Indignity Vol. 2, No. 75: Here comes Johnny singing oldies, goldies.
ASK THE SOPHIST DEP'T.
Is It Cool for Me to Rock Out?
Dear The Sophist:
As an aging guitar player with frustrated dreams of indie-rock stardom, I've recently embarked on a YouTube-assisted journey of learning the guitar licks that I was either too cool, embarrassed, or intimidated to learn when I was younger—a time when I was slavishly trying to mimic the sounds of "cool" players at the expense of the radio-ready classics. One of the projects I've recently taken on is Mark Knopfler's iconic lick from "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits. Mastering it makes me feel both pride at being capable of pulling off one of the most classic examples of riffage and deep shame at feeling like some sweatband-wearing dope at a Guitar Center out on Rt. 22 who's way into riffage.
Add to that the fact that the song prominently features a casual slur ("that little f----- in the earring and the makeup") that feels powerfully retrograde and I'm wondering if it's OK to indulge in the tune at all. Should I be ashamed when my neighbors hear me blasting it from the basement?
Dear Eddie Van Hamlet,
To shred or not to shred—who are you kidding? Hundreds of millions of people have scrabbled desperately, furiously at the nothingness of their air guitars, trying to imagine what it would feel like to do the thing you can now do on the physical guitar: brannh-RRRAHHH-bla'-ranna-RANNNH-rah-ronna-ronna...
Man, it must be fantastic to be able to play "Money for Nothing." The Sophist isn't even going to make fun of you for delivering this obvious bragging point in the guise of worrying. You're proud of what you've taught yourself to do, you remember that pride is a sin, and you're trying to figure out how bad the sin is.
Let's settle your second point of concern, about the politics of the song, before we circle back to your first. "Money for Nothing" is a character song, meant to be sung from a benighted person's point of view. Passing time and growing wisdom—as the circle of people who get to participate in the discussion about who gets to use abusive words, and to what end, has widened—have apparently led Mark Knopfler himself to edit the slurs out of his narrator's vocabulary when playing the song. (He kept singing about getting "chicks for free," though.)
The deeper, unchanged meanness of the song, however, is directed at you personally. In the song, Knopfler is sneering at unknown workaday losers who wish they could be rich and famous rock stars. (Bonus exercise: compare and contrast this with Dire Straits' most-played hit on Spotify, "Sultans of Swing," where Knopfler sneers at the public's inability to appreciate an unknown workaday jazz band.)
If you still feel guilty about the song's message, just tell yourself it's not like you're trying to learn "Layla," a white nationalist sleazebag's expression of his eventually successful plan to seduce his best friend's wife. Although, even then, you know, a riff is a riff.
This brings us back to your cultural question. Is it really possible to be embarrassed by a guitar riff? Only if you are ideologically opposed to the entire concept of a "guitar riff." The riff is an art-form-within-an-art-form that seeks to transcend the limits of its contexts—inside the song, and outside among the music-consuming public—to speak to something universal. Aerosmith might be, from certain angles, the worst or silliest band that ever existed. But with the help of Run-D.M.C., the "Walk This Way" riff could belong to all humankind.
The truly great riffs are all but un-ruinable by their creators, or by the accumulated idiocies that the masses and commercial culture layer on top of them. What could be more exhausted or more contemptible than the sound of tens of thousands of NFL fans bellowing out the guitar line of "Seven Nation Army" for the umpteen-hundredth time, in not-particularly-close unison? And yet. Even The Sophist can still hear, and respond to, the underlying tune that stirs their beery and impoverished souls. Or, switching instruments but cutting to the heart of the matter, look at Questlove unloading, one-armed, on the drum break of dork-pop fossil Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight."
The Sophist notes the slight temporal fogging in your note when you describe a time that you were "younger," when you considered yourself too cool for Dire Straits. Maybe that's where you want to remember yourself as being, culturally: the age when you started learning to play guitar, as some older sort of younger person, who had learned a few things about the world. But if that were the whole story, you'd have no reason to play that guitar lick at all. You want to play it because somewhere, sometime, in the honest personal history of your childhood or adolescence, you heard it come lashing out of that slow-gathering echoey intro, on normal mainstream hit radio, and it moved you.
"Don't forget the songs that made you smile / And the songs that made you cry," an unforgivably terrible human being and pretentious musician sang once—in a song that still absolutely goes, in a body of work that does likewise. You are older now, and you're a clever swine (hemmed in, by your accumulated contradictory attitudes, like a boar between archers), but that Dire Straits riff has stood by you all these years.
Play it! Play it in your basement, play it during the soundcheck at your neighborhood talent show, play it in the Guitar Center as you try out an amp or an effect pedal. You can downshift to the austere rusted-door-hinge solo from "10:15 Saturday Night" afterward, to show you have taste and sensibility. But before you let them know who you really are, embrace the truth that you are also that sweatband-wearing Riff Guy, and the Riff Guy is you—that what looks like showing off, what almost certainly is showing off, is at the same time a chance to disappear, note by note, into a greater, undying excellence.
Get a blister on your thumb,
INDIGNITY is a general-interest publication for a discerning and self-selected audience. It could be YOU.