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To be honest, I wasn’t planning on writing about Mick Jagger and post-truth this week – but that’s the unpredictability of cultural news for you. And, even at the age of 77, the frontman of the Rolling Stones still has the capacity to surprise.
As you may or may not have seen, Jagger has teamed up with Dave Grohl (fresh from releasing the Foo Fighters’ latest album, Medicine at Midnight) to produce a single in celebration of “eventually coming out of lockdown”. Entitled ‘EAZY SLEAZY’, it is a classic hard-rock track reminiscent of the Stones at their stadium rock peak in the Eighties and Nineties.
So far, so straightforward. Jagger has fun at the expense of those who made a performance of their plans to better themselves in lockdown: “Never take a chance, TikTok stupid dance/ Took a samba class, I landed on my ass/ Trying to write a tune, You better hook me up to Zoom/ See my poncey books, teach myself/ To cook.”
But then – just when things are moving along at a merrily insulting clip – Jagger dives into the mind of an anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist: “Shooting the vaccine, Bill Gates is in my bloodstream/ It’s mind control/ The Earth Is flat and cold, It’s never warming up/ The Arctic’s turned to slush/ The Second Coming’s late/ There’s aliens In The Deep State.”
To all but the hard-of-thinking, it should be fairly clear that this is a rocker’s mockery. But social media loves nothing more than outraged literalism, and the notion that all this was serious and that Jumpin’ Jack Flash was now wearing a tin-foil hat sparked a firestorm of digital outrage yesterday.
In fact, as Jagger explained to Rolling Stone magazine, he is not only a strong advocate of the Covid jab; he has grasped a central reality of the post-truth world, which is that arguing with conspiracy theorists usually makes them double down and become more entrenched in their idiotic beliefs.
“I have several friends and relations and they go off on these things that just doesn’t… They’re just irrational,” he told the magazine. “Of course, there’s no point in speaking to people about it. They don’t get it. They got what they believe in and they believe in that. And it doesn’t matter what you say, they’re gonna believe in it. And rational thought doesn’t work.”
What Jagger identifies here is what the Dartmouth College political scientist Professor Brendan Nyhan has called the “backfire effect,” a core phenomenon of the post-truth era: presenting a climate change denier, or an anti-vaxxer, or a believer in a global conspiracy of giant lizards, with evidence that they are wrong often reinforces their delusion.
Deep waters for a rock’n’roller you might think. But, as it happens, the Stones were always more political and thoughtful than is suggested by their image today as plutocratic, recovering hedonists, with about eight marriages each to their names.
True, they never put politics at the heart of their music as did, say, Lennon or Dylan. But they did not shy away from social issues, either – notably in 1967, when Jagger and Richards were convicted on drug charges (The Times famously defending the former in an editorial entitled ‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?’)
There are few better cultural accounts of the rebellious spirit of 1968 than ‘Street Fighting Man’, (inspired by Jagger’s presence at the anti-Vietnam War march on the London US embassy on 17 March of that year). Few tracks of the era capture the horrors of the conflict in south-east Asia as compellingly as ‘Gimme Shelter’, the first track on the album Let It Bleed (1969) – with the awesome gospel voice of Merry Clayton soaring over the music: “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away! It’s just a shot away!”
As Keith Richards recalls in his acclaimed 2010 memoir, Life: “Then it became a ‘them against us’ sort of thing. I could never believe that the British Empire would want to pick on a few musicians…. To me it was the first demonstration of how insecure establishments really are.” (In which context: Jagger revealed on BBC Radio 6 Music yesterday that he tried writing his own memoirs, found it “inordinately dull and upsetting” – and handed back the reported £1 million advance.)
Though the 1960s were the peak of the band’s political commitment, they have never truly lost interest. ‘Sweet Black Angel’ on Exile on Main Street (1972) is a tribute to civil rights activist Angela Davis. More recently, they scorned the hawks of George W Bush’s administration in ‘Sweet Neo Con’ (2005), and threatened Donald Trump with legal action if he continued to use their music at his rallies.
When the Rolling Stones formed in 1962, Kennedy was in the White House and Macmillan was in Number 10. So, 59 years later, it’s good to see Sir Mick still kicking the shins, hurling himself raucously into the politics of lockdown, and tackling the digital era’s great scourge of misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories.
It’s not a bad song, either.
Do book your place at our next Creative Sensemaker Live on Friday 30 April, at 13:00-14:00 BST – at which we’ll be looking back at the hits and misses of the 93rd Oscars ceremony, the fashion triumphs and disasters, the unexpected winners and the shock losers. Is this the year of Nomadland – or will the Academy spring a surprise on us?
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Promising Young Woman (VOD, 16 April)
In February, Creative Sensemaker hailed the dawn of “the age of Emerald Fennell”, and on Sunday, she picked up two Baftas – for Outstanding British Film and Original Screenplay. Now her directorial debut – a dark comedy, starring Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, set on avenging the rape and apparent suicide of her best friend – is at last available to rent. It is also nominated for five Oscars. Don’t miss it.
Leonardo (Prime Video, 16 April)
The co-creators of this much-anticipated eight-part series, Frank Spotnitz and Steve Thompson, have bet the farm on a combination of narrative structure (each episode features a famous work by Da Vinci) and star wattage (Poldark’s Aidan Turner, smouldering artistically in the title role, pursued in a fictitious murder mystery by Milanese officer of the law, Stefano Giraldi, played by Freddie Highmore). The question of Da Vinci’s sexuality is also confronted without inhibition. It is not easy to extract gripping televisual drama from the life of a painter – the studio is a place of stillness and exasperation, after all – but this is certainly worthy of your inspection in the ever-expanding streaming gallery.
Too Close (ITV Hub)
Originally broadcast on three successive nights, this intensely claustrophobic drama hinges on the (frequently acrimonious) dialogue in a psychiatric hospital between Connie Mortensen (Denise Gough) and her forensic psychiatrist, Dr Emma Robertson (Emily Watson). That Connie has done something terrible is clear from the get-go, as are the psychic fractures in Emma’s private life – fractures which she must try and exclude from the professional setting. That both women are deeply damaged is not in question, but – thanks to superb performances by Gough and Watson – the reasons are neither obvious nor glibly delivered. Not easy to watch at times, Too Close is nonetheless a triumph of nuance and ambiguity over pat disclosure. (For TV obsessives, it is directed by Sue Tully, formerly Michelle Fowler in EastEnders).
One of Them: An Eton College Memoir – Musa Okwonga (Unbound)
“Maybe we were raised to be the bad guys?” This is the question that curls through every page of this compelling memoir of life at the world’s most famous school in the Nineties. British-born, of Ugandan descent, Okwonga is much too sophisticated a writer to offer a definitive answer. He retains a fondness for Eton, where he mostly thrived. But he also recognises that it was (and is) a factory and finishing school for privilege, and one that still has an immense and disproportionate impact upon national life. This is not a tract, which is why it will make you think deeply (and want to read Okwonga’s next book, wherever his writing takes him).
The Duchess Countess: The Woman who Scandalised a Nation – Catherine Ostler (Simon & Schuster)
Horace Walpole nicknamed Elizabeth Chudleigh (1721-88) the “Duchess-Countess” because she was bigamously married to both the Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull and the Earl of Bristol. A former Editor-in-Chief of Tatler, Ostler writes beautifully of a Hanoverian life that was emblematic of much more than scandal. Elizabeth not only helped to inspire Thackeray’s Becky Sharp but scorched her way through a patriarchal society without compromise. Highly recommended.
The Fascination of What’s Difficult: A Life of Maud Gonne by Kim Bendheim (OR Books)
Thanks to her role as muse to W.B.Yeats, Maud Gonne (1866-1953) is well-known in mythic form to many who have never heard her name. The initial corrective was her own 1938 autobiography, but Kim Bendheim’s book is a much more candid and useful book, revealing the ugly depths of Gonne’s anti-Semitism – as important a part of her character as her social activism in Ireland. Further evidence,too, of how imaginative and creative the New York-based independent publishing house, OR Books, has become since its foundation in 2009.
Homecoming – Du Blonde
Worth listening to just for the fantastic ‘I’m Glad That We Broke Up’, in which she teams up with Ezra Furman, the third album by Du Blonde (formerly known as Beth Jeans Houghton) is terrific, managing to combine a pop-punk pace with lyrics of considerable introspection (check out her collaboration with Shirley Manson, ‘Medicated’). Riotously good fun, with a thoughtful edge.
The Brandenburg Project – Swedish Chamber Orchestra & Thomas Dausgaard
A beautiful experiment, in which the Danish conductor invites six composers to interpret and respond to one of Bach’s concertos. Some of the creative results, such as ‘Aello’, Olga Neuwirth’s take on Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, are brazenly experimental, even reckless. Others are better described as riffs on the familiar. Compelling and often mesmerising.
Californian Soil – London Grammar (16 April)
“I left my soul/ On Californian soil/ And I left my pride/ With that woman by my side”: from its first ethereal moments, the title track of the Nottingham-formed trio’s third album lets you know you are in for something special: Hannah Reid’s voice has never sounded better. A confident combination of anthems and more reflective numbers, this is music for good weather and high hopes
…and thank you to Tortoise member, Andrew Sebkhi, for recommending the self-titled album For Those I Love (the creative name chosen by David Balfe): “An Irish album about loss which is at once poetic, emotional, hopeful and joyful. Made me tear up this morning. A bit like The Streets in its delivery too.”
Don’t forget to send your own recommendations to email@example.com.
That’s all for now – take care of yourselves, and each other.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy of Focus Features/Amazon/ITV/Getty Images