6 ‘classic’ songs on your playlist that now sound shockingly racist



Mick Jagger plays with the Rolling Stones. Photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP / Getty Images 2019

We are living in a moment of enlightenment in popular culture.

As the concrete monuments that glorify a racist past fell this summer, people continue to reconsider the art they consume. From classic TV shows and movies to long-running theatrical productions and operas, what was once enshrined can look problematic through the 2020 target.

Pop music deserves a category of its own for bad taste. Many of the songs we regularly feature on our playlists, by beloved artists like the Rolling Stones and Elton John, are surprisingly deaf on closer inspection.

Here are some of the biggest offenders:

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“Brown sugar”, the Rolling Stones

Originally called “Black Pussy” when Mick Jagger hastily wrote it in 1969, the Rolling Stones at least had the foresight to revamp the song’s title before releasing it on the 1971 album “Sticky”. Fingers “. But the lines about slavery, rape, and drug use have stuck, making it nothing short of gruesome every time the singer yells out: The black girl should.

Jagger reportedly wrote the song about his then-girlfriend, London model and actress Marsha Hunt, who was a poster for the “Black Is Beautiful” movement. He expressed his regret for the lyrics in a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, saying: “God knows what I’m talking about on this song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty topics at once. … I would never write this song now. I would probably censor myself. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t. I must stop. I can’t just write raw like that. ‘ “

The band has since dropped many of the original verses when performing “Brown Sugar” live, but one of rock ‘n’ roll ‘s greatest songs remains inherently flawed.

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“Island Girl”, Elton John

Written at the height of Elton John in the ’70s, this No.1 single about a Jamaican prostitute working the streets of New York City represents a major misstep for the English singer and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin. Especially with her little Caribbean rhythms and crass comparisons: “Well, she’s black as coal, but she burns like a fire / And she wraps around you like a well worn tire.”

John quit performing the song in 1990 but unexpectedly brought it back on the first show of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour in 2018.

In a 2012 interview with NPR, John said, “The lyrics are what they are.”

“Become Japanese”, the vapors

A staple of the early days of music videos, this 1980 English group’s new wave single is breathtaking. From its orientalist opening riff to the chorus, which is meant to describe the narrator’s facial expression as he masturbates, it’s the musical equivalent of Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi character in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “.

Dave Fenton, singer and songwriter for the UK group, told VH1 that the song is misunderstood and is a love song about someone who has lost his girlfriend and is slowly going mad.

“Transforming Japanese is all the clichés about angst and youth and becoming something you didn’t expect,” he said. “It could have been Portuguese, Lebanese, whatever matched that sentence. It had nothing to do with the Japanese.

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“One in a Million”, Guns N ‘Roses

Axl Rose can be the voice of reason on social media these days, but in 1988, his narrow worldview spilled over onto this throwaway track from the group’s “GN ‘R Lies” EP.

The angry leader casually drops the N-word before chanting infamously: “Immigrants and queers, they don’t make sense to me / They come to our country and think they’ll do what they want / Like starting a mini Iran, or spreading fucking sickness about it.

In 1989, Rose defended the song saying, “I don’t like limits of any kind. I don’t like being told what I can and what I can’t say.

The group has since dropped “One in a Million” from its subsequent reissues of the release, including the “Appetite for Destruction” box set released in 2018.

Guitarist Slash, who is half-black, told Rolling Stone, “We collectively decided he just didn’t belong in this set. It didn’t take long. There was no big round table on this.

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‘Kung Fu Fighting’, Carl Douglas

People often put this new hit from Carl Douglas, the first Jamaican-born singer to have a 1974 US No.1 single, on their karaoke playlists without remembering more than its catchy chorus. Things get awkward when his orientalist melody kicks in and vulgar lines suddenly scroll across the screen, such as “There were funky Chinese in funky Chinatown” and “There was funky Billy Chin and little Sammy Chung” .

The lyrics were completely rewritten when the song was covered by Jack Black and Cee-Lo Green for the 2008 film “Kung Fu Panda”, although the accompanying music video was tragically loaded with as many stereotypes as it was. ‘original.

Douglas’ follow-up single “Dance the Kung Fu” bombed the charts.

‘Half-breed’, Cher

Cher has vehemently championed this song ever since it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Singles Chart in 1973. Intended to shed light on racism, its lyrics are about a mixed-race girl born to a white father and mother. native.

“My father married a pure Cherokee / My mother’s people were ashamed of me / Indians said I was white by law / The white man always called me ‘Indian Squaw’,” she laughs in the first verses.

The message is, however, somewhat undermined by the title, the affected tribal tom rhythms and the singer’s insistence on performing it with a full hairstyle ever since.

In 2017, Cher backed the song up in a Twitter exchange filled with all-caps responses that weren’t always easy to decipher, but seemed to reinforce the fact that everything was well-meaning if misinterpreted.

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  • Aidin Vaziri

    Aidin Vaziri is the pop music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: avaziri@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MusicSF

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