On the surface, it has all that one loves and expects from a Rolling Stones song, including brash guitar chords powering grabbing your attention, a rhythm section that kicks in hard and sways and swings without relief until one 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 and 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 midnightBrown Sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl shouldDrums 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 midnightBrown Sugar, how come you taste so good?
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl shouldBrown Sugar, how come you dance so good?
Brown Sugar, just like a black girl shouldI 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 midnightBrown Sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl shouldI 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
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 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, try 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 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 and 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.
No subject is off-limits so far as narrative art goes. Still, we have to realize that out of millions of would-be Nabokovs and Jaggers , on a handful can anything so artful with the subject matter--sex with minors, rape--that the work transcends the gaminess and has an effect that forces concerned readers/listeners to think on issues more prominent than the indulgence in lust. I consider Jagger's song "Back Street Girl" to be a masterpiece. He cannily, concisely, convincingly gets at the rationale of a moneyed male, making it clear to his mistress that she is nothing other than a mistress; she is not to try to be a part of his more prominent, more public life. It's a cruel scenario, but it is sharply told against Parisian atmospherics that create a legitimately ironic outcome, an air of romanticism in the city of light slamming up against the harsh exchange that is the subject of the song. It's an influential character sketch where one can argue with some certitude that Jagger has done the world some delicate favor by tackling this seamy storyline.Brutal, yes, and that was Jagger's intention I believe. Writers with the instincts to create particular personas that are convincing albeit repelling generally avoid the instinct to moralize or provide sermons of any sort rendering judgment; it's more effective to have the character reveal themselves in their voices. What got my attention about the song was that it wasn't a tune talking about the glories of bedding dumb women and then disposing of them, nor was it an overromanticized ballad, a tribute, a pedestal-placing tribute to a perfect woman who captured the protagonist's heart. It was instead the narrator undisguised, unfiltered, plainly asserting what he expects, what he requires of the anonymous woman on the back street. It's an ugly appraisal, but an honest one and in some way seems an attempt by Jagger to deal with the malevolence of his persona as a libertine.