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Music

Revisiting Mick Jagger's cringe-inducing collaboration with will.i.am

Watching the video to will.i.am’s 2011 single ‘The Hardest Ever’ raises all manner of questions, the first and most involuntary of which is “why, God, why?”. After the initial shock of seeing a leathery Mick Jagger throwing his 70-year-old man pouch around has subsided, however, a deeper question begins to emerge: when did big names and even bigger budgets start being more important than musical quality?

Listening to Mick Jagger’s vocals in ‘The Hardest Ever’ is a bit like seeing your dementia-ridden grandfather playing with his Johnson during Christmas dinner: it’s clear he has no idea what he’s doing, so you just sort of let him get on with it. Will.i.am’s original plan was to record the track without collaborators, but after co-producer Jimmy Iovine suggested they get some big names in to add featured vocals, he went about sourcing some of the biggest names in music, landing (much to his surprise) ’70s icon Mick Jagger.

By the time he went in to the record his vocals with Iovine, The Rolling Stones frontman had been absent as a solo act for some time. Indeed, it marked Jagger’s first step into the top 40 of the Hot 100 since his 1987 track ‘Let’s Work’ peaked at number 39. But Jagger wasn’t the only one to be bought out of retirement for ‘The Hardest Ever’. The producer worked with some of the biggest names of the ’70s but had never worked with Jagger before.

In an interview after the singles’ release in 2011, will.i.am recalled persuading Iovine to take on the job: “Jimmy was like, ‘When I was younger I wanted to be Mick Jagger. What A Tribe Called Quest is to you, that was Mick for me.’ We are talking about someone who has produced everyone and their mom from John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen. So I asked Jimmy, ‘Why don’t you produce Mick’s vocals?’ When was the last time Jimmy produced? I was like, ‘Let me bring you out of retirement'”. And thus one of the world’s most unbearably cringe-inducing songs was born.

The video for ‘The Hardest Ever’ opens with will.i.am engaging with a lovely bit of product placement. After throwing a few Rocky-style punches in a steam-filled warehouse-come gym, will.i.am pulls out his slim HTC phone and begins texting Mick Jagger. From there, we see him running through walls, riding on a BMW motorbike, and flying in a spaceship while flaunting Beats headphones (a company which Iovine himself founded). At this point, it’s pretty clear that all you’re watching is an elaborate advert soundtracked by an extended sexual innuendo. As Jennifer Lopez finishes off a belly dance, Mick Jagger emerges from the cosmic dust of a spiral galaxy to declare that he is, despite his age, “hard like a rock n roll,” and won’t be held responsible. Virile as ever, he suggests that we “move back now” because “it’s bout to blow”.

‘The Hardest Ever’ has got to be one of the most obvious examples of the ease with which music can be transformed from an art form into a vehicle of entrepreneurship. Music was always bound to be somewhere in the background of this particular musical venture, struggling to be heard amongst the swathes of industry names, green screens, and lousy lyrics. And yet, Jagger was so out of touch that he entirely fell for it; perhaps believing it might be a way of updating his image. Alas, it was not to be.