The Rolling Stones cancel their song “Brown Sugar”

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

After hearing the record a thousand times, I didn’t know the Rolling Stones classic “Brown Sugar” is about slavery because I don’t understand what Mick Jagger is saying in the entire first verse. All I hear is, “uh uh uh uh uh uh JUST NEAR MIDNIGHT. It turns out the lyrics are this:

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market in New Orleans
Marked old slave owner knows he’s okay
Hear him whip the women around midnight

Well, that’s pretty clear. Someone noticed that the Stones are not playing the song on their current tour, apparently for the first time, which has led to a New York Post headline saying “The Rolling Stones Classic Rock Song Takes ‘Brown Sugar'”. He looked like it hurt at the thought of feeling compelled to get rid of the song when he told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters where the beef is. Didn’t they understand that it was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it.

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

I find it remarkable that the urge to cancel rock songs for their supposed license to immorality was entirely a right-wing or Christian phenomenon when it started in the 1960s and now appears to be entirely a left-wing phenomenon.

PS I won’t miss “Brown Sugar” because I don’t really like it in the first place. I’m more of the “Emotional Rescue” / “I miss you” type. And the ballads! Sue me.

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