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(Credit: Far Out / Bert Voerhoff)


Was The Rolling Stones song ‘Brown Sugar’ really cancelled?


“Next up they’ll want to cancel Woody the Woodpecker because all three elements of his name could refer to male genitalia,” was one of the comments posted under a piece we ran last year about the racist Rolling Stones song ‘Brown Sugar’. Admittedly, it would’ve been a funny comment if it hadn’t already been regurgitated a thousand times over in years gone by until the point that it has become memefied.

Although it might have been unoriginal and unrelated, at least it wasn’t as sensationalist, point-missing or as pointless as some of those espoused by well-known commentators when The Rolling Stones eventually decided to remove the song from their setlist for forthcoming performances. 

Piers Morgan, naturally, was one of the first to voice his firm opinion on the matter, describing the cancellation as a “woke-fuelled narrative” as people incorrectly decided the “song IS racist, so the Stones are therefore racist, and they’ve abandoned performing it because they accept these assertions.”

The uncomfortable reality of The Rolling Stones song ‘Brown Sugar’

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In actual fact, Mick Jagger commented in the Los Angeles Times interview that led to the furore, “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, we’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes. We might put it back in.”  

What’s more, he had previously commented in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, “I never would write that song now. 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.’” This surely stands as evidence that the controversy surrounding the track was festering long before the internet ‘woke brigade’ came marching along. 

In fact, even way back in 1978, when Jagger was asked by NBC News to comment on remarks by critics that he had a penchant to sing about racist, paedophilic or sexist subjects, he slurred, “The next [record] is going to be more racist and more sexist, and it is going to be a whole bunch better.” 

Contextually, his comments clearly had a punk undertone to them. However, now most of the band are 78 years old and the snarling punk movement was over 40 years ago. The times have changed, and it is the duty of an artist to change along with them. This doesn’t mean that art itself has to modify, the Stones didn’t revise and butcher the 51-year-old song with some sort of revisionist rework, they simply dropped it from their set.

After all, they had played the song a reported 1137 times since it was debuted originally under the name ‘Black Pussy’. In my view, removing the song from their set at this stage didn’t constitute a cancellation and all the nettlesome undertones that come along with that phrase.

Dropping the track was simply a group of elderly white millionaires deciding not to play a song live at their concerts anymore because it might offend some people in attendance owing to the fact that it references the racial genocide of 12 million slaves – which we are still having to reconcile and ameliorate – with searing guitar work and gyrating hips. That is hardly a cancellation. It’s not like the subsequent shows didn’t sell out for £85 in a flash. However, somehow the simple decision to retire a song and replace it with another classic from their massive repertoire was met with uproar.

Frankly, I think most people in attendance at forthcoming shows will be glad that ‘Brown Sugar’ has been dropped. Regardless of if you personally think it is racist or not, it is certainly uncomfortable. And that is the point most often missed by those who ardently proclaim that it is a disgrace that the woke brigade have cancelled a classic—the song still exists, you can be enjoying it yourself within ten seconds if you so wish, but surely it makes it a better, more enjoyable and more welcoming gig for everyone if offense is avoided where it can be? To put it very simply, it’s simply nicer that way.

With all due respect to the Stones and their monumental achievements in music, at nearly 80 they are not pushing the envelope of culture anymore. Their decision to drop the track was a creditable one based on soundness that put the conscience of their fanbase first. Whereas, performing the song would be far from a great stride forward for the arts.

However, the fact that this caused such uproar as people defended the pointless will to offend with a song that has had its day under the guise of protecting art in some nebulous way was troubling? This isn’t some daring stand up comedy where you know what you’re getting yourself in for. Surely you’d prefer to be at a more inclusive show devoid of awkward controversy? Wouldn’t you?

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