The Rolling Stones: I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

The 40th Super Bowl was held this weekend, in case you’ve been in Antarctica and were successfully shielded by the foghorns of mass culture blaring the news at you from every possible media outlet. There was, as usual, a not very compelling football game, expensive advertising, and a gala entertainment spectacle before during and after the ritualized violence. The game was held in Detroit, synonymous with Motown, the record label that gave us so many compelling artists (most of them black, most of them rooted in rhythm and blues), that a complete list would fill this page. The halftime entertainment, naturally, featured an English rock band on the verge of collecting Social Security.

The Rolling Stones deserve ample credit for performing live; i.e., they did not lip-synch their vocals or play with accompanying “guide tracks,” as so many televised musicians do these days. This way viewers could experience viscerally Mick Jagger’s out-of-tune ululation, his bordering-on-a-speech-impediment pronunciation of the letter “r” as a “w” — “I twy, and I twy, and I twy” — and the desperate gesticulating and posturing that passes for passion when the music is utterly devoid of it. The interminable repetition of a three-chord riff has got to be trying — OK, deathly boring — when you’ve been playing it for 40 years, so the old boys can be forgiven for resorting to caricatures of themselves, gaunt septuagenarians in too-tight trousers meandering aimlessly around an enormous stage in the shape of protruding tongue. But if I’m being honest, like Simon Cowell, it was simply dreadful, almost physically painful to watch.

Can one really muster much empathetic identification with a 60-something multi-jillionaire going on (and on, and on) about how he can’t get no satisfaction (or girlie action)?

The main problem with the Rolling Stones — aside from the fact that they suck as musicians — is that rock music is the sound of rebellion, of adolescent or post-adolescent angst being channeled into a primal cry of catharsis. The Stones, unlike, say, U2 or Bruce Springsteen, haven’t grown wiser or more socially conscious with age, only richer. I don’t propose that old people can’t play rock music, although the phenomenon is as embarrassing as a greasy comb-over. I merely suggest that if old people truly want “to rock,” their music ought to show us how much wisdom they’ve accrued from being alive, from looking at life from the perennial outsider’s perspective. The Stones seem not to have ever progressed beyond their early 20s. Though they’ve had decades to explore new ideas, both sonically and lyrically, they recapitulate the same hackneyed phrases, with steadily less energy and conviction until all that’s left is a parody of what rock used to mean to them (and us). After all these years, their music remains the opposite of profound.

Close to 25 years ago, I performed and recorded with a punk rock band. I played bass and screamed until I had no voice. We were angry, confused, hopeful, disappointed, adventurous, and eager. We were teenagers on the brink of understanding what being an adult means. Our music was the emotional expression of everything that was inside our heads and hearts. We rocked. Now in my 40s, I listen to these old recordings with some bashfulness. (Is that really me yelling so forcefully?) I’ve grown musically and intellectually, and I’m somewhat less anxious. Punk rock no longer appeals to me, except as something to be observed from afar, like a wild animal. But I applaud the teenagers who have taken my place, who still have the courage to express through naive anthems and pedestrian guitar chords what it means to be young and full of everything that you will one day become.

Whatever that may be, pray it’s not the Rolling Stones.

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