Famous songs lose their context and impact when you grow up with them. You enjoy a great rhythm and learn to sing along without hearing the words. And sometimes when you do hear them, you hear the wrong parts too loud.
I was vibing with the lyric ‘What a drag it is getting old’ this morning and it made me dig out ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and listen to it again:
I know this song well and have long thought it was an interesting critique of the misogynistic culture 1950s and 60s housewives endured; worn out, unappreciated, and bored, relying on early prescription anti-depressants that were addictive and harmful. Not the take you expect from a bunch of young men living the life of rock stars.
Most are in a hurry to point out that the Stones are underlining the hypocrisy of middle class family values critiquing drugs in youth culture, but there are a lot of barbed lines specifically aimed at the misogyny and showing a lot of empathy for the women themselves:
“Men just aren’t the same today”
I hear every mother say
“They just don’t appreciate that you get tired”
They’re so hard to satisfy
You can tranquilize your mind…
And four help you through the night
Help to minimize your plight…
The song describes a woman or women heading for a complete breakdown and being offered drugs instead of help. The men don’t appreciate how much they do ‘that you get tired’, the experience of women is recognised as a ‘plight’ that’s being minimised.
The jaunty, off-kilter riff makes this sound like an upbeat song despite the minor key – it distracts from the fact that this song is actually quite empathetic and alarming (much like the tranquilisers alluded to as ‘mothers little helpers’.
All of this, I was pretty familiar with. What changed listening to it today was that rather than considering it a historical artefact – grounded in the situation of a housewife, a very alien concept to me – I related to it.
It’s not just that I myself am getting older, and seeing the big Four-Oh approaching. It’s that the anti-depressants I rely on to function are not masking the horrors of the life I am struggling to live in.
Anti-depressants have come a long way. I have unironically described the Duloxetine I’m currently on as a ‘Wonder Drug’. It does powerful good at controlling my anxiety without making me feel sedated. Depression and anxiety are the things that are altering my mind. the SNRI I take restores balance. Or attempts to.
And unlike what the song says, this is a genuine illness. I have an imbalance in my chemicals (amplified by trauma) that needs correcting.
But there’s no denying it, the situation I’m in is fucked. I do not think I would need the drugs I’m taking if I wasn’t frequently required to keep working through intollerable things.
For the mid-century housewife, misogyny and rigid gender division of labour, which devalued women’s labour, was the biggest cause. For me, an ableist, capitalistic hellscape fraught with growing fascism and transphobia is front and centre. But the two things aren’t that different. Both are rooted in binary gender essentialism and capitalist economic tyranny.
These are real problems. A real plight for which no one is offering tangible, practical help. So I need to take medication, because the heightened level of anxiety about real problems on top of my existing trauma, has just gone on too long.
The drugs in this case aren’t bad, but they’re not the long-term solution I need. In a more just society, I wouldn’t need them.
Which brings me to my second Rolling Stones song, which YouTube helpfully pointed me at after I listened to the other:
‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’.
This lyric hit a little harder, and rang a little truer than it had in previous listenings:
And I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, we’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t, we’re going to blow a 50-amp fuse
I am so full of frustration – the ableism and transphobia are so overwhelming right now. Hell YES I feel like I’m gonna blow a 50-amp fuse.
Only there’s nothing like the demonstrations of the 50s and 60s, and I’d be too sick to go to them if they were any.
I want to RIOT but I can’t.
I also realised that over the last few years I’ve been misreading this lyric.:
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime
You just might find
You get what you need
I thought it was putting ‘you’ down for wanting things (‘I want doesn’t get’) and what you ‘need’ might be a slap in the face. The sort of thing a parent tells you to get you to shut up. I was not a fan of that.
But listening to the rest of the lyrics – especially the protest verse… It’s not saying to *stop* asking for what you want. It’s saying you have to keep trying to get what you want. You have to ask over and over, even if it means not getting what you want over and over. Because if you don’t ask, you never get what you need.
Sometimes you don’t get everything you ask for, but you still get something.
We have to get better at standing up and asking. And we have to keep standing up for each other. Because it’s hard to keep speaking up and getting your ‘fair share of abuse’.
It gave me another view of the protests I’ve been too. Especially the last one (against Trump’s visit to the UK). It was depressingly small. A police officer made me censor my sign to be more polite under threat of arrest. A fascist infiltrated our tiny protest and the other protesters had to use their signs to cover his. I ended up getting too tired and had to go home early.
It was not exactly an uplifting experience.
But like Mick says, when it’s important, protests aren’t great, validating experiences. They’re running up against a dominant culture that SUCKS. You’ll get abused for going, and most of the time you won’t get what you want out of it. But you have to keep showing up.
You have to keep showing up and asking for what you want, or you’re never gonna get what you need.
So thanks, Mick. Things are pretty shit right now, and the utter apathy of the vast majority of people about the issues that are absolutely essential to me… it’s gutting. And I can’t afford to keep pushing myself if I’m the only one doing it. But I guess what I get from this is that even when it feels like you’re just volunteering to get beaten up over and over again, continuing to show up matters. Even if it’s just writing on a blog post or a committee that never seems to achieve change.
Sometimes you achieve change. Sometimes you’re an inert object that stops bad change from happening. Sometimes you’re just an irritant that slows the tank of capitalism down as it rolls over you.
You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you get just enough of what you need for it to matter.
We get more of what we need when we show up together.
I’m going to continue showing up in the shitty situations where I don’t get what I want and mostly don’t get what I need. But if you show up with me we’ll get what we need a little bit more often.