Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: 'The Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives'

Is there something inherently wrong about taking anything as visceral as Rock & Roll and holding it up to an academic analytical lens in the same way one might examine the literature of Goethe? I’m not sure, but that’s exactly what editor Helmut Staubmann does in his introduction to The Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives, using Goethe as a touchstone to lead us into the discussions that follow. With a career as rich and a cultural impact as powerful as that of The Rolling Stones, maybe it isn’t out of line to dig deeper than “Good beat; you can dance to it.” Keith Richards may believe it’s only Rock & Roll, but Mick Jagger has certainly plotted his work, career, and public persona as deviously and carefully as, say, Federico Fellini, and no one would take an academian to task for subjecting 8 ½ to sociological analysis.

So assuming we’re all cool with the idea of putting The Rolling Stones under the academic microscope, the question is: does The Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives get the job done? Is it sufficiently enlightening and insightful to justify its existence?

Well, my main problem with Sociological Perspectives is its complete lack of critical distance. These essays were apparently all written by fans, and their love for the band seems to have stunted their perspective. There’s a lot of discussion of the Stones’s “authenticity” in this book, mostly relating to their appropriation of and “dedication” to that most authentic forms of American popular music: the blues. Several of these essays would have us believe that in comparison to The Beatles, who committed such “inauthentic” crimes as wearing uniforms and acting in comedic films (as opposed to the documentaries their biggest competitors favored), The Rolling Stones were paragons of authenticity. There is little mention of how Jagger’s self-mythologizing by both inclusion—such as playing roles such as Satan and the Boston Strangler in song— and omission— such as his refusal to pen his autobiography and his insistence that the recent Crossfire Hurricane career documentary be kept well under two hours— undermines such claims of authenticity. Let’s not even get into the band’s recent pathetic attempts to appeal to a younger audience by performing with such pop-pap acts as Christina Aguilera and Taylor Swift. Where’s the authenticity in that?

Now, I’m not necessarily arguing that authenticity would be a valuable asset of The Rolling Stones. By doing such inauthentic things as manicuring an evil persona that extends far beyond the band’s actual dirty deeds, jumping on the psychedelic and disco bandwagons, and striking larger-than-life poses for an enraptured audience, The Rolling Stones have enriched their career beyond their bluesy beginnings and made themselves into the fascinating superstars they remain today. I’m just saying that biased arguments in favor of the band’s alleged inherent authenticity defuses such pieces as Cossu and Bortolini’s “The Spider and the Fly: Authenticity, Dualism, and the Rolling Stones” and Andre Millard’s “The Beatles Versus Stones Debate During the British Invasion.”

The most massive blunder of The Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives is its failure to address the band’s two most obvious sociological points of inquiry: race and gender. Though these matters have received passing mention in basically every book about the Stones I’ve ever read, race and gender above any other topics are begging for the kind of deep analysis this book should deliver. This is the band that wholly appropriated black music and went on to commit the overt offenses of “Brown Sugar” and back the Black Power movement in “Sweet Black Angel.” More than any other band they drew the misogynistic undercurrents of Rock & Roll frothing to the surface. Why did the Stones delve into these topics, and how has doing so affected our perceptions of these topics and the band ? These are the kinds of things I often wonder while grooving to “Under My Thumb” despite purporting to be a feminist. Perhaps such a discussion would have violated the completely non-critical stance of these essayists. That an essay about how sexy the Stones fans find Mick and Keith and an error-riddled one that mechanically runs down instances of masculinity in their lyrics constitute the entire unit titled “Sexuality/Gender” is a veritable insult.

The Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives is strongest in its unit on film (Downes and Madeley’s “Sympathy for the Circus: The Rolling Stones, Documentary Film, and the Construction of Authenticity,” which is the one essay that really does question the band’s authenticity, is particularly strong). Maybe this is because film analysis is a known quantity. Analyzing the sociological impact of rock stars in purely academic terms is less common. The Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives hasn’t convinced me that doing so is a waste of time or a total violation of the Rock & Roll spirit. I’m just convinced that this book too rarely enlightened me.

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