Monday, January 05, 2009

My Music Retrospective - The Rolling Stones, Part 1

Driving into work this morning, I heard a promotional fragment from a new tune by Nickelback, one of the world’s biggest bands. The song is called “Something in Your Mouth,” and the lyric I heard went something like this -
You look so much cuter with something in your mouth.
I’ve since read over the full lyrics. The song is basically an ode to a porn star/stripper. But I am totally floored at how unimaginative the lyric is. It’s not dirty and not provocative – it’s hardly even interesting. As a stripper song, certainly “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard does a better job. How this song gets airplay and considered at all good is beyond me.

When I first heard the lyric (the melody didn’t do anything for me, either), my mind immediately compared it to the vintage Rolling Stones rocker, “Brown Sugar.” Now the Stones knew how to make art out of seedy sexual images.

“Brown Sugar” is a terrific name that can refer to heroin, a young girl, a black girl - the phrase allows and forces the listener to make an interpretation. If one wants to render sense from the song, one has to decipher the possibilities of "brown sugar." In effect, one has to traverse a slew of hedonistic ideas just to understand the song at all. It's just so sly. Reportedly, Mick Jagger wanted originally to call the song “Black Pussy,” but felt this title would be too “nitty-gritty.” Indeed.

The other spicy element of the song is where and when it’s located:
Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in New Orleans,
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright,
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Where and when are we? On a slave ship and in the old South. We have to appreciate the dramatic boldness of a song that opens up a new time and place for us. Look at the dynamism of the four lines above, how the frames of reference move in sequence and how fertile the imagery is. History, commerce, race, power, sex and masochism all converge in the lyric.

The raucous melody and Richards’s backing vocals make "Brown Sugar" a wicked song, a work of mythic power. And it’s not mere sex-and-power fantasy; it’s topical, controversial, and fun. I mean, how do you get more exuberant than this?
I say yeah, yeah, yeah, Whooo!
More than any other group, the Stones created and played quintessential rock and roll songs. At their creative and musical best, they elevated rock and roll to its fullest potential, a music of raw energy and cultural antagonism. They made music that boogied but was suitably ironic for thinkers.

To be sure, they didn't do it all the time. They didn't even try to do it all the time. But they could do it, and when they did, no one was better.

Look at one of their second or third-tier songs, listed as "Star Star":
Yeah I heard about your Polaroids,
Now that's what I call obscene,
Your tricks with fruit was kinda cute,
I bet you keep your pussy clean.
Even with a song that isn't great, the Stones keep the sense of play. Perhaps this is the main thing the Nickelback song lacks. The Stones go right to kinky, but the Nickelback lyric is straight - no perversion whatsoever. I almost feel sad over it, as if they are drunks willing to take any cheap booze to get a fix. The Stones are connoisseurs and totally committed to the act, to the point of letting the audience see and know it is an act. That's the point. Enjoy your fantasy, but don't mistake it for reality.

This is why the Stones remain relevant now and why I think they will continue to be so.

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