Alex Constantine - May 2, 2022
By Alex Constantine
Today I received an e-mail from a woman who read my defense of Mick Jagger against accusations of racism. She was very irritated with me -- flogged me with verbal razor-wire for not comprehending that Jagger is a "supremacist," and she was "shocked" by the outrageous outrage of my dunderheaded denial.
Mick Jagger, from the start, appropriated the vocal intonations of blues artists, the Chitlin Circuit, Motown and the Caribbean. Cultural appropriation is categorically a racist act. Some rock critics have made this argument. But a better one posits that Jagger's vocal style us the tribute of a generic purist to his roots.
There was some element of appropriation to be found in much of the music that issued from the British Invasion. Paul McCartney parroted Little Richard. The Yardbirds blended traditional slave-spun blues with rock electricity. Led Zeppelin and Cream channeled Robert Johnson's leads. Eric Burden, lead singer of The Animals, also plundered black records. These bands weren't minstrel bigots in blackface. Neither were are the Stones. They all paid homage to the music that drove them in their formative years. It was the sincerest form of flattery.
If Mick Jagger is a racist, he has failed miserably to act like one. When it came time to tie the knot, he didn't choose a flax-haired Anglo-Saxon from the UK peerage registry. And the missus wasn't exactly the type to exchange vows with a smirking bigot. Bianca is an articulate advocate for social justice and human rights. She has faced down death squads. Any self-respecting racist with a mammalian nervous system would steer clear.
The racist charge against Jagger has gained currency. It hinges largely on the original lyrics to "Brown Sugar." He apologized for them after the song's release. If someone expresses regret and issues a sincere apology, why bear a grudge?
Jagger also rewrote the lyrics. The Stones don't perform it when touring. Rubbing his nose in "Brown Sugar" decades later is pointless and serves no purpose whatsoever. It is also wrong-headed.
Yes, the song depicted slaver violence in graphic terms, but does this necessarily suggest that Jagger is a racist? In general, expansive artistic license is granted to rock musicians, and lyrics are not usually meant to be interpreted as literal -- unless "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is Paul McCartney's ringing endorsement of skull bashing. "Norwegian Wood" was a fun little ditty about an arsonist with a chip on his shoulder, but Lennon may not have settled many scores with a box of matches.
"Brown Sugar" was about a white supremacist who comes to realize that, in his fashion, he loves a black woman. What is so objectionable about that? The song is also viewed as sexist. But the persona is simply voicing passion, and it befuddles him. "How come you taste so good?" Is this a misogynistic swipe? Maybe not. The line is tasteless, crude but flattering. There is nothing in it to read as an insult to women. If so, the phrase "rock-n-roll" itself is a misogynistic slap in the face.
"Under My Thumb" was another matter. But, again, a persona speaks through this contusion of a song, not Mick Jagger. The character in the song laments that his woman condescends to him, and she is a "squirmy dog." Does Jagger believe that women in general are mongrels? Is this what he was trying to say? Probably not.
When "Under My Thumb" was recorded, the Stones were attempting to establish a public image of punk before punk. The Beatles had staked out squeaky clean, so the Stones set out on the path not taken. They wore leather. They smoked. They did anything that set themselves apart from the Fab Four. Songs like "Under My Thumb" and "Stupid Girl" broke the British Invasion mold. The hype and put-downs were a deliberate ruse. But as Jagger himself explained years later, the world didn't know how sweet the Stones actually were. They didn't squish women under their thumbs. And they didn't harbor disdain toward anyone but some in the ruling caste who made the English working class miserable. The "Satanic" Crown was the enemy, no one else.
They sang about political corruption, too, and they meant it. They expressed no ethnic disrespect with their music, any more than Janis Joplin did when drawing inspiration from Big Mama Thornton. The epidermis was irrelevant. Soul was all that mattered.