The Rolling Stones debuted “Brown Sugar” at Altamont in 1969. It’s the first track and lead single off the 1971 album Sticky Fingers. This week, the band announced a new 15-date tour to coincide with a deluxe reissue this May. Right now, thousands of people are preparing to dance while jubilantly singing about slavery, heroin, cunnilingus, and rape.
“Brown Sugar” is gross, sexist, and stunningly offensive toward black women. Some of the lyrics (Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright / Hear him whip the women just around midnight) are so bad that Mick Jagger changes them during shows. It’s not the first time he’s censored the song. It was originally titled “Black Pussy.” Jagger, during a rare moment of clearheadedness in 1969, decided that was too “nitty-gritty” and nixed it. Everything else — the misogyny, the racism, the sexism, the references to drugs and cunnilingus — would stay. Since then, it’s been called one of the nastiest, most controversial, and racist songs of all time.
To help mitigate some of the criticism, the Rolling Stones often emphasize how quickly the song was written, as if its dirty, offensive nature was an accident or an act of the subconscious mind. In Keith Richards’ Life, Jim Dickerson says “Brown Sugar” was written in forty-five minutes. “It was disgusting.” Jagger says he wrote the song in Australia while filming Ned Kelly. “God knows what I’m on about in that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go,” he told Rolling Stone in 1995. It was a “very instant thing.” The explicit content, an afterthought.
If the Rolling Stones released “Brown Sugar” today, no matter how quickly they wrote the song, the backlash would be instant. Twitter would lampoon them with carefully thought out hashtags. Multiple Change.org petitions would be signed. The band would be forced to issue an apology. (“It’s only rock and roll, and we’re very sorry we offended you.”) Many songs from the apex of their career, were they released today, would receive a similar treatment, including tracks like “Stray Cat Blues,” a song about a 15-year-old girl, and “Under My Thumb,” a catchy little number about male aggression.
When I hear “Brown Sugar,” the outrage hits me like a postscript, and by that point I’m too busy clapping and singing along to be indignant. I don’t start to feel uncomfortable until Jagger asks, “Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good? / Ah, got me feelin’ now for brown sugar, just like a black girl should.” I can’t sing those lines without feeling gross and objectified. But it’s okay to love a song and to hate it at the same time. I feel this way about a lot of rap music, too. Migos, for example, has elevated some of the most offensive tropes found in rap to new heights. I love Migos! Not because they can be misogynistic or crude — they can be, and they have a sensitive side as well — but because they’re not trying to be anything other than what inspires them as artists. Everything after that, assuming there is no weird agenda or subterfuge involved, is fair game.
Trampling on every song because it’s offensive is like “treating dandruff by decapitation,” as Frank Zappa once said. Every person has different tolerance levels on this issue, but limiting what’s acceptable in music and art undoubtedly threatens its power to create and transform. I appreciate that the Stones edited the lyrics to “Brown Sugar” — “black girl” was substituted with the suboptimal “young girl” in later recordings — to help ease some of the tension and awkwardness, but I’m fine listening to the original, uncensored version. Its disturbing lyrics bother me, but lyrics aren’t the only thing it has to offer. It’s a great rock and roll song. It opens with a simple guitar riff before sliding into a mesmerizing groove. The impulse to dance is immediate. There’s a little bit of twang, but the backbone is pure rhythm and blues. The acoustic guitar and horns play off each other perfectly. There’s the easy tempo and that unforgettable and, yes, sometimes grating, chorus. Bands have tried to recreate it, but no one does it like the Rolling Stones.
“I never would write that song now,” Jagger said in ‘95. “I would probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop. I can’t just write raw like that.’” Perhaps that’s the key to its greatness, though. It came like lightning: raw, and the band just went with it. They didn’t stop to think about who they might offend and how. The song wasn’t made that way. Good music isn’t made that way. It’s a sweet luxury, and every artist deserves to have it.
*An earlier version of this article misquoted the lyric, “Hear him with the women just around midnight.” The correct lyric is, “Hear him whip the women just around midnight.”