While they were cultural rebels of a sort in the 1960s, the more enduring focus of the Rolling Stones’ career has been riding the latest trends, whether in fashion, politics, or even music, and dressing it up as rebellion. They never rebelled against anything without knowing that there was plenty of wind at their back, whether it was the commercial potential of 1960s youth culture or the lockstep anti-Bushism of today’s pop music community.
Their new song, “Sweet Neo Con,” is a phoned-in political commentary if there ever was one, and a reminder that the Stones have always been more risk averse than their fabled reputation suggests. Bush bashing offers its practitioners renegade status at virtually no cost. It’s a wonder the Stones didn’t invent it.
Though powered by a vintage Stones backbeat, “Sweet Neo Con” is remarkably trite, like something Limp Bizkit might have written after hanging out with the Dixie Chicks:
You call yourself a Christian,
I call you a hypocrite
You call yourself a patriot
Well I think you’re full of s—
The Stones didn’t start out playing so safe. They are rightly credited as the most successful amalgamator of blues and R&B into the DNA of most subsequent rock and roll. And they were clever enough to market themselves as rock’s bad boys, an exaggerated pose meant to counteract the early Beatles’ cherubic image, itself an exaggeration.
Since those early days, though, the Stones have usually looked elsewhere for cues, and in the ’60s, those often came from the Beatles. When Lennon and McCartney unplugged and went introspective, so did the Stones. When the Beatles went psychedelic and released their most dated album — Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — the Stones donned similar garb and released Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was dated about five minutes after it hit the record bin. Probably the best example of what separated the two groups came in the watershed year of 1968. While the Stones marched to the beat of the noisy left with “Street Fighting Man,” the Beatles had enough independence to sneer at the radicals in “Revolution.” (Unfortunately, John Lennon’s political skepticism was short lived.)
In the early ’70s, when glam rock and androgynous front men were the vogue, Mick Jagger dressed accordingly and perfected his strut. Later in the decade, when disco and punk briefly threatened to crowd out traditional rock, Jagger decided to turn the Stones into a harder version of the Bee Gees. How bitter a pill that must have been; the Bee Gees had been around almost as long as the Stones, and had never been able to call the tune before. But with the Beatles long gone, someone had to provide direction for Mick and his wheezing cohort of recidivist druggies.
In the ’80s, the Stones’ Me Too ears were still sharp enough to integrate the decade’s synthetic sound into a rant about Central American politics, then a hot topic on the rock scene. In the early ’90s, they rushed into the studio to record “Highwire,” about the pending Gulf War. The song was criticized for not being sufficiently oppositional, showing that you can never satisfy some people. Blowing with the wind for 40 years isn’t as easy as it looks. “Highwire” did a good job of parroting the antiwar line:
We sell ’em missiles, We sell ’em tanks
We give ’em credit, You can call the bank
It’s just a business, You can pay us in crude
You’ll love these toys, just go play out your feuds
Now comes “Sweet Neo Con,” which has prompted some nervousness about a backlash against the group in the U.S. Even Keith Richards has expressed reservations, pointing out that he actually lives in the States, whereas Jagger does not. And “Sweet Neo Con” is not the group’s only venture into politics; another new song comments on Abu Ghraib. There must be a reference to Guantanamo lurking somewhere on the album.
It seems unlikely that the Stones’ audience will be put off by Jagger’s boilerplate politics. Fans attend the concerts to hear old songs, not new ones, and if “Sweet Neo Con” causes problems, the ever-adaptable Jagger will banish it from the setlist, if it is included in the first place.
After all, the Stones, notwithstanding the title of one of their most famous tunes, have always been dedicated to giving people what they want, not what they need. Such has been the career of rock’s greatest, uh, rebels.
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