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The Rolling Stones removing ‘Brown Sugar’ shows how outdated media can quickly become

The Rolling Stones removing ‘Brown Sugar’ shows how outdated media can quickly become

The Rolling Stones removing ‘Brown Sugar’ shows how outdated media can quickly become
November 06
12:00 2021

Iconic rock band The Rolling Stones announced on Oct. 13 they would be dropping their 1971 hit “Brown Sugar” from their 2021 U.S. tour. “Brown Sugar” has long since endured a string of controversy around its lyrics, which include references to slavery, sadomasochism and the over-sexualization of black women. 

Lead guitarist Keith Richards defended the track saying it depicted the horrors of slavery and was confused why fans wanted to “bury” the song. However, lead singer Mick Jagger showed more hesitation. “I would never write the song now,” Jagger said in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. 

After facing criticism for profiting off those themes, the band decided to remove the song from the playlist, though Jagger stated they might put it back in one day. Though I don’t think we should be canceling the band for their decision to produce the track, I do support their decision to leave the record in the past. As consumers of media, we must be aware of how songs are shaped by the cultural movements of the time they’re created in.

Doo-wop and rock and roll largely dominated U.S. charts in the early half of the ’60s before shifting to pop and heavier rock later that decade. The political climate of the ’60s affected what played on the radio. Bands were interested in experimenting with their music and pushing social boundaries. A lot of songs were aimed at protesting against the government because of decisions they made domestically and internationally, à la the Vietnam War. 

Music was growing more sexual in tone as well. Gone were the days of singing about holding someone’s hand — being someone’s dog was in. Though “Brown Sugar” was made in the early ’70s, they wrote the song during a time when fans and casual audiences took offense for different reasons. “Brown Sugar” isn’t unique to the problem of artists penning songs they later came to regret.

In a 2019 interview with GQ, Pharrell Williams said that the controversy surrounding the song “Blurred Lines” helped him open his mind to the dangers of sexism. He said he is more aware of the content he creates now and is embarrassed by a lot of work he produced early in his career. “Blurred Lines” is not even a decade old, yet the message behind it aged as well as milk. The song faced major backlash for the lyrics and music video, but many people pushed aside the meaning because they liked the beat.

Musicians are in a tough spot because great music is supposed to tell a story. Whether a song has a good meaning or not, listeners should be able to take away something from the lyrics or melody. Music is art and art is meant to break social or cultural boundaries. While it shouldn’t aim to purely shock audiences, it should get people talking. There are songs that stand the test of time because their message still resonates with today’s social climate. 

Sam Cooke’s 1964 song “A Change is Gonna Come” is a perfect example of music that has aged well. The song details an African American’s plight who feels overwhelmed with adversity he faces from racial injustice yet feels optimistic about the future. The message can still be applied to last year’s George Floyd protests.

Songs can age poorly for a variety of reasons. It can be a love song an artist directs to someone they care about and then the romance ultimately ends on a sour note. Sometimes it’s a change in musical direction such as when an artist dabbles in a different genre of music. A well-meaning yet prominent example of a song aging poorly is “Ebony & Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. The song is about racial harmony, yet a lot of fans have a hard time taking this cheese-fest seriously.

McCartney and Wonder are two legendary figures in music, yet they prove that most artists are going to hit bumps in the road of their musical journey. It’s almost impossible for an artist to avoid producing work that isn’t going to age well to the public. Whatever is acceptable today might be considered monstrous tomorrow. The beauty of art is its trial-and-error nature. Perfection can’t always come in one take. If their intentions are good and they remain sensitive to certain topics, musicians should be allowed to come back from their mistakes. 

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

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Adrian Maldonado

Adrian Maldonado

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