November 10, 2021
The New York Times ran a guest opinion piece last week titled “Should Classic Rock Songs Be Toppled Like Confederate Statues?” It subsequently retitled the op-ed to reflect more of what the article postulates: “Can We Separate the Art From the Artist?”
The author fixates the brunt of her ire on Don McLean’s ’70s folk-rock ballad, “American Pie” (coinciding with the anthemic record’s 50th anniversary), and laments on the song’s inclusion in our cultural canon in light of Mclean’s domestic abuse plea.
Drawing parallels between ’70s music and Civil War history, she writes, “The past several years have seen a reassessment of our country’s many mythologies — from the legends of the generals of the Confederacy to the historical glossing over of slaveholding founding fathers. But as we take another look at the sins of our historical figures, we’ve also had to take a hard look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of the creators of pop culture.”
What the author fails to see is that tearing down century-old statues only serves to erase history. It doesn’t educate anyone about the rights or wrongs from that era. It is this blithe indifference to history that led to the toppling of former president and ardent slavery abolitionist Ulysses S. Grant’s statue. When everyone and everything in the past is categorically pigeonholed as “problematic,” the result is a scorched earth campaign against a common culture and history.
The New York Times author then pivots her attention to classic rock more broadly, going after the Rolling Stones: “There are a lot of things I revere about ‘Brown Sugar,’ and Mr. Richards’s guitar riffs not least.” Ironically, “Brown Sugar” is the only iconic Stones riff written by Mick Jagger, not Keith Richards.
The sleazy blues-rock arrangement portrayed Jagger’s then-interpretation of white guys’ fetish for black girls as a deeper desire for subjugating a slave — something only the cocaine-fueled-and-addled mind of Jagger could whip up in 1969.
Though the Stones have played the song at virtually every concert since the early ’70s, in the latest leg of their No Filter Tour, they dropped the controversial hit, shortening their set list, with no official statement.
“If the Stones don’t know why the song has to go, does simply removing it from their tour sheet go far enough?” asks the author.
Though she doesn’t say what would go far enough, the implication is a long-winded apology from the Stones. But viewing fragments of a bygone culture through a modern lens requires context. If you analyze the lyrics of “Brown Sugar” by pretending it was written today, the inevitable conclusion will be to hound its artists for an explanation.
She goes on to write, “I want to live in a world where I can be moved by art and music and literature without having to come up with elaborate apologies for that work or for its creators.”
Where do you draw the line? Should symphonic orchestras worldwide cease conducting “Siegfried Idyll” because Richard Wagner was an antisemite? Should we strip Pablo Picasso’s canvasses off museum walls because his misogynistic tirades make Mick Jagger’s “Under My Thumb” read like Sylvia Plath?
If we start weeding out art by holding it to the increasingly progressive moral standards of the modern era, we’ll be left with a hollow culture bereft of any depth or meaning.
Oscar Wilde, in the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book; books are well written or badly written. That is all.”
Great art is timeless; it transcends the foibles of its artists. Art, such as Johannes Brahms’s piano concertos or Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, can be perfect. People, on the other hand, are incapable of perfection — hence, why we shouldn’t idolize celebrities or guitar-wielding folk heroes, no matter how deeply their music resonates with us.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner