Cory Franklin, the physician, clear and challenging thinker, writer and friend has written many fine op-ed pieces for many publications, from The New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune and Sun Times. Today it is my pleasure to welcome his fine work to johnkassnews.com
By Cory Franklin
Paul McCartney was asked recently what he thought of the Rolling Stones. Paul, getting a bit bitchy in his dotage, remarked, “They’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are.” Mick Jagger, never one to ignore a slight, retorted, “The Rolling Stones are a big concert band in other decades and other eras, when the Beatles never even did an arena tour… The Stones started doing stadium gigs in the ’70s and are still doing them now. That’s the real big difference between these two bands. One band is unbelievably luckily still playing in stadiums, and then the other band doesn’t exist.”
Regardless of your musical preference, Jagger unwittingly makes a point that is not about music. From the standpoint of a performing band, The Beatles have been defunct for more than a half century, while the Rolling Stones remain a thriving business enterprise. And as a thriving business enterprise, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and crew were recently coerced into making an important business decision.
After significant protest on social media, the group has stopped playing the classic “Brown Sugar” on their North American tour. The song, written in 1969 and released in 1971, is about slavery, a slave ship, and sexual violence (no one would ever confuse the Rolling Stones with Noel Coward or Cole Porter in the realm of sophisticated songwriting). This is no small concession – Rolling Stone magazine ranked Brown Sugar number 495 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and number 5 on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.
Such accolades did little to appease those who lurk on the Web, hunting for anything that might suggest a transgression of wokeness. And “Brown Sugar” was right in that wheelhouse. According to the Daily Mail, “an organized group of woke activists systematically targeted hundreds of thousands of devotees around the world by infiltrating their online fan club. . . and relentlessly hammering fans and discussion threads with angry political trolling posts slamming the song’s reference to slavery.”
Thus, the business decision of the Stones takes on the earmarks of, if not censorship, certainly its first cousin, cancellation. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger seem to have been taken by surprise – “gobsmacked” in the British vernacular – by the whole episode. “I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery?” Richards said to the Los Angeles Times. “But they’re trying to bury it. At the moment I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this s— … But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.”
Jagger was slightly more phlegmatic about the row and said, “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,’” he said. “We might put it back in.”
Don’t bet money on it. “Brown Sugar”, as performed by the Rolling Stones has likely entered music purgatory along with Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.”
You can still hear recordings of both iconic songs, but you will have to make an effort. That effort will get harder as time passes, and pretty soon the performances are erased from the public consciousness, as if they never existed. George Orwell would consider this censorship via “memory hole.”
Orwell would in fact be quite familiar with the stench of totalitarianism here. He witnessed the strict control of art and music by the Nazis. In their effort to create an Aryan society, they identified certain forms of art and music as degenerate, basically anything that did not reflect their culture. Such art and music had to be expunged.
Not to be outdone, the Soviets also practiced content censorship, beginning long before World War II and continuing throughout the Cold War. Lenin explained how art had to function in service to the State, “”Every artist, everyone who considers himself an artist, has the right to create freely according to his ideal, independently of everything. However, we are Communists and we must not stand with folded hands and let chaos develop as it pleases. We must systemically guide this process and form its result.”
There is no small amount of irony in calls to censor the Rolling Stones, never known to be models of decorum. In 1967, Ed Sullivan ordered them not to sing the lyrics “let’s spend the night together” on his popular television show. They complied and changed the lyric to “let’s spend some time together” for the show. On camera, Mick Jagger eyerolled and smirked his way through the anodyne lyric.
In 2006, the NFL asked the Stones to tone down some lyrics during the halftime show of Super Bowl XL. They agreed to have Jagger’s mic turned down during the questionable lines, and the contretemps was quickly forgotten. These were both one-offs to please large television audiences and sponsors. After both incidents, the Stones were soon back on their merry way. The Stones, once the “bad boys of rock and roll,” forfeited that title to more wayward bands long ago. It is only now, when they have become respectable, that they face the threat of cancellation.
The call for the Rolling Stones to stop playing “Brown Sugar” has been traced to a 2019 op-ed written by music producer Ian Brennan in the Chicago Tribune, who wrote, “This is not a call for censorship or curtailing of artistic speech, but a plea for superstars to accept at least a fraction of accountability for their words as the rest of us…For anyone remaining an apologist for ‘the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world,’ I challenge you to speak the lyrics to “Brown Sugar” in its entirety aloud and irony-free before a diverse group of strangers. Go ahead, I dare you.”
A couple of points here. The standard that Ian Brennan puts forth – curtailing speech if you can’t speak the lyrics before a diverse group of strangers – doesn’t seem like a particularly consistent one. One can only imagine what a diverse group of strangers would think of the spoken lyrics of many of today’s popular rap songs. Those lyrics would make Brown Sugar sound like a Methodist hymn, and there aren’t many proposals today to ban those songs or artists, nor should there be.
Like so many in the woke movement, Brennan denies exactly what he really means to do. Of course, he does not call for censorship in the sense of Nazi degenerate art or Soviet music in the service of the State. Heaven forfend! That would be embarrassing to a progressive. So he has absorbed the lesson the totalitarians learned early on, which is that State-sponsored censorship is messy and can be difficult to enforce. The totalitarians knew well there is a better way of censorship, and it is the type Brennan calls for that has the Rolling Stones in the cross-hairs today.
Much easier and more effective, there is no censorship like encouraging self-censorship.
Cory Franklin is a doctor who was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for over 25 years. An editorial board contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed page, he writes freelance medical and non-medical articles. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” His YouTube podcast Rememberingthepassed has received 900,000 hits to date. He published Chicago Flashbulbs in 2013, Cook County ICU: 30 Years Of Unforgettable Patients And Odd Cases in 2015, and most recently coauthored, A Guide to Writing College Admission Essays: Practical Advice for Students and Parents in 2021.