Cultural Blackface: Why should Mick Jagger get a pass?

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Male vaudevillian actor dressed as “mammy.” (ca 1910)

The press and social media have been pumping up the volume lately on a familiar song and dance. Over the last year alone, virtual fingers have been pointed at Gucci sweaters, Prada toys, even coal miners’ faces — a “triggering” presciently satirized by Sacha Baron Cohen years before it happened — alerting the public to anything that might be perceived or portrayed as blackface, literal or figurative, and duly shamed. A U.S. governor and an attorney general both narrowly escaped the political graveyard for blacking themselves up in follies of youth. So heavily has the tide of opinion turned against such acts, it’s hard to imagine a time, not long ago, when aping black people was not only socially acceptable but considered a sign of respect. Norman Mailer’s The White Negro, published in 1957, urged young Americans to become hipster existentialists by tapping into what he considered the black man’s careless attitude, jazzy sexuality, and tendency toward violence. Mailer wasn’t joking.

Roxane Gay wasn’t kidding, either, when she pointed the blackface finger at a privileged white male poet at The Nation for unwittingly offending just about every oppressed minority on the planet with a few earnest words meant in their behalf. “Treading anywhere close to blackface,” pleaded the poet in a grueling public apology for trying to achieve the tone of what, back when I studied linguistics, was called Black English, “is horrifying to me and I am profoundly regretful.” Even if his transcription of words heard spoken on street corners had been accurate, he was said to be stealing a style of speech that didn’t belong to him, and so his actions could only be presumed vaudevillian. “Don’t use AAVE,” Ms. Gay tweeted, referring to the current term for African-American Vernacular English dialects she felt had been disrespected in the poem. “Don’t even try,” she added for emphasis, waving a virtual finger.

Which brings me to my question: If a “racist” poet who didn’t know it can be taken to court in these inquisitorial times, isn’t someone like, say, Mick Jagger guilty of far worse crimes of “appropriation” and racial (read: “racist”) caricature? Why should Mick, who has made a career of doing this sort of thing on purpose, and who dresses himself in both radical chic and upper-class honorifics, get a pass?

Exhibit A: A performance typical of Jagger’s celebrated style that might be deemed “problematic” by people who use this word a lot. What could possibly raise more eyebrows on culture watchdogs who say imitation is not flattery but thievery, who warn artists to stay in their own backyards or face the music? If the bard got a good whipping in the public square, the rock star should be hanged and burned in effigy for there to be any social justice in this world, or any peace for his victims in the next.

Jagger’s attempt to sound like a deceased bluesman is hardly an isolated offense. For over a half-century Mick has been a mockingbird to any number of black styles of song and Sprechgesang, loot he plunders freely from Motown, the Deep South, and the Caribbean. Generations of adoring fans, starting long before political correctness became the norm, must have been asleep not to have noticed these brazen pastiches. Must Mick get down on a knee and belt out “My Mammy” to awaken the “woke”?

Any parrot can be parodied, though what struck me when I first saw Benny Hill’s witty 1965 mimicry of Mick was that the comic wasn’t wearing any blackface. This would have been more to my point. Not just Jagger’s singing and composing, but his whole performances are peppered with references that tread very close to minstrel shows. He says his strongest influence was the early black rock-and-roller known as Little Richard. But if you really follow Jagger’s moves, through all their entrancing permutations, familiar yet unlike anything done before him, it becomes clear he doesn’t so much want to be an effeminate black man, or even a street-fighting man. His strongest role model has been a strong black woman.

Or rather, a parody of one. How could the world have missed the “mammy” figure in just about every show Mick has ever done? Conjured up by ironic poses, she stands firmly on stage, hands on her hips, arms out to her sides, then waves a finger in your face. What did everyone think this artful gimmick was, if not a character in Gone with the Wind scolding Miss Scarlet for going out dressed like that, the inspiration behind many an “offensive” cookie jar and syrup bottle? An artist guilty of acts as systemically “triggering” as planting his own hands on his hips in an exaggerated and cartoonish stereotype invites scrutiny. I don’t care how big his lips are. When an index finger isn’t waving to shame like a mammy, it’s pointing to testify like a Baptist preacher. Never are his hands folded obediently, as mammies’ sometimes rest on their aprons.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, also known as “the glimmer twins,” have spent their lives writing and performing songs in other people’s voices and are partners in “appropriation” and caricature. Take away Sir Jagger’s knighthood. Cast the The Rolling Stones from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ban their recordings from the airwaves and iTunes, bleep them from films, erase them from the Library of Congress archives. Tweet reports of all found listening or dancing to their music. Tear down the masthead of Rolling Stone magazine referring to the same Muddy Waters song title stolen by the Stones, and by Bob Dylan. The seminal bluesman, according to Richards, once thanked five star-struck English lads, who came to pay homage in the sixties, for making his music known to the world. Years later, he invited the Stones, world-famous for piggybacking on his work and that of countless other black artists, to perform with him. Another self-loathing black man whose new name is mud.

If the new self-appointed culture watchdogs are really serious about “appropriation” and their mission to purge and purify, then they need to be consistent, thorough, and merciless. Spare no one the infamy attached to this legacy of “violence,” least of all the enablers. Boycott Scorsese, Godard, and Roeg whose films have “normalized” these acts. Banish the works of Billy Preston, a collaborator, Aretha Franklin, who helped make the Stones respect-able, and Tina Turner, who boasts she taught Mick to dance. Blacklist those who move like Jagger, starting with Steven Tyler, a cheap imitation of a cheap imitation. Blackball Patti Smith for looking conspicuously Mick-like while spitting into “Mick’s mic,” the same brand he uses, and for still using the “N” word defiantly at many concerts I’ve attended. Reconsider Gilda Radner doing Patti doing Mick doing Mammy.

Then turn the righteous on every non-black artist said to be indebted to black people (however inconceivable the hybrid work of the latter would be without Scottish hymns, the English language, electric amplification, and another little invention called tonality). Elvis Presley, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Steve Marriott, Rod Stewart, Harry Nilsson, Mitch Ryder, John Mayall, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra — every non-black rock, blues, jazz or country star — roll over a stone, and there’s fodder for finger-waving till Jesus comes.

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