So last night I'm listening to It's Only Rock 'n Roll, which seems to be one of the only Rolling Stones records that has a reputation for not having any kind of reputation at all. Kind of like Black Sabbath's Volume 4, IORnR(pronounce that for me, win a prize if I think it's funny) is an album full of things that you associate with the Rolling Stones, nothing more and nothing less. You get a hit single, a Motown cover, a couple ballads, misogyny liberally sprinkled throughout, a few songs that go on for way too long and a little bit of "check it out, we're talking about balls" type of humor for good measure. It surpasses expectations only in that you could not have imagined your expectations being so remarkably met.
And then right in the middle you get "Luxury", and boy howdy is this fucker a real puzzler. It's not something that you'd be entirely surprised to hear the Rolling Stones do, but that doesn't make you any less confused when you actually hear it.
Too scared to click the link? Basically, this is the Rolling Stones attempting to do reggae. And when I say attempting to do reggae, I don't mean that they're doing an "Ob La Di, Ob La Da" kind of thing. I mean that they are tackling the genre in the most lunatic fashion you can think of: They ignore everything that makes the genre musically unique and then Mick Jagger tries to sing like a Jamaican man. I mean he really fucking tries his hardest to sound like he was born and raised in Jamaica. I mean he sings lines like "Make a meelion for de Texans, twenny dolla me/I workin' so hard, I workin for de companee".
When you register that Mick Jagger is trying to imitate a poor person from Jamaica, your brain will scream. It’s not exactly that it’s racist; it’s that Jamaican patois and the Rolling Stones fit together like ham and popsicles. Take a minute to read over the lyrics and think about it, though. “Luxury” is an attempt to do something that very few other songs will dare to even think about: Actually getting into the shoes of wildly divergent culture or social class than your own.
Irish musicians do this kind of thing a lot-sing about working in the coal mines, working on the railroad-but in general, Celtic folk and punk, when they do bring these things up, talk about the toil and hard work that their ancestors engaged in. Can you think of another rock song that tries to empathize with a working culture that’s nowhere close to the singer’s own(Jagger came from a decidedly middle class family), much less one that’s composed of a different ethnicity, much less one that’s attempting to present the material like somebody from the song’s situation might do so? In other words, you point me to the song where Neil Young tries to sing like a Chinese factory worker and I will eat the nastiest thing I can find in my home.
Now, once again, this is important: Does it work? It depends on how you think of it, but it’s completely arguable that no, it does not. Jagger definitely lays it on pretty thick and it comes across as a little offensive at points. It’s possible that this song would have been a success, or at least connected with a few more people than it did, if he just sang it in his regular voice. But it’s important to note that he adapts voices whenever he tries to fit any kind of specific role in a song-he sings with a southern drawl through many of the songs about working class people during Beggars Banquet, as an example. And more to the point, it’s interesting. How much would it whack you upside the head to hear Jay-Z sing from the perspective of a white bus driver in Chicago, or hear the Mars Volta do a concept album about a Tokyo schoolteacher, and then approach performing the songs like their subject material might? Would it be a success? Probably not, but would it be interesting? Shit, I’d take something ridiculous and possibly offensive but adventurous in a heartbeat over whatever Three Days Grace is doing right now.
“Luxury” struck me not only because it was approaching song storytelling in a way that I hadn’t seen in popular music before, but also because it was buried underneath a concrete slab of aggressively normal rock and roll. It makes you wonder what other little sparks of Different the world might be missing out on. It also makes you wonder where the line is, and if we can’t think about screwing around with it a little bit to see what works and what doesn’t. Music doesn’t have any real rules-it never did, and if the Rolling Stones can take that into account than there’s no reason why the rest of the rock world shouldn’t show a little hustle, too.