Gimmicks are catnip to an advertiser, something that awakens the consumer’s mind with a new stimulus (3D glasses, a museum full of ice cream) while enticing eyes towards a branded image or hands towards a wallet. When done creatively, gimmicks can either resemble an art form or become one—the entire basis for the modern music video.
“Money for Nothing,” the 1985 single by British rock band Dire Straits, is a song that hates gimmicks, or at least purports to. Co-written by lead singer Mark Knopfler and Sting, the song hones the perspective of two working-class men—the kind who wear overalls and trucker hats and smoke cigars on breaks during their custom-kitchen delivery service—as they come across MTV blaring on a client’s television. They start riffing on the music videos that they see while hauling microwaves and refrigerators, and are bewildered as the stars simply “play the guitar on the MTV” for what to them is an inconceivable paycheck. There are two hooks, one a mix of admiration, envy, and dismissiveness (“That ain’t workin’/That’s the way you do it/Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free”) and the other now so widely known that it’s completely divorced from the song itself (“I want my/I want my/I want my MTV.”)
“It was [directed towards] a part of MTV, the boy bands, the glam bands, Duran Duran, the ‘pretty boys’ with the big haircuts and everything….it was more directed towards that side, because they obviously played a lot of things,” says British filmmaker Steve Barron, who directed the “Money for Nothing” video—because, yes, in 1985, even an anti-video hit single had to have a video.
That clip, which premiered on MTV that same year, was a remarkably straightforward interpretation of the song’s premise, with one caveat: the two delivery men, and their immediate surroundings, were all done in crude CGI, widely considered to be the first instance of computer-animated characters on the television network. Naturally, it was a smash hit, entering heavy rotation on MTV and sweeping the third-ever Video Music Awards with a total of eleven nominations and two awards, including Video of the Year. (For the latter, it beat out “Take on Me”—yes, that “Take on Me”—also directed by Barron, which won six other awards that night.) By embracing the then-groundbreaking technology, “Money for Nothing” received widespread acclaim for the type of zeitgeisty showmanship its protagonists were criticizing.
However, Barron doesn’t entirely see it that way. After making his directorial breakthrough in early 1983 with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video, Barron had rapidly made a name for himself, alongside David Mallet and Russell Mulcahy, as one of early MTV’s most prolific directors. In 1985, an executive from Warner Brothers, Jeff Ayeroff, approached him about an upcoming Dire Straits track that the label really loved, and would he mind flying out to Budapest to convince the band, then on tour, to do a video for it.
“‘Dire Straits are very purist, real musicians, especially Mark Knopfler, who’s not really very fond of music videos and all that they’re doing,’” Barron remembers Ayeroff telling him. As he details in his book Egg n Chips & Billie Jean, Barron did fly out to Budapest and try to convince Knopfler, over dinner with his girlfriend, that shooting the video was a good idea. But as predicted, Knopfler wasn’t so enthused: "I never did hear a yes. Nor an OK. Or a let’s go for it. But there wasn’t a no. Or a never. Or anything that said we couldn’t. We’ll just do it and pray that our Bosch FGS4000 delivers the goods.”
That Bosch FGS4000—more colloquially known as the Paintbox—was the computer workstation that would bring the entire video to life. Even the live action scenes in “Money for Nothing,” like the fake music-videos-within-the-music-video and clips of Dire Straits performing in Budapest, were colored over using animated paint pixels, a digitized version of the painted-over color film used by Georges Mélies and other silent film directors in the pre-Technicolor era.
For the video’s CGI segments, Barron and Ian Pearson, the computer graphics expert on the project, were allowed absolute control over the set design and blocking the characters’ movements, the kind of meticulous choreography that a director can usually only dream of. The downside, of course, was that the technology was still rudimentary, and required much patience; Barron tells me that Pearson spent three and a half weeks living in the studio, working day and night to finish the video by deadline.
Although “Money for Nothing” was semi-ironically embraced that year for its needling of the MTV mainstream, it didn’t exactly get rid of boy bands. It’s also courted its fair share of controversy: the song’s second verse, not included in the video, prominently features a homophobic slur, directed at an MTV star implied to be George Michael. Knopfler addressed, though did not apologize for, the lyrics in a 1985 Rolling Stone interview – “The singer…is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality” – and the band has since altered the verse in live performances. Still, it was enough to get the song briefly banned from Canadian radio in 2011.
But perhaps the real shortcoming with the “Money for Nothing” concept is how it did not predict the MTV idols exhibiting any sort of self-awareness or reflection. Five years after “Money for Nothing” premiered, George Michael released his music video for “Freedom ‘90,” which depicted the “pretty boy” trappings of Michael’s earlier visuals (a leather jacket, a guitar, a jukebox) literally bursting into flames. But whereas “Money for Nothing” dismissed the entire pop video ecosystem, “Freedom ‘90” referenced Michael’s previous forays into the medium to hint at his own personal crisis of faith and identity, while demonstrating—quite convincingly, through a once-in-a-lifetime cast of supermodels—how he could be visually reborn.
For what it is, “Money for Nothing” is a perfect snapshot of when MTV headlined pop culture to such a degree that its music, its stars, even its animated interstitials, were all seemingly inescapable, and when a whole channel devoted to music videos could still feel like a get-rich-quick scheme. Barron and Knopfler both insist that, for all its barbs and jabs, “Money for Nothing” is a journalistic portrayal of two real men Knopfler had overheard one day, who were so lively in their disbelief over MTV that Knopfler envisioned them as cartoon characters. It’s a neat idea for a song: If these two men could capture my attention, why couldn’t they capture everyone else’s?