This song is about rock star excess and the easy life it brings compared with real work. Mark Knopfler wrote it after overhearing delivery men in a New York department store complain about their jobs while watching MTV. He wrote the song in the store sitting at a kitchen display they had set up. Many of the lyrics were things they actually said.
Sting sings on this and helped write it (he and Knopfler are the credited writers). That's him at the beginning singing "I want my MTV." Sting did not want a songwriting credit, but his record company did because they would have earned royalties from it. They claimed it sounded very similar to a song Sting wrote for The Police: "Don't Stand So Close To Me
Dire Straits recorded this in Montserrat. Sting was on vacation there and came by to help out.
The innovative video was one of the first to feature computer generated animation, which was done using an early program called Paintbox. The characters were supposed to have more detail, like buttons on their shirts, but they used up the budget and had to leave it as is. It won Best Video at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.
The video was directed by Steve Barron, who also directed the famous a-ha video for "Take On Me
" and Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science
In the book I Want My MTV, various people who worked at the network explain that Dire Straits' manager asked the network what they could do to get on the network and break through in America. Their answer was: write a hit song and let one of the top directors make a video. Mark Knopfler took the directive to write an "MTVable song" quite literally, using the network's tagline in the lyrics. The song ended up sounding like an indictment of MTV, but Les Garland, who ran the network, made it clear that they loved the song and were flattered by it - hearing "I Want My MTV" on the radio was fantastic publicity even if there were some unfavorable implications in the lyrics.
Steve Baron was dispatched to do the video, and charged with the task of convincing Mark Knopfler, who hated videos, to do one that was groundbreaking. Baron says that Knopfler wasn't into the idea, but his girlfriend - an American - was at the pitch and loved the idea. Knopfler agreed (in part because he didn't have to appear in it), and Baron hired a UK production company called Rushes to work on it. Said Baron: "The song is damning to MTV in a way. That was an ironic video. The characters we created were made of televisions, and they were slagging off television. Videos were getting a bit boring, they needed some waking up. And MTV went nuts for it. It was like a big advertisement for them."
The line "I want my MTV" was the basis of the cable network's promotional campaign. They played clips of musicians saying, and often times, screaming the line between videos.
This was the first video played on MTV Europe. The network went on the air August 1, 1987, six years after MTV in the US.
The album version runs 8:26 with an extended outro. The single was cut down to 4:38.
In the US, this stayed at #1 for three weeks. It also won a Grammy in 1986 for best Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Mark Knopfler played a Les Paul Junior plugged into a Laney amp on this track. Producer Neil Dorfsman recalled in Sound On Sound magazine May 2006: "We were going for a ZZ Top sound, but what we ended up getting was kind of an accident."
"Weird Al" Yankovic parodied this for his movie UHF
. The parody is called "Beverly Hillbillies (Money For Nothing)." Strait's frontman, Mark Knopfler, OK'd the parody under one condition: Knopfler would play guitar on the song.
Twenty-five years after the song's release it was banned from public broadcast in Canada after one person complained about it being homophobic. The original version included a description of a singer as "that little faggot with the earring and the make-up" plus two other uses of the word "faggot," although a cleaned-up edition was made available, Oz-FM in Newfoundland played the first edition in February 2010 at 9:15 at night. The result was a single complaint and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled that the unedited version of the song was unacceptable for air play on Canadian radio stations because it "refers to sexual orientation in a derogatory way."
Knopfler has pointed out the song was written from the viewpoint of a stupid character who thinks musicians make their "money for nothing" and his stupidity is what leads him to make ignorant statements. Speaking in late 1985 to Rolling Stone the Dire Straits songwriter expressed his feelings about people who react angrily to the song. He said: "Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you have to be direct. I'm in two minds as to whether it's a good idea to take on characters and write songs that aren't in the first person."
Common sense finally prevailed on August 31, 2011 when the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council put an end to the ban and allowed individual radio stations to once again decide for themselves whether to play the classic rock tune.
In 2005, the duo Deep Dish sampled this on their song "Flashing For Money," which was based on their song "Flashdance" (not the Irene Cara song). It was the first time Dire Straits allowed one of their songs to be sampled. "Flashing For Money" was released on the B-side of Deep Dish's single "Say Hello."
Reel Big Fish released an album in 2007 called Monkeys For Nothin' And The Chimps For Free
. The title is a takeoff on this song.