The Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ — Redefined

Clockwise from top left: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones perform during the “One World: Together at Home” event, April 18, 2020. (Global Citizen/Handout via Reuters )
Trump rallies have repurposed this political anthem. And the activists of the One World telethon can’t undo that.

The Rolling Stones slipped a Mickey to the progressive activist organization Global Citizen when the legendary English rock band participated in the viral concert that Global Citizen sponsored last weekend as a fundraiser for the World Health Organization: One World: Together at Home. The Stones performed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the profoundly pragmatic anthem frequently played at President Trump’s rallies ever since his 2016 campaign.

Singer Mick Jagger appeared solo, guitar-strapped, to introduce the song as his band mates appeared via individual, socially distanced panels — a Keith Richards cam, a Charlie Watts cam, a Ronnie Wood cam. “Here’s one I hope you know,” Jagger said, slyly banking on nostalgia.

The 50-year-old tune predates the birth of Global Citizen’s mostly youthful membership, the Gen-Xers and Millennials who are seduced by the kumbaya notion of globalism without questioning its endorsement by the United Nations or the WHO’s mishandling of COVID-19 data. The lack of such skepticism means the One World: Together at Home telethon was an overtly politicized version of the ’80s charity sentiment “We Are the World.” The difference is that Global Citizen, which regularly co-opts pop-music stars as figureheads for its events, means to interfere and indoctrinate.

Jagger surely understands this devious calculation. By choosing one of the Stones’ non-libidinous songs for the occasion, Jagger managed to get primetime recognition alongside Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and other Millennial acts on the progressive bandwagon while also shouting out to President Trump — straddling the fence as Jagger always has.

Rolling Stone magazine won’t tell you this, but the real news of the Global Citizen broadcast is that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — one of the totemic songs of the Sixties — cannot be re-appropriated because it has already been successfully redefined. President Trump, consistent with the moral that the Rolling Stones originally meant to impart, lets the song speak the basic wisdom of an electorate that had moved past the false claims of political partisanship and beheld a fresh candidate whose perspective answered their frustrations.

This grown-up response to rock ’n’ roll hegemony counters the childish griping by performers such as Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen (and Jagger when pressed), who balk at their songs being utilized by conservative politicians. Pop stars who spitefully deny the pleasure and acknowledgment of listeners who come from different political perspectives disgrace the very meaning of artistic expression. They also forget the licensing agreements that legally permit public performance of their songs.

Here’s where President Trump’s steadfastness pays off. His shrewd choice of that Rolling Stones theme discredited juvenile rock-star tantrums and also forced Jagger to realize the song’s enormous cultural application. It’s not only a greater song than any made by those Global Citizen lemmings Gaga, Beyoncé, John Legend, and Taylor Swift, but Trump’s new political application of it has opened up the process of artistic and political reasoning — the common sense that had calcified since “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was first released in 1969. Although its title suggests another example of the blues-borrowed idiom that makes Jagger seem as learned as Leadbelly, Slim Harpo, or Muddy Waters, its advice — and sense of lived experience — are more than faddish. That song, a drug addict’s plangent paean, gave uniquely uplifting, even sobering, benediction to the social turmoil of the Vietnam era; it served as epilogue after the harrowing, pitiless “Gimme Shelter” that was prologue on the album Let It Bleed (1969).

The Stones typically view the world through sex (erotic rhythm being the foundation of their appeal, as in the imperishable “Brown Sugar”). They rarely make political music — “Gimme Shelter” and “Street Fighting Man” are exceptions — and they acknowledge religion even less. The London Bach Choir’s backing vocals on the original recording of “You Can Always Get What You Want” added gospel irony to the song’s druggy escapism so that the song commented on the solipsism of its era. (Now it also comments on today’s opioid crisis.) This majestic song takes a listener from pragmatism to catharsis to transcendence. (“Born in the U.S.A.” and Rockin’ in the Free World” are just propaganda — leftist jingoism.) But for Global Citizen, the pared-down, acoustic performance for TV was so pseudo-folky that Jagger’s lyrical tendency to seldom look beyond himself indicated that the Left can use the song only disingenuously and petulantly.

Progressive activists such as Global Citizen and its naïve patrons fool themselves with all manner of pop-music placebo. Now that they represent mainstream establishment media, they’ve lost the counterculture impetus that once gave the Stones their impact. (No longer rebels, they act as shills for the WHO, even joining the wretched Gaga, Swift, and John Legend in obedient self-isolation.) The Stones’ former persuasiveness works for a different segment of the pop audience — the ones whose hopes were denied by previous political deception, whose most desperate longings are embodied by a figure now grasping the Stones catalogue and who might ensure the promise of their signature song, “Satisfaction.”

“Satisfaction” (1965), with its parenthetical prefix (“Can’t Get No”), might have been a better fit for TV if the Stones had not aged into self-parody and if Global Citizen were honest about their activist-agitation. (The lines “I went down to the demonstration / To get my fair share of abuse” belong to Sixties risk-taking; they don’t reflect today’s privileged, self-righteous pseudo-activism, which the media always defends as “largely peaceful.”) The Rolling Stones can’t avoid reducing everything to sex, while Global Citizen reduces everything to politics. Trump’s pop-music choice challenges them all.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.