Opinion

The problem with Rolling Stones ditching seminal hit ‘Brown Sugar’ due to woke culture


Last week, while wardis got their khadi Anokhi knickers in a twist over a Fab Indian sales pitch, I recalled cancel culture circa September 1985. It was Tipper Gore, wife of US Democrat politician, future vice-president to sax offender Bill Clinton, and author of the 2006 book – ironic drum-roll, please – An Inconvinient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, who wanted to save society from the ills of ‘objectionable’ lyrics in rock songs.

This was no ‘fascist’ right-winger zinger wife of a US senator or DC businessman friend of Dolan Trump trying to Make America Great Again. To be fair, by today’s standards, Mrs Gore’s liberal outrage against ‘obscene’ lyrics in songs is twee by today’s standards. After getting upset over the risque lyrics in the cassette – Prince’s 1984 album Purple Rain, with the last song on Side A, ‘Darling Nikki’ with the words, ‘Masturbating with a magazine’ – that she bought for her daughter, Tipper Gore decided to take action through the Parents Music Resource Council (PMRC), urging the record industry to carry the sticker, ‘Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics,’ on cassettes with ‘objectionable content’.

The PMRC ‘rock porn’ senate hearing saw musicians from different ends of the ‘politeness’ spectrum – avant-garde rock musician Frank Zappa (‘The first thing you have to do if you want to raise nice kids, is you have to talk to them like they are people instead of talking to them like they’re property.’) to apple-pie country artist John ‘Country Roads, Take Me Home’ Denver – take on Tipper and oppose a government-policed record-labelling system that would ‘approach censorship’.

Some 35 years later, it’s not the government, but the mob – again, the liberal lot who fights for freedom of expression when expressed ‘their way’ – that has shunted a song they have found to be objectionable. The Rolling Stones‘ 1971 ‘Brown Sugar‘ (bit.ly/3jqQhT6) is a classic right from the serrated guitar riff that opens the track like a slit wrist. From one of the band’s greatest albums, Sticky Fingers, the number is not just iconic because it has been popular, but also because it is truly a great riproar of hormones and harmony.

Earlier this month, after public pressure made palpable by that foghorn called social media, the Rolling Stones ‘retired’ the song from their US live performances. One should thank one’s stars that the mob didn’t want the song cancelled outright like some Salman Rushdie novel.

So what is the problem with the song? ‘Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields/ Sold in the market down in New Orleans/ Skydog slaver know he’s doin’ all right/ Hear him whip the women, just around midnight/ Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?/ Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should’. It’s a PoV (point of view) song of a euphoric slave master who enjoys having sex with, consensually or otherwise, the women he ‘owns’. Written in 1971, the song’s lyrics clearly ride the transgressionary no-man’s zone that history and fiction – and rock’n’roll — allow us.

For the song’s stoked-woked opposers, it glorifies rape, paedophalia, racism — the last stanza replaces ‘just like a young girl should’ with ‘black girl’. The songwriter, Keith Richards, even while going with the crowdsourced restriction, responded, ‘Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery?’ And here I was, once delighting in the contraband appeal of a drug song.

That people can be idiots is a given. That liberal idiots ride on the same velvety carpet of self-righteousness that hidebound conservatives squat on, is less apparent. I’m no school boy but I know what I like.

And I’m glad I can still play ‘Brown Sugar’ inside the bigoted territory of my home without having to rile the kluless Tipper Gore klan, who know their dramatic monologue – a technique where in poems, plays and songs a character, who is not the writer, tells his bit, however unpalatable it may be — well associated with worthies like the English poet Robert Browning, but thought to be beyond the purview of ‘simple’ rock’n’roll songwriters.



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