In the fortieth anniversary of the Rolling Stones, Alix Brodie wonders if the lyrics of music’s most notorious misogynists can lend something positive to the cause of contemporary feminism.
Ask anyone what they think of The Rolling Stones and you’re likely to solicit a variety of responses; the craggy faced dinosaurs of rock, the snake hipped rebels of sixties pop, old, out dated, embarrassing, resilient, not as good as / better than the Beatles. In a recent 40th anniversary edition of mojo magazine the band is described as ‘a bunch of exciting, sensuous, chauvinistic bastards […]’. And if you’ve read your feminist texts this band are one of the first lyrical anti feminists and the very voice of misogyny.
Although myself a feminist, I feel a little differently about this notorious group. Indeed, The Stones have always been a presence in my life. My parents’ driving music was the album Sticky Fingers (you’d know it if you saw it; a Warhol designed piece of shock art consisting of an erection in a pair of jeans). I’d hear time and time again of my grandparents’ reaction when after only a few weeks of going out with my mum my dad bought her the then controversial single ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’. And when I started to discover the band for myself, my mother warned me that her attachment to them had been wholly nostalgic; the stones were sexist, puerile and a bit embarrassing really. And yes, the more I heard, the more I found myself screening out those songs that made me uncomfortable about what would continue to be one of my favourite bands.
In my late teens as my appetite for reading up on feminist theory grew, I picked up various books on feminism including your basic ‘introduction to’. I was surprised to find almost a whole chapter dedicated to demonstrating the harmful effects of the viciously sexist lyrics of The Rolling Stones. In my earnestness I was saddened to consider that some of my favourite music may have to be sacrificed if I was to lead the rest of my life as a feminist thinker. I wasn’t sure if I could justify my liking of a band who were apparently ‘the enemy’.
Indeed, lyrics to songs like ‘Under My Thumb’ left me feeling angry and excluded. ‘Under my Thumb’ is perhaps the most notorious of The Stones’ sexist songs. With lyrics like these, there’s no denying it: ‘It’s down to me the difference in the clothes she wears… Under my thumb is a squirming dog that’s just had its day… It’s down to me the way she does just what she’s told… The way she talks when she’s spoken to’ – just off the top of my head. As a woman, was I barred from some invisible musical boys club? It seemed more so the more Stones albums I collected, borrowed and heard. Some were ludicrously offensive; ‘Some Girls’ ( banned by the Rev Jesse Jackson for being offensive to black women; in fact it is derogatory to every race of women), Midnight Rambler (a recreation of the murders of the Boston strangler), Stray Cat Blues (an invitation from a man for two 15 year old girls to ‘come up stairs’). And I hasten to add, these songs are not necessarily ‘ironic’. I am not using “the Eminem defence” here, and neither is Mick Jagger, who in a recent interview said “I think it was just me; I don’t think it was a role”. So why, as tapes and CDs grew dusty on the shelf and my musical horizons widened, did I still feel excited when the music of the Stones drifted to my ear? And why had so many teenage girls screamed and palpitated at the very thought of The Rolling Stones throughout the ‘sixties? Victor Bockris recounts in his book “Keith Richards” that ‘Knickers and gifts were thrown on stage every night with notes: “Call me, I’m hot for you.”‘(p 98).
One could argue the case for the post-war breeding instinct; hundreds of girls had screamed and wet their pants at the sight of all sorts of bands in the ‘sixties – good and bad. Or perhaps the rhythm of the Stones’ Rhythm and Blues style is or was, inherently sexy. Maybe it was the way Mick Jagger swaggered on stage or those suggestively over sized lips. But why was I, a de-sensitized member of generation X, still a natural fan of this band’s music – especially when it offended my feminist sensibilities? Perhaps I’m just perverse, but I found the more I forced myself to digest the lyrics of these songs, the more sure I was for the need for equality, and the more I realised how very sad a lot of the songs were. Pair ‘Under my Thumb’ with a song like ‘Heart of Stone’ (recorded in the same Stones’ era), and one gets a deeper understanding of what the songs are expressing. ‘There’ve been so many girls that I’ve known, I’ve made so many cry and so I wonder why / no matter how I try I just can’t make her cry’. What you see in songs like these is a deep sadness and disillusionment, or if you like an angst, which is expressed – as any teenager knows – through anger and through a desperate search for control. This is something I relate to personally as a woman who has grown up being manipulated by adverts, magazines and so on. I think I speak for women of my generation (early twenties) when I saw that we too want to glean an identity and space for expression which is denied to us by society’s expectations of women. One way this deep dis-satisfaction (pardon the pun) can be expressed, as I believe The Rolling Stones have done, is by aiming it at the thing which appears to be unattainable or unreceptive; love, women, and relationships.
There is no doubt that women are the target for the Stones’ dissatisfaction in many ways, but many women were behind the music co-writing, advising and influencing the band. The two women closest to the quick of The Rolling Stones’ early-mid music were one time English rose Marianne Faithful (famously demonised by the press after being present at a police bust of Keith Richards’ property Redlands dressed only in a rug; a mars bar was mentioned apparently inaccurately) and model/actress Anita Pallenberg who started out as Brian Jones’s girlfriend, moved on to Keith and also bedded Jagger ‘for real’ in the film Performance. Jagger is quoted in Victor Bockris’s biography of Keith Richards as saying, while dating who was to become Bianca Jagger, “Anita is one of the Stones now”. Indeed Bockris describes the foursome as ‘[a] harmonious collaboration’. Although Jagger in particular is known for his philandering and Richards for his traditional view of relationships, in the band’s formative years their music might have been very different without the women. Their influence is said to permeate into songs like Honky Tonk Women, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Gimme Shelter, Let it Bleed and even Midnight Rambler (although typically these whispers are greeted with doubt from macho journalists and go unacknowledged).
And for all the macho posturing that music journos bestow onto The Stones, their look is said to have influenced a heap of androgynous rock stars including New York Dolls who were famous for being transvestites. Many eyebrows have been raised about the sexuality of certain members of The Stones, especially the three founding members namely Richards, Jagger and Jones. Bockris’ biography (which is in interview format, containing the opinions of Richards and many around the Stones as well as Bockris himself) thoroughly documents the various times the Stones have been seen as feminine. It’s easy to spot that many times, Mick Jagger’s look is clearly ‘girly’ to say the least. The infamous front man was one of the first to wear obvious makeup on stage, way before glam rock. The reasons behind this whole phenomenon are probably too complex to go into here, but perhaps as with many creative men one can detect a touch of womb envy…? Perhaps this is a step too far but, the androdony of Jaggers look at least suggests that he identifies or wants to identify one some level with the feminine.
Once I listened to the songs I found what unfolded before me was a story book of male sexuality (albeit a culturally projected version). The album which ‘Under my Thumb’ is found on, Aftermath, is said to have been written in the wake of one of Jagger’s first serious relationships and what explodes upon the ear is a frank and vindictive barrage of pain; twisted and yet honest. Richard Merton gets close to my perception on the matter when he says (as quoted by Victor Bockris) “The enormous merit-and audacity-of the Stones is to have repeatedly and consistently defied what is a central taboo of the social system: mention of sexual inequality.” Merton goes on to argue that they celebrate this inequality – but the emotional disassociation and dissatisfaction I touched on earlier suggests perhaps not wholeheartedly. Contemporary culture merely masks the taboo of sexual inequality with the label ‘ironic’, making excuses for the manipulation of the female image in the media. At least The Stones’ brand of sexism is one I can respect for its utter honesty.
I’ve found that understanding the way the sexes feel about each other is fundamental to understanding what barriers there are to overcome. Also, it’s important to understand the view-point of a generation of men who shaped contemporary culture. What’s constructive about damning music in a book, or declaring a group ‘out of bounds’? I put forward the challenge to musically minded and talented women everywhere to even up the standard; imagine how much more shocking a song ‘Under my Thumb’ would be if it were sung by a woman. Maybe it’s time we expressed the darker side of female sexuality and combat anti-feminism in its current forms. I’ve learnt from The Stones that in trying to understand the nature of the beast, we can combat the conflicts which still exist within ourselves and between the sexes.