“The Styling and Irony of ‘Money for Nothing,'” Sabrina Herman (2018) — Inquiry 2

The Styling and Irony of “Money for Nothing”

The 1980s is an iconic era. It was a time of political and economic change, and technological and cultural innovation unforeseen by older generations. With the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980, some Americans began to embrace a new conservative attitude. Simultaneously, many others, especially teens and young adults, found these views to be constricting and rigid. As such, the period also embraced cultural restlessness and rebellion amongst America’s youth. To express their differing thoughts and opinions, they turned to pop, rock, and alternative music. Explicit, provocative, and exciting, the music made bold statements and criticisms about the world. One song, Dire Straits’ classic rock hit “Money for Nothing,” exemplifies this trend particularly well.

Released in their 1985 album Brother in Arms, the Grammy award-winning “Money for Nothing” was a hit. It had a catchy hook and an incredible guitar riff. More notably, however, the song featured the world’s first computer-animated music video along with a puzzling ironic theme. 

The song and its music video released on MTV in 1985, which greatly attributed to its wide popularity and success. As it was before the age of iTunes and YouTube, most music was shared via word-of-mouth, CDs, or cassette tapes. MTV enabled music to reach a wide audience at an incredibly fast rate. The use of animated effects in the “Money for Nothing” music video quickly captured the attention of the public. Though grainy and boxy compared to today’s animated technology, it utilized various colors and shapes to help narrate the story as well as vivify the music itself.

In the song, Dire Straits frontman George Knopfler narrates a rant between two blue-collar appliance store workers about their disdain for musicians. The story begins in a TV room as one of the men watches Dire Straits perform on MTV. The room embodies the fashion trends of the ‘80s with its plentiful bright neon colors and strict geometric shapes. The walls are green with a yellow lightning bolt pattern; the couch is pink; and the carpet is adorned with yellow, green, blue, and pink rectangles, squares, and triangles. When the guitar riff suddenly begins, a use of the kairos element, the viewer’s attention is captured. The audience now knows that the introduction is over and the song is about to start. They see an animation of a glowing purple guitar with a rouge hand plucking the strings. Blue squiggles appear to imitate the sound and rhythm of the upbeat intro. As “Money for Nothing” progresses, bright colors are overlapped on the sweatbands and instruments of Dire Straits as they perform, and more shapes and lines depict the vocals and instrumental sounds. This all invokes a pathetic response in the viewer, as the vivid colors and dancing shapes create a feeling of happiness viewers.

The song is also memorable for its peculiar and ironic message and theme. As stated before, “Money for Nothing” narrates from the viewpoint of two grumpy blue-collar workers who hate musicians. They believe that musicians aren’t that hardworking, and don’t deserve the money, fame, and fortune they receive. The workers say that while they have to “install microwave ovens” and “move color TV’s”, forms of significant physical labor, musicians are “bangin’ on bongos like chimpanzees”. The only challenge they face is a “blister on [their] little finger”. This is a pathos appeal to listeners who also feel that their work is more grueling than that of a musician or celebrity, yet is not appreciated. The workers continue to lament about how they “should’ve learned to play the guitar or drums”, suggesting that becoming a successful musician is easy. This assumption demonstrates their inherent ignorance about the music industry, and appeals logically to viewers as they know not to take this opinion seriously. 

The point of view is ironic as musicians are singing about the topic. Dire Straits are complaining about musicians, yet they are also the ones who have fame, fortune, and get “chicks for free”. It demonstrates ethos, as George Knopfler and his bandmates understand the struggle in becoming and remaining successful musicians. Thus, the song is not only a narration from a somewhat dim blue-collar worker, but also a criticism of the entire music industry and MTV itself. It presents the question as to whether musicians truly deserve all the perks and benefits they receive, and suggests that American society is fueling a self-absorbed industry that gives out excessive wealth to very few. In addition, releasing the song in 1985 on MTV in a music video, a new and exciting platform, demonstrates kairos as this message of anti-authority appealed to youth culture at the height of a rebellious era.

Ultimately, the uses of kairos, pathos, logos, and ethos aid in the fantastic musical styling and peculiar theme of Dire Straits “Money for Nothing”. The opening guitar riff catches the listener’s attention and encourages them to keep listening to the song; the laments of the blue-collar workers about the hardships of their jobs and the lack of credit they receive allows for sympathy and empathy; the broad assumptions about the ease of being a musician helps the listener understand the song’s irony; and finally, the narration of such criticism by someone a part of the music industry suggests credibility and knowledge of the subject. These features make “Money for Nothing” iconic, and are the reason for its sustained popularity over three decades after its release.



In writing a rhetorical analysis, I found myself having to take multiple steps to fully understand the message of “Money for Nothing.” This process may have been slightly lengthy, but I think it enabled me to produce a critical and thoughtful essay. I chose to follow this method because I was unfamiliar writing rhetorical analyses, my only experience being a history project in the 11th grade. In looking at example essays and working on my rough draft and discussing it with my professor, I knew that my best work would be the result of a meticulous process and analyses.

My process began with listening to the song and watching the music video over and over. I made sure to take notes on things that jumped out or seemed significant to me: a phrase, a sound, an image, a color, etc. From there, I tried to determine how this feature made me feel personally and how it may be different from the vibe someone else would get. This was an attempt to analyze the song from multiple point of view. After this, I did some research on 1980s, especially in the years surrounding the songs release. I wanted to understand the context in which the song was written, and how and why it was so popular and important to the youth during this decade. With all these elements thought through, I was able to write a cohesive essay that analyzed the song, the music video, and even a bit of the 1980s itself.