Free Research Paper About Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones was a band that sparked a phenomenon. Their move from the UK to the USA was seen as forming the vanguard of an ‘invasion’ of British Bands into America which radically altered the way music would thereafter be created in the USA. But this could not have happened without the existence of a number of events which prepared both sides of the Atlantic for the arrival of the Rolling Stones. The band was therefore as much a product of their time and space as they were an influence on it. This paper will analyze the degree to which this mutual influence set the stage for the Band’s success.
The fact that the band moved from the UK to the USA in the 1960s is worth noting. It was at this point that the countercultural revolution was taking place which was fundamentally altering the way people perceived and responded to art, music and poetry. The Beat Generation was still in full swing, headed by the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac, while the Beatles were making a name for themselves in England and Europe; in short, it was the perfect time for bands like the Rolling Stones to emerge. Iain Chambers, a noted cultural critic and Professor of Culture and Post-Colonial Studies at the Oriental Studies, has noted that the sixties was a decade of unconventional artistic heroes. While previously, the Romantic Artist was a ‘master’ of their art in terms of technique and execution, the sixties saw the artist hailed for his/her vision and execution (Chambers, 3-10). The classical mode of ‘studied’ mastery was long outdated and ‘spontaneous’ bands such as the Rolling Stones were on the rise. However, this binary between ‘serious’ and ‘pop’ is not quite as rigid as it might appear at first. Numerous parallel forces were shaping society and changing the way people thought and felt. The second wave of Feminism radically changed Western World’s understanding of gender and the role it played in the formation of culture; while innumerable counter-discourses came into the picture,. With this plethora of cultural and academic jargon, it is tempting to box the Rolling Stones into a category of overt male sexuality with a clear counter-cultural base. But, it can be argued that the rock and roll scene (at least as far as the Rolling Stones and bands like it are concerned) defied such classification on many levels. Robert Palmer, who was a journalist and music critic for the New York Times, provided an excellent analysis of just these aspects of the band. Palmer argued that the Rolling Stones transcended the level of pop culture through their incorporation of Rhythm-and-blues and Soul Music. This is partly due to the fact that the Rolling Stones was a very long-lived band. By the early 80s, they had outlasted many bands of their generation (including the Beatles) and established a large and loyal fan-base. Palmer also noted that the production of music records was relatively cheap and widespread which meant that their music had a much higher penetration than almost any music which had been produced before them. This higher penetration meant that the band’s work a point of contact between many different social levels – it produced a vocabulary to further embellish the counterculture into which it was born.
This interpretation is quite similar to Raymond Williams’s idea that culture is a base of knowledge for an entire society/community (Williams 92-100). Williams was a noted Welsh critic of culture and is best know for his defense of ‘common’ culture. He argued that as ‘great’ culture becomes more accessible, the arts become more democratic which in turn is beneficial to whatever the ends the arts seek to achieve. A second look at Palmer’s characterization of the band shows that there was a certain ‘elitizing’ of their music insomuch as a knowledge of Rhythm-and-blues and Soul music is essential for anyone who wished to seriously listen to and understand their music. This stance is more similar to the one taken by Theodore Adorno in his famous essay Culture Industry. Adrono was another great critic of culture and famously took the opposing stance to Williams’s understanding of culture. He claimed that culture is in a state of deterioration due to the very democratization which Williams praised so highly. If ‘high art’ is made too accessible, it becomes commonplace and loses its value.
Despite the strongly contrary positions which Williams and Adorno take, if one were to study them side by side one sees an interesting dialectic emerging. According to the Marxian/Hegelian paradigm, where the thesis and the anti-thesis collide, a synthesis is formed. It can be argued that, in this particular case, the synthesis is the Rolling Stones. As noted earlier, Palmer claimed that the band was rooted in a tradition (or a musical discourse discourse) which gave it an elitist standing insomuch that one cannot fully appreciate the band without first understanding the music which preceded it, but at the same time, due to its enormous popularity and the emergence of new technology to record and reproduce music, the Rolling Stones became part of the ‘knowledge platform’ as described by Williams. This put the Rolling Stones in a unique position. Up until then an artist was either elite or popular but almost never both. This put a stopper on their power and influence over society. But with the Rolling Stones, this line blurred, and they became a powerful social force.
Both Adorno and Williams have acknowledged (somewhat convolutedly) that where there is power, there is politics. To better understand the political side of the Rolling Stones it might be a good idea to analyze a few of their songs. One of their most famous singles is Tell Me (The Rolling Stones Song) – a pop ballad about lost love and the man trying to win back the woman. On the surface it quite clearly conforms to the idea stated earlier that the Rolling Stones was part of an era where male sexuality and power were on display and glorified. However, a closer look at the lyrics changes this. The typically male power of rationality is given to the woman (in the line “I know you find it hard to reason with me”) which puts the woman in quite a different position than the one she would have occupied in the Romantic ballads of earlier English poetry and songs. This idea that it was not only the woman who chose to break up with the man and that it is the man who must make amends and raise himself up to the level of the woman is revolutionary. It signaled that the era was one where men and women were no longer on different levels of social and political power, but were equals and therefore were both capable of making mistakes and of rectifying them.
Another interesting song to look at is Lady Jane. This song portrays a highly level of male power; this time in the realm of marriage. Once again, this is only a very superficial view of the song. Rather than writing it off as yet another highly sexual piece, one must look a little closer at the lyrics and music. The language used was clearly designed to invoke an Elizabethan atmosphere – even the original studio album included a dulcimer but omitted drums. This is important for several reasons. Firstly, the Elizabethan era was one where Chivalry had all but died out, but the courtly traditions of romance were still more or less intact. This meant that under the glistening surface of prim and refined surface of court life, there was a seedy underbelly of immorality. This underbelly is humorously turned upside down where the narrator, though trying to be gentlemanly, shows that he is nothing more than a seducer with little thought for morals. Yet, in spite of this, the narrator would emerge on the right side of law and social morality because of his talk of marriage or ‘pledging his troth’. This clearly shows that the song is not simply about gender biases but is, in fact, a subversion of the institution of marriage. It is curious to see that while the song begins with the narrator addressing Lady Jane directly, he soon shifts his gaze to the other women. Clearly, it was more than kindness and sympathy which drove the narrator to make such excessively polite apologies to the other Ladies. It is almost as if he had promised marriage to all three ladies but then made his pick of them and chose Lady Jane over the others.
Both of these songs clearly show that the Rolling Stones did not waft across the Atlantic ocean on an English cloud to spread English sensibilities across the USA, rather they show that the band was intricately and deeply connected to the socio-political and economic facets of American life. Tell Me (The Rolling Stones Songs) fits perfectly into the mold of the Second Wave of Feminism with its inherent idea of gender equality, while Lady Jane, though clearly feeding of a British troupe, is in line with the Hippie movement and its ideas of free love and freedom in general.
At this point, a chicken-and-egg conundrum develops. This is because regardless of how well the band incorporated American influences, they always remained British at heart. The traditions of British Rock music were always clear and evident in their songs which later trickled into the American cultural psyche and were absorbed by it. To say that the Rolling Stone’s success was hinged entirely on their success at incorporating American influences into their music would simplify or even trivialize the matter. Just as bands such as Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin later brought the traditions of Heavy Metal music from Britain to America, it can be argued that the Rolling Stones had brought a lot of the Rock-and-Roll culture to the USA which is now seen as typically American. This is possibly why the Rolling Stones became such a phenomenon in the USA. Moreover, the mid-twentieth century was marked by a ‘search’ for newer experiences in Western culture. In particular, it was marked by the West looking further and further East for artistic inspiration. Naturally, the first stop off for this search for Americans was Britain. Britain was (and many argue that it still is) the cultural motherland of the USA. After a long separation from the England after Independence, Britain held a certain ‘exotic’ element for Americans – it was a society (and a culture) which was remarkably similar to their own, yet very different. This view that England and the English were in some way ‘exotic’ helped create the image of the band which gave them much of their popularity (Kimball 100-120).
Aside from popularity, the fact that the band had an ‘exotic’ element meant that they (or at least their name) were ideal for use as a cultural emblem. Perhaps the best known of these cultural emblems today is the magazine which shares the band’s name – The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones magazine is one of the most popular and widely read music-related magazines in the USA and has a global reputation as having a particularly discerning ear for good music. The founder and (still) editor of the magazine, Jann Wenner, has acknowledged his indebtedness to the band for the name and inspiration of the magazine. Although it has been criticized for its bias towards the music of the sixties and seventies, its continued popularity has shown that there is substance and reason behind this bias. Clearly, the events which occurred in the American music scene in the sixties and seventies left an indelible mark on the American psyche and has become part and parcel of the Americana. This very name Rolling Stones, shares a huge load of semiotic value – there are two other hugely popular songs (the Blues song Rollin’ Stone and Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone) which influenced the founder’s decision to name the magazine thus. Analyzing the image of a Rolling Stone is very important if one is to understand why this name became so famous and so popular. A stone is a stationary object. Unlike a rock, it implies that a human hand has been at work on it and has crafted it so that it does not move. The fact that it is ‘Rolling’ is important as it shows that the people it describes is one which was meant to be stationary, but was forced into motion. This idea is echoed throughout American art, music, prose and poetry in the mid-twentieth century. From Kerouac’s book On The Road to Ginsberg’s Howl the image of the American forced to move in search of something is a powerful one. A whole genre of music was named with this image in the background – Rock and Roll. Lastly, the fact that the Rolling Stones ‘migrated’ from the UK to the USA underscores this meaning in the phrase – there is a fluid dialectic which formed which is still in action today.
With this huge amount of socio-political, cultural, economic, and even semiotic luggage, it is easy to see how and why the Rolling Stones became a phenomenon in the USA. One cannot argue that it was American culture alone which ‘produced’ the Rolling Stones, but neither can one argue that the Rolling Stones influenced American culture without being changed itself. All things considered, only satisfactory conclusion which can be drawn from this analysis is that the Rolling Stones and America influenced each other. The ‘fluid dialectic’ which formed was not simply a result of grafting a British band into an American setting; instead, it is a result of a long process of influencing and being influenced which has created the American culture which the World knows today.
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