The Cultural and Psychological Influence of “Paint It Black”

by PammyMcB

Music is influential on culture.  It is the highway to man’s soul.  Manish Soni states in his book Mystic Chords that, “music in its highest form has the power to tap into undiscovered depths of the soul, and from those depths to exhume hidden psychic contents that can now serve as beacons to light our way” (232). Music has the tendency to be balance in one’s consciousness.  Songs, such as “Paint It Black,” are about man’s search for this balance.  Because of this search, all people have many songs that they can relate to. In essence, music makes us feel.  As Soni puts it, “music has enormous potential to restore balance and harmony on a large scale, and to act as a healing balm to the wounded soul of modern man” (232).  One band stands out from the rest when healing these wounded souls.  This band is The Rolling Stones.

No other band in the history of rock and roll has been as influential to culture as The Rolling Stones, “whose music derived from the black blues tradition” (Rock).  For over forty years, this band has inspired and continues to inspire the masses.  According to Funk & Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedia, “no other band has matched their combination of popularity, longevity, and productivity, and no group aside from the Beatles has wielded greater influence on the development of rock music.”  Artists such as Chuck Berry, U2, and Vanessa Carlton all have admired the Rolling Stones.  These artists’ admiration varies from giving the band praise to doing a tribute to the band by using one of their many songs.  While speaking of Chuck Berry’s praise to Keith Richards, David Leishman quotes Berry as saying, “Why, you sure can play some pretty chords for a rock and roller” (47). Sixteen of the artists that have chosen to do a tribute to The Rolling Stones chose “Paint It Black” as the song to use (SING365).

“Paint it Black” is a well written reflection of the time it was released.  The song was released in 1966 during the Vietnam War era.  As told by the Columbia Encyclopedia, “the 1960s music mirrored the tensions of the Vietnam War era and played an important part of American culture”. Is “Paint It Black” a song about the oppression of man’s soul?  Susan Stamberg believes that it is a song about rebellion and non-conformity.  As Stamberg states, “from brooding moans to angry shouts, ‘Paint It Black’ is about menace.”  Is it a song about the loss of a loved one and the mourning that follows?  This song makes me feel that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards must have been dealing with a lot of depression at the time. Depression is one of the five stages of grieving.  Most of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) are echoed in this song.  However, there is one which has been excluded.  This stage is denial.  I believe that Jagger and Richards of The Rolling Stones must have looked around at all of the loss that a great deal of people from many countries must have endured during the Vietnam War.  Perhaps they too had lost a loved one during this senseless war.  Being born during the war and raised to witness the repercussions of the war, I found it quite easy to relate to this song.

No matter when a person was born, he or she can still relate to “Paint It Black”.  Susan Stamberg states that the song “starts with satire, then pumps that driving, grinding, thumping machine-like rhythm behind Mick Jagger’s vocals.”  This rhythm that Stamberg speaks of is derived from the trochaic tetrameter and heroic couplets with which Jagger and Richards filled “Paint It Black.”  Stamberg also declares that the song “became an anthem of sorts” and “went further into nihilistic rage.”  In general, the song tells about loss whether it be due to the Vietnam War or some other cause.  However the phrase, “I could not foresee this thing happening to you” gives me the sense that this death was sudden and not due to a long, drawn-out illness (line 14).  My opinion is that after the loss of the loved one, the writers basically state, although the world is bright and colorful, let me mourn.  They do this by saying; “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes/I have to turn my head until my darkness goes” (lines 3-4).  These lines remind me of how I feel when I am down.  I know the world is filled with beauty; but if depressed, I prefer to lock myself in a dark room.  I shut myself off from the rest of the world until my depression is gone.  When enlightening us about The Rolling Stones during the 1960s, Funk & Wagnall’s states “the band both exploited and represented some of the darker forces of the decade.”  These forces are well represented in line 9 which says, “I look inside myself and see my heart is black.”  I believe that Jagger and Richards are saying that I have no room for anything in my heart right now.  My heart, for now, is cold and I need to mourn.  There is no room for love for anyone else at this moment.  I feel when the writers say; “I see my red door and it has been painted black” they are saying, I have closed the door to my heart and no one is getting in (line 10).  This is a typical stage of grief when one has lost someone close to them.

Another basic stage of grief is bargaining.  This can be recognized by the longing for one’s lost love.  In the process of longing, the person tends to wish they could be together again.  This is also indicated in the song by stating; “Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts” (line 11).  To sum up what Jagger and Richards are saying, is that maybe I could just die.  If I did, then I will not have to deal with this loss.  It is very hard to accept the loss of someone close.  Acceptance is the last stage of grieving.  The song plainly demonstrates the level of difficulty of acceptance by stating, “It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black” (line 12). In other words, when you are mourning, it hurts to accept your loss.

In “Paint It Black,” there is also a sense of animosity for everyone that is happy, while the lyricists mourn.  This resentment is clearly stated in lines 5-8, “I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black/With flowers and my love, both never to come back/I see people turn their heads and quickly look away/Like a newborn baby it just happens ev’ryday.” I feel that Jagger and Richards are saying how dare you all ignore this funeral procession!  Lines 5-8 could also be thought of as a political statement as well.  Politically speaking, the two bards could be declaring that people are so used to the everyday loss from the Vietnam War that they do not even stop to pay their respects. The people just go on about their business because, during the war, this was an everyday occurrence.  After all, life does go on.

There is a sign of acceptance and a glimmer of hope in the song as well.  I feel that the writers are trying to say, if I cannot be with you, then I will see you in my dreams.  If we cannot be together in the real world, we can be together and happy in my mind.  This will do for now, until we can be together.  This is my idea of what, “If I look hard enough into the setting sun/My love will laugh with me before the morning comes” means (lines 15-16).

“Paint It Black” is an inspirational song.  It inspires people to make a change.  Inspiration is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as, “the stimulation within the mind of some idea, feeling or impulse which leads to creative action” (102).  Inspirational does not always mean bright and cheery as most people believe.  This inspired need to change stems from man’s struggle with himself.  It is spawned from his loss of balance between culture and his own spirituality.  As Soni wrote, “the machines that man has created have transformed the conditions of human existence, but the inner world of spirit and self has been allowed to stagnate and decay” (229).  Could this have been the loss that Jagger and Richards were singing about?  If so, this could be why many look at “Paint It Black” as “rage” and “menace” (Stamberg).  Life is man against the machine.  It is man against his own makings.

The psychological aspects to “Paint It Black” are very significant.  An inspirational song like this is most often a reflection of the artists’ inner-being.  As Soni states, “the struggle for increasing consciousness and freedom from the unconscious is imperative” (225).  Many psychologists believe that this kind of struggle is what makes one’s personality.  They believe that born from this personality is one’s own creativity.  According to Soni, “the unearthing of images and symbols deep in the collective psyche…has long been the realm of bards and poets…true visionaries of popular music have provided contemporary interpretations of universal ideas and themes…” (230). Whether we want to paint the world black or a bright yellow, music inspires us to make changes in our world and influences changes in our lives.

Works Cited

“Inspiration.” Def. Webster’s Dictionary. New and Expanded ed. 1993.

Leishman, David. “Rolling Forward Rolling Back.” Guitar Player 30.2 (Feb 1996): 45-50.

“Rock Music.” Columbia Encyclopedia. Ed. Barbara Ann Chernow. 5 vols. Boston: Columbia
University Press, 1993.

“Rolling Stones, The.” Funk & Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedia. Ed. Leon L. Bram. 29 vols.
New York: Oxford University Press. 1996.

Rolling Stones, The. “Paint It Black.” By Mick Jagger and Keith Richard Aftermath.
ABKCO, 1966.

SING365.COM. 010128. 2002. it+black&category=song>

Soni, Manish. Mystic Chords: Mysticism and Psychology in Popular Music. New York: New
York Algora Publishing, 2001.

Stamberg, Susan. “Profile: Cult Classic ‘Paint It Black’ By The Rolling Stones.” Weekend
Edition Saturday. National Public Radio. 13 May 2000.