Existence: deep stuff for deep minds. Neil Diamond plunged into its essence this way, in 1971’s “I Am, I Said”:
“I am,” I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair.
In his new song, “England Lost,” Mick Jagger tries to get a grip on Brexit but winds up throttling himself with Neil Diamond’s style.
“I went to find England, it wasn’t there / I think I lost it in the back of my chair,” Sir Mick sings. He is trying to tell us that England voted against its own interests when it elected to leave the EU. What he is actually telling us is that no one sounds cool when rhyming something with “chair.”
“England Lost” and another politically charged Jagger tune called “Gotta Get a Grip” have united Britain in loathing. They’ve been pilloried by everyone from, on the right, the Daily Mail (“Rolling Stones frontman moans about Brexit in two sneering new tracks”) to, on the left, the New Statesman (“Mick Jagger has written not one, but two hideous new songs about Brexit”).
A conundrum confronts the rocker who lives to be 74. The medium prides itself on a ferociously confrontational attitude toward death as well as audacious honesty, but “Goodbye Ruby Tuesday / Applebees food is easier to chew” won’t get the girls in bikini tops swaying in the aisles. “Get off my cloud and/or lawn” might work better, but it only underlines the problem. “Time is on my side”? Too ironic. Perhaps it’s best to keep to the surface of things: “It’s only rock and roll.” Who could disagree?
In the service of authenticity, or at least the simulacrum thereof, what frank truths might someone in Jagger’s position share with us? Surely not that he wants to continue nailing groupies? Well, Jagger actually gives this a try, suggesting Brexit is costing him shagging opportunities: “Had a girl in Lisbon, a girl in Rome / Now I’ll have to stay at home.” Hang on, didn’t Jagger have a baby with a Brazilian model? Was Brazil part of the EU.? Never mind. Someone introduce this man to the concept of tourist visas before he completely disintegrates for lack of sex.
“England Lost” begins with a disappointed football fan discovering he can’t enter the stadium because the game has been rained out, then expands into a meditation on issues of the day. Incoherence emerges, magnified by a music video in which the Welsh actor Luke Evans gets stricken by paranoia, injures himself running away from ordinary people, and dashes madly into the sea, where he is rescued by his countrymen. Isn’t it pro-E.U. Brits who are running away from England, though? Aren’t they the ones who want to live in Spain and leave the U.K. to be run by every Jacques and Jean-Claude on the continent? The confusion becomes acute when a guest star on the track, the English rapper Skepta, laments both that “No new faces allowed in / They said it’s gettin’ overcrowded / They’re still fightin’ over houses” and yet he “Feel[s] like Macaulay Culkin, I’m home alone.” So property is scarce, things are overcrowded, and yet he’s home alone? A sublime jumble of meaningless lyrics can work fine in rock, but when you announce you have a point to make it should probably try to make sense, preferably without reference to misplacing your country behind a piece of furniture.
In the less specific track, “Gotta Get a Grip,” Jagger seems to be flipping through the newspaper randomly grabbing phrases and, with a sneer, adopting the voice of the Brexiteers and the Deplorables:
Immigrants are pouring in
Refugees under your skin
Keep ’em under, keep ’em out
Intellectual, shut your mouth
Beat ’em with a stick
In a similar vein, Jagger complains that “Everybody’s on the take / All the news is fake” and laments “Chaos, crisis, instability, ISIS / Lies and scandals, wars and vandals.” If you don’t happen to be a zillionaire rock star, you might have a few good reasons to be nervous, too. Remember when Jagger wrote lyrics like, “Say a prayer for the common foot soldier / Spare a thought for his back breaking work”? Today’s working class is worried about globalization, not access to fresh young muffins in Lisbon and Rome.
Jagger has tripped himself up with politics before, notably in the Rolling Stones song “Highwire,” perhaps the most spectacularly ill-timed anti-war statement of the rock era. Recorded in January 1991, it landed in stores on March 1 — the day after the war to liberate Kuwait ended. Jagger was left looking foolish in a song that foresaw disaster for our troops while regurgitating every leftist cliché du jour to blame the West for the situation:
We sell ’em missiles, We sell ’em tanks
We give ’em credit, You can call the bank
It’s just a business, You can pay us in crude
You love these toys, just go play out your feuds
Got no pride, don’t know whose boots to lick
We act so greedy, makes me sick sick sick
Suitably enough, given that it could have been written by Baghdad Bob, the song folded like Saddam’s army, hitting only No. 57 on the U.S. singles chart. Jagger has mostly and wisely avoided politics since.
Having five grandchildren and a great grandchild, Jagger is perhaps not what the pop charts are looking for today. But if he were to drop the posing and stop trying to keep up with the headlines, he’d still be perfectly capable of making more mature and reflective music about what he’s seen and learned. On “Too Far Gone,” from his 2001 album Goddess in the Doorway, he marveled at changing times. “I’m living in a factory / That’s a million-dollar flat,” he sang. “I would spend my childhood days / Lost in starry dreams / Now I watch my children / Just downloading them to screens.” We still crave authenticity, honesty, and confession from our rock stars. For Jagger to pretend his life has been upended by Brexit is so much fake news.