Both accounts of the music of the Rolling Stones offered in nlr 47 seem to evade the question of how good the songs are as music, by evaluating them according to external, non-musical values. Both adopt different kinds of moralistic approach towards them. Beckett’s a psychological one, Melton’s a political one. Speaking, for instance, of the Stones’ ‘celebration’ of sexual exploitation, Merton writes: ‘Nakedly proclaimed, (sexual) inequality is de facto denounced.’ What can de facto mean here, and who does the denouncing? Merton seems to mean that by presenting us with a blatant and undisguised statement of male domination and exploitation, which is usually expressed only in confused or concealed ways, the Stones give it to us in a form in which we can recognize it clearly for what it is, and so denounce it. There does not seem to be any grounds for assuming the Stones themselves, in their performance, adopt a critical attitude towards it. Merton’s interpretation of his experience of listening to the music according to his own perspective—in terms of a critique of the values of advanced industrial capitalist society—is quite extraneous to the music itself.

Beckett falls into another kind of moralism when he assesses the music in terms of its effect on the listener: he speaks of the ‘momentary, complete identification’ of aggressive feeling which ‘can have a constructive, liberating effect on the individual’. His account of how, through fulfilment in fantasy, feelings of arrogance and narcissism can be ‘incorporated’ and ‘transmuted’ by the listener may be accurate psychologically, but he also fails to deal with the songs as music. To talk about feeling as such, instead of about the way it is presented and realized in music, is again to adopt an external standpoint.

Both of these accounts concentrate on the words, with only an occasional reference to the way the music presents or underlines them. To speak as if the words were the primary element and the music subsidiary to them is to reduce the impact and oversimplify the complexity of feeling of which words and music together are capable. It is true that in much pop music, the music is not closely interrelated with the words, but is a mechanical and standardized vehicle for them. But there are cases, in the Stones’ work, in which this standardization of form is itself exploited. In ‘Paint it black’ for example, the relentlessly unvarying 4-line verse reinforces the feeling of oppressed, suicidal depression in the words, and at the one point where the words seem to suggest a possibility of recovery, the music does not let up. It is by putting the repetitive and mechanical features of pop music to such use that the Stones occasionally raise them to a new level of expressiveness. Elsewhere—as in ‘Satisfaction’—there is a real fusion of words and music. This song acquires its particular force from the slow triplet rhythm of the opening words, which goes against and frustrates the flow of the 4-time beat: a straightforward enough procedure, but in the context of the predominantly uncomplicated beat of pop music, a graphic dislocation. This is the specific means which make it, as Merton rightly says, a ‘precise musical notation of grinding physical blockage.’ Here are examples of words and music reinforcing each other. But there are other examples in which the interaction of several dimensions, and the tension generated between them when the music contradicts the surface meaning of the words, are essential to the total experience. In ‘Backstreet Girl’ the complexity of feeling is the result of the contradiction between the overtly arrogant and patronising words and the gentle tenderness of the melody. Brecht wrote somewhere that what was needed, in the theatre, was music which could call forth a feeling so precisely that actors could play against it: here is a simple case of exactly that. By going against the overt meaning of the words the music here offsets them and transforms their impact into something quite different. Alone, the words would be merely patronising. It is the musical setting—an amplification and articulation of the way feeling can be expressed to some extent in gesture or tone of voice—which makes this song a confrontation between tenderness and arrogance towards the girl. Its success lies in capturing and realising this opposition of feelings with such accuracy and subtlety of nuance, and fusing them into a musical whole.

A critical account of pop music must be based, not on judgements of the feelings and attitudes expressed (in this respect, to applaud the Stones for their attitude is just as irrelevant to their music as to berate them for their clothes or their behaviour), but on an assessment of how these feelings are embodied in musical forms—i.e. how coherently the musical material is presented and articulated. If the material of pop music is restricted, in comparison with other forms of music, that doesn’t necessarily mean the possibilities for coherence and articulation within its own limits are less. Any attempt to talk about it as music— and to treat it any other way is, finally, to devalue it—must begin with the specific materials and conventions it employs, and discuss how its use of these is able to provide convincing symbolic, not literal presentations of experience.