The Real Reason The Rolling Stones Are Retiring Their Classic Hit Song

It's inevitable that in the scope of music history — and certainly the history of pop and rock 'n' roll — there are songs that are bound not to age well. While songs like "WAP" by Cardi B (featuring Megan Thee Stallion) and "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" by Lil Nas X caused controversy immediately upon release, other songs have taken longer for the backlash to occur. 

While older songs were just as explicit in themes regarding sexuality and other sensitive subject matter, the reason some classic songs are being reexamined now has more to do with how their lyrics have negatively objectified or maligned people from marginalized groups who, at least at the time the songs were written, had less agency within the public discourse. Now, it seems one song in particular by one of the most successful rock bands of all time is getting the same scrutiny.

Speaking with the Los Angeles Times only a month after the death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, the band's 77-year-old guitarist, Keith Richards, was asked whether the band had shelved one of their most-performed songs of all time. "You picked up on that, huh?" responded Richards. So what song were Richards and the interviewer discussing? Why has it been put in the vault? And will it ever come back?

This Rolling Stones song has been cut over questions of racism and misogyny

In a Los Angeles Times interview in October, Keith Richards spoke candidly about the group's decision to cut their song "Brown Sugar" out of their line-up. Composed by singer Mick Jagger in 1969, the song's lyrics describe Black slaves on a plantation who are beaten and forced to have violent, non-consensual sex. Responding to the Times, Richards said: "I don't know. I'm trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn't they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they're trying to bury it." 

For fans of the Rolling Stones, the decision to cut "Brown Sugar" has been long coming. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger himself copped to the controversy stirred by the song. "I never would write that song now," Jagger said at the time. 

Throughout the years, a number of criticisms have been weighed against the tune. In 2019, music producer Ian Brennan questioned in an op-ed for The Chicago Tribune why a song with "repulsive" lyrics "continues to be broadcast without a peep" despite the #MeToo movement. In a 2015 Vulture essay, writer Lauretta Charlton, who is BIPOC, found the "Brown Sugar" controversy to be more complex. "When I hear 'Brown Sugar,' the outrage hits me like a postscript, and by that point I'm too busy clapping and singing along to be indignant," Charlton wrote.