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Music

‘Brown Sugar’ Gets Canceled

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones performs in Marseille, June 26, 2018. (Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters)

After hearing the record thousands of times, I was unaware that the Rolling Stones’ classic “Brown Sugar” is about enslavement because I can’t understand anything Mick Jagger says in the entire first verse. All I hear is: “uh uh uh uh uh uh JUST AROUND MIDNIGHT.”  Turns out the lyrics are these:

Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

Well, that’s clear enough. Someone noticed that the Stones aren’t playing the song on their current tour, seemingly for the first time ever, which led to a New York Post headline saying that “Rolling Stones retire classic rock song ‘Brown Sugar.’” In the body of the story, Keith Richards is less absolute, saying, “We might put it back in.” He seemed to be smarting about feeling pressure to dump the song when he told the LA Times, “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it.”

The chorus of the song comes from the point of view of a gleeful slave master who enjoys having sex with or raping the women he owns, so it’s not exactly clear about the “horrors” part, but I think we can assume that the Stones, who revered black American blues musicians and got the band’s name from a Muddy Waters LP, are not fans of slavery. A listener might object that the upbeat, rollicking nature of the song makes it a celebration of the acts it describes, but then again, the tune has been played on popular radio for 50 years without causing undue uproar. Suffice it to say that the Stones enjoy visiting dark places in their songs without endorsing their characters or their viewpoints. “Sympathy for the Devil” isn’t really a celebration of Satan.

I find it noteworthy that the urge to cancel rock songs for their supposed licensing of immorality was entirely a right-wing or Christian phenomenon when it got started in the Sixties and now appears to be entirely a left-wing phenomenon.

P.S. I won’t miss “Brown Sugar” because I don’t really like it in the first place. I’m more of an “Emotional Rescue”/”Miss You” guy. And the ballads! Sue me.

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