Mick Jagger: Pop Culture Pioneer

Even as a kid, I knew that Mick was important. He must have meant something to my parents, too, because when I was about 10, I was given a Rolling Stones album for each night of Chanukah. But up to adulthood, and well into a career spent examining rock...
Publish date:
Image Title1

Even as a kid, I knew that Mick was important. He must have meant something to my parents, too, because when I was about 10, I was given a Rolling Stones album for each night of Chanukah. But up to adulthood, and well into a career spent examining rock 'n' roll stars, I think I only appreciated Mick Jagger’s contributions in a macro sense: the Stones as the anti-Beatles, and Mick as an androgynous sexual liberator. It wasn’t until I began researching and writing a book about Mick, however, that I began to see the micro ways in which he influenced culture. After realizing how these small revolutions made a deep impact in the modern age, I began to appreciate Mick Jagger anew. Here are four of the biggest innovations Jagger contributed to popular culture:

1. The Rock Star Celebrity. By the end of the 1960s, there were rock stars and there were celebrities. It was during this time that Mick Jagger invented the concept of the rock star/celebrity hybrid. The Beatles had broken up, and the Rolling Stones—along with The Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—were trying to establish themselves as the greatest band in the world. Jagger and his bandmates were suddenly tasked with the job of either redefining themselves for the coming decade, or fading away like some of their fellow British invaders.

Then Mick met Bianca. There was a media circus wedding. Bianca became a celebrity overnight, the first star who was famous for doing nothing. She wasn’t an actress or a singer. She was simply ... Bianca. Her elegance and mysteriousness, and her status as a fashion muse, made her an instant icon. And when Bianca skyrocketed to fame, she took the Stones with her.

Rock stars were not on the cover of People magazine. Rock stars were not embraced by high society. But the rock star/celebrity could travel in nearly any social circle. Mick and Bianca's life as superstars helped to influence the larger-than-life existences of later musicians such as David Bowie, Madonna, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

2. The Viral Campaign: In 1972, on the heels of the tragic concert at Altamont Speedway, the Stones decided to stealthily promote their return to the North American touring circuit. "The 1972 tour was the first great viral campaign," said Peter Rudge, former manager of The Rolling Stones. The shows themselves were triumphs, but what you didn’t see—what went down backstage, and how the Stones orchestrated the whisper campaign about it—truly separated them from the pack.

First, there was the disappearance of a lengthy Rolling Stone magazine article, written (but never completed) by Truman Capote. Even more tantalizing were the rumors of an explicit documentary film, shot by Robert Frank, that was meant to capture the naked, uncompromised reality of the North American tour. But that was buried too. Why? Perhaps because of sex? Drugs? Maybe someone threw a TV over a balcony? The Stones gave no answer.

Spreading around the idea that a tape exists that is full of sex, drugs and TVs thrown over balconies that you must never, ever look at? That’s where you enhance a myth. That’s where you make the long money. “You let everyone know they can’t see it or read it,” Rudge said. “Mick got all that.”

3. The Meta Cameo: There were of course, precedents. Babe Ruth plays Babe Ruth in Pride of the Yankees. Norma Desmond plays cards with the real Buster Keaton in Sunset Boulevard. Yet these performances, while amusing, don’t really provide any dagger-sharp commentary, either on themselves or their times. In 1978, however, Mick Jagger played "himself" in an meta world where there were no Beatles, only ... Rutles.

Spearheaded by Monty Python’s Eric Idle and producer Lorne Michaels, the TV special The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, not only took on every 1960s sacred cow—screaming girls, meditation, drugs, protests—but attempted, and nearly succeeded, to get past them once and for all. In this proto-mockumentary, a 35-year-old Mick (playing the role of "Mick Jagger: Rock Star") calmly sits on a couch and gamely answers mock questions about the era he came to personify. In under five minutes of screen time, he truly ends the 1960s in a way that Altamont or the Tate-LaBianca murders never really could. (Credit also goes to fellow 60s icon Paul Simon, who makes a cameo as himself in the film as well).

4. The Rick Rubin Comeback: You know how in the early 1990s, Quentin Tarantino gained a reputation for taking a well-worn movie star—say, John Travolta or Kurt Russell—shining them up, reminding audiences what they loved about them in the first place, and then placing them back into the public eye to garner new respect and fortune? Well, Tarantino had a musical counterpart who used and perfected a similar formula: The post-Def Jam Records Rick Rubin. And Mick Jagger was Rubin's John Travolta.

By the early 90s, Mick’s solo output seemed to be forever trapped in the 80s. Screaming guitars; Miami Vice keyboards and percussion; shoulder pads and near-mullets mired Jagger's creative output. In 1993, it was unheard of for a veteran like Mick Jagger to seek out a producer like Rick Rubin—Rubin was the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Slayer, not Beatles and Stones. But that very fact is probably what drew the 50-year-old Jagger to Rubin's door.

Jagger and Rubin made not just one excellent album, but two. The former, Wandering Spirit, stands in many music critic's minds as the finest Stones solo work in history. The latter, a never-released work Mick recorded with Hollywood bar band The Red Devils, is just Mick, a harmonica and a mean, lean, loud blues band. The recording is so simple that it’s hard to appreciate just what a stroke of genius it was to place Mick there at that time. The bootleg of these "Red Devil" sessions is easy to find. And while listening to the recording is probably nothing like seeing the group perform live, as a few lucky Hollywood hipsters did one night at the King King club, there’s more life to those songs than a lot of mega-budget 80s tracks.

After Jagger's comeback, Rubin was sought after to revitalize the careers of many more rock legends, including Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and Neil Diamond.