The Hidden Meaning Of The Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar

It's a great rabbit hole to fall down, trying to figure out the hidden meanings behind your favorite songs. For one, was John Lennon's "Imagine" secretly a love letter to the Communist Manifesto? Two, was "Summer of '69" all about doing the nasty? And three, was "Mary Jane's Last Dance" actually a celebration of the demon reefer? The answers are (1) yes, (2) oh, big time, and (3) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers didn't care what you thought, as long as you bought the album, respectively.

And then there's "Brown Sugar," the Rolling Stones' 1971 classic that asks not "What is this about?" skewing instead towards the question "What isn't this about?" 

It's a piece of music with lyrics that somehow place it ahead of other Stones bangers like "Schoolboy Blues" and "Star Star" on the moral outrage scale. The defining difference that most critics have come up with is that "Brown Sugar" claps pretty hard. Really hard. Hard enough that you don't notice the overt themes of racial exploitation, sexual depravity, and delicious Mexican heroin until you've already started dancing. It's the dad from Footloose's worst nightmare.

It's only rock and roll

The song's first verse depicts a slave driver whipping a group of women. By the third verse, there's a lady with a bevy of underage boyfriends. And, you know, the chorus is all about how a young girl should taste. Also, "brown sugar," as has been pointed out by basically everyone and, according to SongFacts, was confirmed by Keith Richards — who knows a thing or two about a thing or two — is slang for heroin. Mick Jagger stated in a Rolling Stone interview that the song works thanks to its wide array of implied themes, or "all the nasty subjects in one go," as he put it. "I never would write that song now."

For some historical perspective, "Brown Sugar" came from a weird place. Jagger recalls having written it in 1969 while he was in Australia shooting Ned Kelly, the decidedly weird story of the infamous bushranger. The production was a troubled one: Jagger's girlfriend OD'd, and accidents kept happening. There were fires and horse cart accidents. The Stones frontman was injured on set when a pistol backfired, and he claims to have written the song while sitting in a field trying to rehabilitate his hand.