in an appliance store that did use this kind of language. Surely, even if we agree that this isn’t good language it must be alright to quote someone using it, certainly in art, right?
Yes! I kind of agree.
In fact, as PC as I am, I don’t think that this or any other art using hurtful or any other kind of language or dealing with any topic, hateful or otherwise controversial, should be prevented from being made. Where and how we display it is another matter. The debate around PC is often made into one of censorship. It is often pointed out how people such as myself that might sometimes advocate on behalf of PC are being hypocritical.
This is funny.
Even though there surely are stupid and narrow-minded people advocating bans and censorship in the name of PC, that is not the main flow of the discourse and when we talk about bans we have to look at where that ban is being suggested and not just to what. There have been no senate hearings in the US over the use of racial slurs or derogatory remarks about LGBTQ+ people in music or art attempting to ban or restrict these from being made or sold. There was however, famously a series of hearings the very same year as Money for Nothing was released addressing some very conservative concerns about rock music aiming for just that sort of ban and / or restriction.
The “PC agenda” isn’t one of banning expression, it is about raising awareness. Most people don’t want to be hurtful or hateful. Much like Knopfler changed his words when he realized how they were perceived, if aware, most people might choose to express themself differently. Which brings me to my main gripe with the lyrics of Money for Nothing.
I believe that the guy in the back of the appliance store should be given the same chance as Knopfler had, that is to be able to change his words and views. Knopfler has said of the guy that he “is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality” in an interview for Rolling Stone Magazine shortly after the tune was released. He is made out as stupid and ignorant through out the song and in a way made fun of. I don’t think this is a very good way of making any one aware of anything. The guy is of course not pointed out personally, thankfully, but that instead makes the lyrics classist. This goes way beyond the use of the word “faggot”.
So this is where I should start to talk about cancellations since there is a lot of reasonable argument against some of what I have just stated about the “PC agenda” to be made there but this article is running very long and I have at least exhausted most of what has to do with the actual “ageing terribly” premise that I am writing under. So, I’ll have to leave that for another time.
“… and when I hit the ground, I heard a ringing sound. U-huh-huh” Jim Reid sings in one of my all-time favourite songs. It’s such a perfect pop melody painted over an awesome indie-rock background.
There is just one thing; I can’t introduce this tune to someone that isn’t already on the Jesus and Mary Chain – train. That ringing sound Jim sings about, well they put it in the song in the form of feedback. And that’s all people hear when you play it to them, I have to struggle to make them listen and promise them that behind that feedback is a world of joy. I seldom succeeded at such ventures, yep that’s right; I don’t put Upside Down on any mixtapes or playlists any more. I listen to it when I come to think of it. I’m too old to take the fight any more and it saddens me when people run to the volume knob to turn it down. I don’t have the stomach for it any more.
Upside Down is the very first single from Jesus and Mary Chain, produced by themselves in 1984. It must be one of the greatest first-singles to ever have been released. It is by far the cockiest, of that I’m sure. You have to be pretty self-confident and absolutely dead sure that your song is awesome to drown it in that feedback. Don’t get me wrong, I love them for doing it and I don’t have a problem with it, but nowadays it’s probably only Viktor that I can enjoy it with.
So it might be that it’s the world that aged terribly, not the song. Still, though, It would be nice to have the feedback-free version just to be able to enjoy it with others, but the Reids won’t have it and no self-respecting rock journalist will have it. We’re all in love with the feedback version. It’s not us, it’s you, is our mantra. What I’ve come to understand is that it’s me who has aged terribly with the tune as I won’t fight for it any more and for even suggesting such a sacrilegious blasphemy as a feedback-free version of one of the best pop tunes ever written – it’s totally upside down.
… and for our next task …
…A tune that you like to doodle around with when your playing with an instrument .
We would sooo much like to be in a band as well, these days though it’s mostly doodling.
See you in 14 days!