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Ryan Murphy, Nathan Followill, and Mark Knopfler: News and Notes on Ego, Pettiness, Censorship, and Homophobia in the Rock & Roll Universe

January 29, 2011

Two separate and fascinating stories in the news this week about homophobia in rock music spheres. First, the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council responded to a complaint about the inclusion of the word “faggot” in Dire Straits’ classic hit “Money for Nothing” by demanding that Canadian radio stations stop playing the song in the unedited form. Second, the U.S. music scene has seen an escalating war of words between Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, and Nathan Followill, member of the popular rock band Kings of Leon, which took a sexuality-related turn at the end of the week. 

Plenty of articles have run down the facts in both these stories, so I won’t bother rehashing too many of the basic details as part of this analysis (go here, here, and here for the Murphy/Followill basics; here, here, and here for the “Money for Nothing” lyrics story background). For me, though these stories are dissimilar in many ways, both offer complex examples of ego, pettiness, and clashes over free speech in rock music culture. It’s for very different reasons, of course, but I’m finding it hard to “take sides” definitively in either of these cases, though on the surface it seems that it should be easy to do.

In the case of the “Money for Nothing” ban, I hope that it’s clearly established and widely understood that the Canadian government is NOT “censoring” the radio stations and the song. The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council is a non-governmental, self-regulatory entity established by the country’s commercial radio stations themselves. Also, it’s worth pointing out that Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits “censored” themselves a while back by recording a version of the chorus that didn’t contain the word “faggot.”

If forced to take a side on this one, I gotta go with the CBSC ruling to make the edited version the new standard. I think that those fans who are crying “Stop Big Brother!” and denouncing “political correctness” and all that should realize that the story is a little less black-and-white than it may seem. “Faggot” is an ugly word that adds nothing to any sort of discourse about sexuality, and I just can’t understand why anyone would argue vehemently that the “right” to broadcast it over the Canadian airwaves should be protected. Save your ardor for fights that matter—for fights that move us all toward more justice and equality, not less. And besides, the song still rocks, and it’s still funny and satirical, without the word.

However, to defend Mark Knopfler for a bit, it’s plainly obvious to me that he can’t be accused of active, blatant homophobia. It’s been widely acknowledged and reported, and Knopfler has said many times, that the character’s voice represented in the song is coming from a position of ignorance and misdirected anger. Simply put, the song just doesn’t represent Knopfler’s own viewpoint on homosexuality, a point further supported by his willingness to remove the word from the song himself and distribute the edited version for airplay.

Makes sense that this guy would have cartoonish views. What's Followill's excuse?

To me, it seems that Knopfler should be even more shielded from criticism when you compare the “Money for Nothing” controversy to what’s been brewing this week between Glee creator Ryan Murphy and the southern rock band Kings of Leon. I should state up front that I have a distaste for Kings of Leon’s coarse, unsubtle, saccharine brand of rock and roll, so I’m inclined to view anything they do as probably wrong and an indicator of the band members’ tendencies toward innate jackassery. Frankly, I just wasn’t surprised when the original argument, over the use of the band’s megahit “Use Somebody” by the hit show Glee, took a homophobic turn, with band member Nathan Followill tweeting that Glee creator Ryan Murphy should “get a manicure” and “buy a new bra” and leave his band alone. Where are the birds who pooped in the mouths of the band members when you need them to shut this asshole up?

And still, I’m not totally on the side of Ryan Murphy either, primarily because he seems like an incredible jerk himself in all this. I imagine nothing except a massive, dysfunctional ego, a sense of entitlement, and rampant self-importance would make someone think it’s acceptable to publicly say “Fuck you” to a band that did nothing other than refuse to license a song. Since when are musicians required to allow their songs to be used and deserving of public, profane tirades if they don’t?

I have deeply mixed feelings about Glee. I worship Jane Lynch and seriously believe Sue Sylvester has already become one of the greatest comedic characters in TV history. I also have great regard for Glee’s aggressive portrayal of the bullying of gay teens as the tragic societal scourge that it actually is. The openly gay Curt is one of the most fully three-dimensional gay characters ever on TV, and his father is relentlessly, unceasingly supportive and accepting of Curt even though he was entirely ignorant about homosexuality until forced to confront it. More than once, their interactions have brought me to tears, and I truly believe that Glee does a damn important public service on a regular basis. I will always respect the show for that.

And yet, I just don’t enjoy watching the show very much. As a vehicle for telling stories, I find Glee increasingly clumsy and nearly unwatchable at times. I can’t stand how quickly and glibly the show moves along many of its storylines, with no presentation of characters’ internal lives or decision-making processes. The “war” between Sue Sylvester and the glee club is oh-so-tired—in how many more ways can Sue gain new access to the club’s finances and/or operations and temporarily derail them, only to be eventually foiled in her plans and forced to start over? In terms of character development, or the lack thereof, how many more times can they just pair off glee club members in romantic relationships when they can’t think of anything else to do with them? And how many more lavish, overwrought, farcical musical productions can they cram into an hour when they can’t figure out where next to take the shakily constructed melodrama?     

I bring these feelings up because A) I like assailing sacred cows and B) I don’t share the seemingly growing belief that Ryan Murphy can do no wrong. In my view, Murphy hasn’t come anywhere near earning the right to be shielded from criticism for his role in escalating this feud with Kings of Leon.  In fact, he started it. I’m still on Murphy’s side in detesting Nathan Followill’s stupidity and homophobia, but my stance is defined more by what I’m against than what I’m for. To me, Followill has clearly become a “bad guy” in this story, but Ryan Murphy is a very flawed, unsympathetic “protagonist.”

In assessing both of these stories as representatives of a cultural moment—the “Money for Nothing” lyrics flap and the Murphy/Followill feud—I ultimately take the same position: homophobia is destructive, and we should be building a culture based more on respect than ignorance and reflexive anger. I hope that simple point doesn’t get lost or forced to take a backseat to the more attention-grabbing aspects of these stories—egomania, pettiness, and arguably misguided notions of “free speech.” There are more important things on the line here, chief among them the right of all people to live their lives without being verbally or physically assaulted based on a core piece of their identity.

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