Today, many don’t consider the racial implications of musical genres dominated by whites, including rock. However, some do recognize rock as white-dominated, and even the term “rockism” signals the dominance of straight white male tastes in music criticism.
For this reason, it’s important to read the Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album, Pet Sounds, in the context of race as a social structure and as an identity category. Brian Wilson, the album’s great auteur, said he was aiming for a “white spiritual sound”, and the Beach Boys were once quoted as saying, “We’re white and we sing white”, so reinterpreting the album’s racial history—including with its “Africanist presence”, as Toni Morrison calls it—is especially significant this year, the album’s 50th anniversary. Pet Sounds is a surprising text to apply race-based analysis to, so in addition to challenging the album’s ahistorical, timeless status as “great art”, we should attempt to theorize and historicize race in relation to music, a field largely neglected in the emerging field of Whiteness Studies.
The racial history of rock ‘n’ roll in its early years is well known, but when “rock ‘n’ roll” became “rock”, scholars often neglected race’s role in this turn, a turn lauded for its musical ambition. There’s a lack of scholarship on how rock music went from a predominantly African American form to a predominantly white one, so we must create ways of telling the history of rock differently. Pet Sounds is emblematic of the transition from rock ‘n’ roll to rock, yet its racial implications are rarely interrogated. It’s important to use texts like Pet Sounds as a way to examine normative whiteness as signified by the interrelated concepts of race, class, and geography.
Wilson claimed that he was searching for a “white spiritual sound” (qtd. Leaf 11) with the album, but Pet Sounds is viewed as a timeless, immaterial piece of art separate from the social conditions of its creation. In that sense, the album and its later canonization show how rock music became white, because the moment that rock became white was the moment that it became immaterial, timeless, and difficult—to be listened to repeatedly in solitude, rather than for dancing. This music is no less great because of its racial implications, but it’s essential to reexamine various “timeless” texts in relation to the material conditions of their production and reception. Whiteness as identity—including in the hegemony of white tastes in rockist discourses—often includes forgetting history, and to name Pet Sounds as a white, rather than race-less, text is a way to restore the study of historical and material conditions to discourses on music—including with class, often neglected in American Cultural Studies.
The Whiteness of Rock
In this millennium, numerous events have signaled rock’s long-entrenched white identity. In 2007, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones set off controversy when he lamented that rock had shifted away from its African American roots, starting with the alternative/indie era in the ‘90s. Slate critic Carl Wilson’s insightful critique argued that “the conscious and iconoclastic excision of blues-rock from ‘underground’ rock goes back to the ‘70s and ‘80s origins of American punk and especially hardcore, from which indie complicatedly evolved.” Both Frere-Jones and Wilson were right to question how rock became white—despite Frere-Jones’s problematic use of the term miscegenation to connote mixing of black and white styles and genres (Kheshti)—but the racialization of rock as white started earlier than the ‘70s. In fact, rock was racialized as white by the end of the ‘60s, as cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon writes, “By the end of the 1960s, rock was in place as a white youth-oriented form distinct from its parent rock ‘n’ roll. With few exceptions, black men and women were confined to the clearly demarcated field of black music” (48). Over time, this whiteness became further entrenched, and two decades later, the NAACP reported that the music industry was the most segregated industry in the US. (Mahon 31).
The Billboard charts have often contributed to this segregation in the last several decades. In 2005 the standard music industry trade publication introduced the Pop 100 as a separate category from their general Hot 100 singles chart. As music scholars Reebee Garofalo and Steve Waksman write, in discerning the purpose of the new chart, “The answer began to emerge after one noticed that every record to reach number one on the Hot 100 in 2004 was by a black artist [...] [T]he Pop 100 was designed to give white artists in pop, rock, and country a better chance to claim a number one hit song” (401). Though the chart was discontinued in 2009, the message resonates: rock, among others, is considered a white genre. [“Pop” as a category is more hybrid in contemporary society, marked as filled with more artists of color than rock .] This construction fits with the history of the Billboard charts as racialized in the last several decades. For a time in the ‘50s, there was extraordinary overlap between the pop, C&W (country & western), and R&B (rhythm & blues) charts. However, in recent decades, with an increasing number of African Americans succeeding in the pop mainstream, white anxiety about being marginalized, a cultural logic of “reverse racism”, resulted in actions like these.
Earlier in the ‘00s, rapper Mos Def’s all-African American rock band, Black Jack Johnson, generated enough backlash that he pointed out that the group represented “the most I’ve had to explain myself about any project. And if I was [sic] a White boy doing it, I wouldn’t be going through this questioning. I’m treated like I’m approaching something that’s foreign to me. My artistic pockets are being patted down because I want to do rock ‘n’ roll” (qtd. Mahon 57). Mahon writes of rock as “a genre in which black people were at once foundational and marginal” (57), speaking to the key role that African Americans played in the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s and their subsequent separation from it.
Further, in 2004, journalist Kelefa Sanneh’s article in the New York Times ignited controversy about so-called “rockism”, with rock’s values and practices considered the domain of straight white men. In a 2013 journal article, academic Miles Parks Grier wrote a list of preferred rockist “practices that have become signs of rock’s transcendence of its roots in the Hit Parade: writing one’s own material, providing one’s own instrumental accompaniment, producing dense concept albums rather than catchy dance singles, and following one’s muse resolutely, in spite of pressure from fans and record labels” (31). So, at this point in music history, rock and its practices were constructed as white, in opposition to “producing ... catchy dance singles” and other acts associated with artists of color. As we shall see, many of these practices took root in the ‘60s, when rock’s whiteness became fully established.
Historicizing the Whiteness of Rock, Part I
How did rock music, born largely out of predominantly black R&B, become marked as produced by and for white people? Historians like David R. Roediger and Nell Irvin Painter argue that an accurate understanding of race in this country requires interrogating the history of whiteness, as well as that of people of color, to determine how white supremacy became naturalized, to the point where even genres of music get coded as normative and white, two adjectives inextricably conjoined in the dominant US culture. Though the whitewashing of rock sometimes grew out of progressive political movements—think of the political lyrics of folk rock growing out of the civil rights movement—its impact was racist because it further marginalized people of color from a style that they had largely created. Part of rock’s whitewashing included the rise of suburban isolation as a symbol of white teen angst, and the rise of the American suburbs countered the progressive developments in political movements. Scholars like Painter and Karen Brodkin have written about postwar suburbia as a space of whiteness, in which restrictive covenants and other measures kept African Americans out of the suburbs.
Part of the problem of naming race in ‘60s rock is that scholars often favor musical analysis at the expense of social contextualization. For example, Joe Stuessy and Scott Lipscomb’s popular textbook, Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development, favors supposedly objective judgments about how popular styles shifted musically over time, while ignoring much of the larger social history out of which the music emerged. Textbooks like theirs tend to put Elvis Presley and the Beatles over all other artists, which, when ignoring their appropriation of other styles, can be racist because they reinforce the white supremacist domination of whites in styles they did not create. We should not deny the significance of Presley and the Beatles, but acknowledging their popularity at the expense of other artists would better contextualize their importance.
We should not define racism as many (often white) people do, as a relative concept applicable to anyone’s prejudice towards another racial group. Instead, we should see it as authors like George Fredrickson and David R. Roediger describe it, as prejudice plus power, which in the United States means white supremacy. What is called “reverse racism”—prejudice against whites—is not racism because there is no institutional power behind it to reinforce it on a larger societal level. Therefore, arguing that the impact of rock ‘n’ roll’s transformation into rock was racist means that the artist development, production, and marketing clout given to white artists in rock marginalized African American artists from a genre that they had largely created, as Maureen Mahon highlights.
For the contextually astute sources, scholars describe early rock ‘n’ roll as both important for social change and appropriative of marginalized traditions. For example, Garofalo and Waksman argue that the most apparent shifts from earlier popular music styles were based on demographics: “What made rock ‘n’ roll different was its urban orientation, focus on youth culture, appeal to working-class sensibilities, and relationship to technology and African American musical influences and performance styles” (4). They are speaking of early rock ‘n’ roll of especially the ‘50s, as rock’s shift to the suburbs occurred later.
It’s important to note the significance of class in this summation. Historian George Lipsitz, who has also written significant scholarship on race, posits working-class experience as central to early rock ‘n’ roll: “In essence,” he writes, “I argue that industrial labor created the preconditions for rock and roll, and the first rock-and-roll artists, entrepreneurs, and audiences came out of wartime working-class communities” (116). Lipsitz writes about the intersection of class and race with the wartime migrations of working class African Americans to northern, southern, and western cities, influencing middle class culture in unprecedented ways (117). He also delineates the business side of rock ‘n’ roll within a working class context:
[S]mall entrepreneurs in working-class communities noticed that their customers wanted to hear country music and blues, and so they began to establish small [and independent] recording companies as sidelines to their regular businesses. More than four hundred new record labels came into existence in the years immediately following World War II, and these labels pioneered the recording of rock and roll music. (119)
Lipsitz goes on to explore how middle class white youth latched on to rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s as a form of rebellion against the rise of the suburb (122), providing a counterpoint for future developments in the music, where the suburb became a central site of rock’s production.
The intersectionality between race and class is key. With race, Garofalo and Waksman posit,
(I)n the well-intentioned and largely accurate celebration of rock ‘n’ roll’s mongrel character, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that most of its formative influences, as well as almost all of its early innovators, were African American. Among the artists who could have been considered rock ‘n’ roll musicians prior to 1955, there was only one white act that made a national impact—Bill Haley and His Comets. (84)
While the definition of “a national impact” is debatable, this argument is correct. This is not to undermine the contributions of artists like Elvis Presley, but Presley popularized rock ‘n’ roll on the national scene more than he was a musical innovator. His music crucially synthesized earlier influences, but his impact appeared to many African Americans as appropriative, rather than original. In contrast, African Americans like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and others contributed a new vocabulary for the electric guitar, innovative singing styles, and an Afro-Caribbean-influenced rhythm known as “the Bo Diddley beat”. To be sure, there was also a strong (predominantly white) country music influence on early rock ‘n’ roll, but most of its DNA came from (predominantly black) R&B.
Rock ‘n’ roll first gained notoriety in urban postwar black communities, with the instrumentation (such as the electric guitar) a product of the urbanization of African American culture after the Great Migration to the North in the first half of the 20th century. Some have argued that rock ‘n’ roll was an incarnation of R&B (Redd), though analyzing early African American rock ‘n’ roll lyrics by the likes of Chuck Berry leads one to conclude that early rock ‘n’ roll’s lyrical topics—cars, young love, teen angst—were more teen-driven than R&B, which artists like Ray Charles noted for their more adult romantic concerns. For example, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston (HuckToohey), sometimes called the first rock ‘n’ roll record, was about a car. Nonetheless, rock ‘n’ roll obtained much of its initial musical vocabulary from R&B.