A New Year’s Resolution and meditation on why danger is important to art
I just saw the first time Sympathy for the Devil was played live. I highly suggest you stop NOW and watch the video below before reading my essay so you can experience it’s purity and danger before I ruin it by talking about it. I said NOW. You need danger like this in your life. NOW.
This is an incendiary work of art on so many levels, not just for its brilliant lyrics. After it has worn a groove in your soul through hearing it for decades, becoming just another greatest hit, it is hard to imagine the power this song had on its release in the late 60s.
This was cultural subversion, it dealt w sounds and words that had not been heard before. It broke ground, it helped lead a cultural revolution. Soon, it would get even darker at Altamont where a young black man was stabbed by Hell’s Angels shortly after it played. The song took on mythic status and there was no bigger fuck you to the man, to the normal life, even to the goodness of the Beatles who were the Stones main competition.
There was a tension back in the day, a schism where you were a Beatles fan or a Stones fan, there was some overlap, but it began a split between the happy hippie drug lifestyle of acid and the darker more painful angst of heroin addiction. Between love-ins and fucking. Between utopia and dystopia.
The danger was real. Within months Jones would be dead, drowned in a mysterious swimming pool accident. In another video from this night he is clearly fucked up.
This danger was not without casualty but it was a darkness that produced great works of art. We used to joke about how shallow our record collection would be without the addition of heroin. I do not argue you have to put your body through that trauma to be a good artist, good, even great art can be produced by healthy, happy people. But dangerous art? I am not so sure.
In 2020, however, danger is verboten. Antifa has taken up the role of street fighting men, but they are joyless ciphers who have lost their humanity. They mainline the danger of fighting cops but to what end? PTSD and anonymity that will fade as soon as the riots stop. It is ephemeral, it is not great nor dangerous art. It will never have the power to subvert or change the world like Sympathy for the Devil or the Rolling Stones did.
Now that we live in a world of social justice scolding and ostracism will we ever have dangerous art again? Will it ever be permissible to make work like the Stones did? And what will we lose if we cannot? It is a problem I have been thinking on, especially as it relates to comedy, which is the ultimate tightrope act of saying fuck you to society, when done well.
For a while I had a problem listening to the Stones. When I was in the depth of my SJW phase, I could no longer enjoy them because of songs like Under My Thumb or Brown Sugar, to my ears they were anachronisms, and even if I avoided that specific material, the Stones did have a streak of misogyny running through their a lot of their work. I have reconciled that, and refuse to let it bother me, though I do avoid the cringe-fests of Under My Thumb.
They have always been accused of cultural appropriation/colonialism but I do not buy that. They sang the blues out of love, homage and deep appreciation, they took an art form they loved and shared it with the world. In doing so it brought many fans to the source material, which was listened to with the same respect the Stones had for it. They broke down racial barriers in a way the anti-racists can only dream of.
The videos of Sympathy for the Devil and Salt of the Earth are from a rock and roll show/party the Stones put on in December of 1968 called the Rock and Roll Circus. The remastered footage has only recently been released, reportedly Mick Jagger was unhappy with the night, feeling he was upstaged by the Who.
I have not seen their portion of the show, but it is hard to imagine how he could possibly feel that way after seeing these cuts as he is absolutely killing it. I am more a Keith Richard gal, but Jagger is commanding, his sexuality palpable. You want to throw your wet panties at the screen, even if you are a man. Look at how much John Lennon is loving it.
I mean look at him. How he dances. Fuck. He is so feline, so feminine, so manly, so perfect. And then how in Sympathy Jagger makes the big reveal to show Satan on his chest. In these modern days where everyone has Satan tattooed on their chest it is hard to imagine just how fucking subversive, and dangerous, this is. The problem with danger though, is you need to keep upping the ante to get the same kick. So where do you go? What does the modern rock star do to equal this?
Rebel. Like artists have always done. It is the job of artists to say fuck you. To society, to the mainstream, to the expected. It has never been a more fertile time to say fuck you. There are so many things to say fuck you to, especially the new Woke Puritanism.
It does not take much to offend those with a hair trigger, and I suggest, I exhort, I beg, artists, now is your time to reverse this course and make unsafe spaces where we can explore all sides of our humanity.
My kid once asked my why I rebel so much, why is it my default position? It is because I had to, it was the only way out. It was because people like the Stones and notably Bruce Springsteen were role models in my move from trailer trash to the creative class. I lived in abuse and if I had not rebelled I would have become an abuser too. I lived in a dying city, and if I did not rebel and get out, I would have been trapped there. Born to Run was a message I had to internalize or face the death of my soul, if not my body as well.
Who is providing the templates now for this rebellion? Who is allowed to explore these areas? How can anyone even try given the strength and ubiquity of cancel culture?
We have to turn back to art and reclaim danger as a life principle. I am not advocating self harm, or harm to others, but danger as a part of self liberation. Violence is different, I reject it completely, but I want to once again be able to embrace and enjoy danger in my art. The excitement and illicit thrill of going to my first gay bar. There are no equivalents today when there is no way to effectively rebel. Polyamory? Yawn.
I think that is one reason why I am turning toward conservatism, it is the new counterculture, a way to rebel. It is the only place to land I fear when the left has become so deeply oppressive toward anything that is not their rote speak. I yearn for creativity, to make art, to consume art without my social justice training interfering with a voice telling me I must not enjoy The Rolling Stones because of how problematic they are.
This is the type of deprogamming I am struggling with, the things my therapist does not understand, and in some ways I am only coming to terms with in increments as I reject the soul destroying nihilism of finding the problematic in everything and everyone.
I want danger, I want to be dangerous. I miss it so. I want to be that wild card you don’t see coming but leaves you breathless. I want to see others being that wild card too, breaking free from the modern fundamentalist cult that rivals Sharia law in its impact and drive to censor what it finds offensive.
It is no good to be offensive just for the shock value, looking at you Karen Finley or the banal shock jocks. I am asking for people to be offensive with a higher goal in mind, stopping the turn toward piety and purity. We are not perfect, and we never can be but we can use art for catharsis, for growth, for connection.
I interpret Sympathy for the Devil to be an acknowledgement that evil exists in the world. The world will never be utopia, we must give up on that fiction that society will liberate us. Liberation is in your own hands, man has to be his own saviour is the motto I live by. You have to take personal responsibility for your own liberation from the patriarchy, from capitalism, from boring work and bad relationships. My other motto is Patti Smith, “you must be intoxicated by ritual as well as result.” It is the process as much as the product.
So this year, make it a resolution to rebel, to speak up, to create your own world and to be dangerous.
Pete Townsend said of the Stones that night, “When they really get moving, there is a kind of white magic that starts to replace the black magic, and everything starts to really fly.”
Be dangerous. Rebel. Make magic.
This essay is dedicated to my friends who are dangerous.
Candace Mercer is an artist/writer/activist who has lived in Olympia since 1996. She has worked with The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice and the Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties. She has written for Electronic Intifada, The Alternative Press and Works in Progress.
Candy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter (DM OK, abuse will be mocked): @candiomercer
Other work on Medium: https://medium.com/@CandaceMercer