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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Featured Stories

The Rolling Stones Drop “Brown Sugar” from their Set List

by Ted BurkeJanuary 2022

The Rolling Stones.

It’s not that the Rolling Stones have suddenly become “woke” and aware of social injustice, but it did make news that the aging Bad Boys of British rock have dropped the tune “Brown Sugar” from the playlist of their current tour. With the recent death of drummer and founding band member Charlie Watts, there appears to be a sense of an ending, emerging quickly for the band. The song was released as a single in 1971 and later included on their Sticky Fingers album that same year. It’s one of those tunes that you hate yourself loving. On the surface, it has all that one loves and expects from a Rolling Stones song, including powerful brash guitar chords grabbing your attention, a rhythm section that kicks in hard and sways and swings without relief until it comes to the chorus, a rousing anthem of droogish vigor, a sassy saxophone solo, all of which supports a hectoring, lively, dually insinuating and braying vocal by singer Mick Jagger. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to put your shoulder to the wheel and take command of something. But under the adorably gritty rock ‘n’ roll, the text, the lyrics, the sordid spectacle of it all, a tribute to racism, slavery, sadomasochism, rape, misogyny. It’s a violent little white supremacist fantasy whether the Rolling Stones intended it or not:
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

Drums beatin’ cold, English blood runs hot
Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop
House boy knows that he’s doin’ all right
You should have heard him just around midnight

Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should

Brown Sugar, how come you dance so good?
Brown Sugar, just like a black girl should

I bet your mama was a tent show queen
And all her boyfriends were sweet 16
I’m no school boy but I know what I like
You should have heard them just around midnight

Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should

I said, yeah, yeah, yeah, wooo!
How come you, how come you dance so good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, wooo!
Just like a, just like a black girl should

© Mirage Music Int. Ltd. C/o Essex Music Int. Ltd.
From 1971…

Pretty miserable stuff, this. Most of us of a certain age knew the song was a racist, sexist, misogynist male chauvinist wet dream when it was released. Most of us, I trust, are hidden behind the flimsy veil of irony, and some of us, in print, rationalized how Mick and the Boys were, in fact, bringing America’s great sin—slavery—into a larger and more honest conversation among the fanhood. Perhaps they did, but I don’t think that was their intention, and I don’t think the largest segment of their fan base—young white males still trying to figure out how to be adults—either got whatever subtle lesson the Stones were casting or gave a damn. It was the Stones, damn it, and it had a great riff, a badass rhythm, and it made you strut. If you were male, the song momentarily made you feel like you were in control of things, whether an imaginary plantation with a slave or a captain of Indus or a general of a tank division.
All the apologetics, defenses, rationalizations, and furtive intellection couldn’t quiet the nagging suspicion that the tune was a deliberate and arrogant slap in the face to a great many people. “Brown Sugar” was and is a mean-hearted song. They were called out for their demeaning depictions by feminists, black activists, and prematurely “woke” males at the time of its release. I doubt there was a single one of us who hadn’t wondered at some time or other when the Stones would ditch the tune. When they wrote and performed it, there was a kind of vulgarly hip cache in being a roving cocksman who could get loving whenever he wanted it. But this is an attitude, a pose, a stance that hasn’t aged well through the decades. It remains an example of how embedded racism was in rock ‘n’ roll and within the counter-culture at large despite whatever legal advances had been accomplished. I don’t think the Stones are personally racist in their politics or core value systems (whatever they happen to be or have been). However, they carried habits acquired through generational legacy, which, it seems, they are still trying to shed. So maybe “Brown Sugar” is a start, and they will continue to reconsider their song list for objectionable content. Perhaps that would reduce their sets to a quick and tight 40 minutes or fill out the rest of the time with Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters covers.

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