As a highly complex song that deals with anxieties about becoming an adult, "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" was an unlikely hit single. But more than that, it stands as one of the most impressive songs in the Beach Boys' catalog.
In many ways, “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” not only stands as the most impressive track on The Beach Boys Today!, but the best track in the group's entire catalog. Musically, the song is unusually structurally and harmonically complex: it changes keys, builds its main hook on an ambiguous, dissonant chord, it stretches the tempo, and climaxes on a long pause. In regards to its lyrics, Craig Slowinski notes that, as “one of the very first rock 'n' roll songs to explore the subject of impending adulthood, ‘When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)’ was a strangely melancholic choice for a single in a climate dominated by upbeat Beatles (and Bealtes-soundalike) songs.” But despite its oddities, “When I Grow Up” managed to become a Top 10 single in the U.S. when it was released in late 1964.
Possibly more impressive is that all of the instruments—excluding the harmonica on the verses—were played by the Beach Boys themselves. For much of Today!, Brian relied on session musicians for the instrumental tracks, but not for “When I Grow Up”. Jon Stebbins comments that, “this tune is a great example of the self-contained musicianship that the Beach Boys rarely get credit for. ‘When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)’ is all Beach Boys, and it’s all great.” From Brian Wilson’s intricate electric harpsichord melodies woven throughout to Dennis Wilson’s passionate and precise drumming, “When I Grow Up” shows that the Beach Boys weren’t just competent instrumentalists, but damn good ones, even if it took them 37 takes to get it right.
Less surprising, though, is how great the vocals are. Like many early Beach Boys songs, “When I Grow Up” opens with a vocal refrain, but here, the chord that the boys hit on “When I grow up” is dissonant, unstable, and functionally ambiguous. Music theorist Philip Lambert rightly questions, “What is that chord, and what’s it doing at the beginning of a pop song?” While the first part of the question may be too difficult to answer here, we can attempt to explain the second half.
“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” is particularly interesting lyrically. On the surface, the song is about a teenager looking forward and wondering what his life will be like, though, as Alice Bolin points out, it’s actually about “a 23-year-old who imagined a 13-year-old imagining what it was like to be 23”. He is anxious about what his children will think of him, whether or not he’ll always love his wife, and the impending end of his youthful freedom, not to mention the inevitable end of his life. So this jarring chord is used to capture the fraught unsureness of the character’s perspective as well as the narrative tension that arises from the difference between Brian Wilson’s age and his narrator’s. This is pretty heavy subject matter for a pop song released in 1964, and Brian doesn’t soften it with simple music. Instead, he embraces the difficult subject matter and expresses it simultaneously through the music. And somehow, the group still managed to make it a hit.
The destabilizing nature of the “when I grow up” chord is exploited throughout to shift the song into different keys. The first time we hear the chord in the intro, it allows the song to resolve to the home key of A-flat major. But after the second verse, the refrain leads to a wordless bridge in E-flat minor. And after the third verse, the chord prepares the song to modulate into A major. But outside of the magical “when I grow up” chord, there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on in the music.
The verses follow a simple I-V-I chord progression with Mike Love singing a repetitive melody that outlines the chords. Here, he begins asking questions like, "Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid?" Moving into the pre-chorus, Brian Wilson takes the lead in a falsetto whine accompanied by a harmonized vocal counterpoint. This layered texture increases the urgency and angst of the questions they're singing. All the voices come back together, though, for the refrain of “When I grow up to be a man”. In addition to the wonderful vocal writing, the instrumental track is inventive and exciting. Throughout the song, there is an ornate harpsichord counter-melody to the vocal line. The harpsichord hadn’t been used on a Beach Boys record before this, but would pop up again later on Pet Sounds and the failed SMiLE album. In the second and third verses, a rhythmic harmonica accentuates the texture in an unexpected way that further adds to the unique sound of the track.
In the song's verses, background vocals start counting in harmony, signifying the passing of time. By the time we get to the outro, they’re at “22…23…24…25” and so on. On top of this, Mike repeats a hook of “Won’t last forever” and Brian offers a blunt observation, “It’s kinda sad”. The contrapuntal outro feels like a precursor to the outro of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, another song about looking forward into the future. But unlike “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “When I Grow Up” is tense and distressed. Even the title, with its parenthetical inclusion of “To Be a Man” implies a masculine anxiety similar to their earlier song, “Don’t Worry Baby”. In a 2011 interview with Goldmine, however, Brian reassures fans by saying, “As I look back, I am happy with my life now and I didn’t think I would be [when I wrote the song].”
This is not songwriting that’s complex for the sake of complexity, though. Rather, these clever harmonic maneuvers are directly related to the sophisticated lyrics and the emotional state of the narrator. And it’s this kind of artistry that makes "When I Grow Up" stand out, and marks Today! as a real turning point in the Beach Boys' career.