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.
To trace the whitewashing of rock, I want to focus on a song that inspired generations of white rockers, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys. By discussing Chuck Berry’s 1958 guitar-driven anthem, “Johnny B. Goode”, we can illuminate the compromises Berry felt forced to make for the emerging white teen market that both downplayed and highlighted what Toni Morrison calls the Africanist presence in ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and beyond.
The shift from “colored boy” to “country boy” indicates the unfortunate realities of white supremacy in a country where a less racially specific term, such as “country” can become a universal trope covertly signaling whiteness and white values.The basic guitar riff of Berry’s “Roll Over, Beethoven” — later copied by the Beach Boys in “Fun, Fun, Fun” — is used again in the opening to “Johnny B. Goode”. This opening is propulsive, repetitive, and exciting, incorporating stop-time rhythm here and at other instrumental passages in the recording. The opening verse sets up a class narrative that attempts to transcend race:
Deep down in Lou’siana close to New OrleansWay back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a ringin’ a bell. (qtd. Taylor 166)
As Berry wrote in his Autobiography, he originally wrote the lyrics as “a colored boy named Johnny B. Goode”, but he “thought it would seem biased to white fans to say ‘colored boy’ and changed it to ‘country boy'” (157). This decision reflected African American artists’ growing awareness of the white teen market and its salience: it was clear by the ’50s that the capital African American artists craved was often supplied by a lucrative white consumer base, growing with the economic prosperity following World War II.
The lyrics reveal numerous signifiers of poverty in this verse: from a remote location, “[d]eep down” in the South, “[w]ay back up in the woods”, with an extremely simple “log cabin made of earth and wood”, emerges an illiterate “country boy” who is naturally gifted on the guitar. Berry seeks to convey the humble origins of the title character, who clearly comes from a place removed from so-called civilization: rural, impoverished, and possibly pre-industrial. As musicologist Timothy D. Taylor notes, other parts of the song are filled with “rural African-American imagery, such as gunny sacks and railroad tracks” (170), so the song does not disavow Berry’s roots in African American culture, but the shift from “colored boy” to “country boy” indicates the unfortunate realities of white supremacy in a country where a less racially specific term, such as “country” can become a universal trope covertly signaling whiteness and white values. When Berry made the lyric change, he recognized that the dominant methods for interpreting music involve not recognizing race, and “country boy” fits within this paradigm. [I should note that “country” does have white connotations, perhaps including the historical nostalgia that scholar Geoff Mann says marks country music as “sounding white”.]
Many read this song as a kind of autobiographical myth for Berry, though he grew up middle class (Garofalo and Waksman 95). As critic Dave Marsh notes, by changing the lyric to “country boy”, he made the story applicable to Elvis Presley and his white fans (3). Berry wrote in his autobiography that he originally intended the song to be a tribute to his pianist, Johnnie Johnson (156), but it quickly became about a Berry-like figure whose mother dreams that he will be a star. Though the song is often interpreted as about fame, Marsh asserts that the song’s title character is dreaming about the chance to escape poverty (2).
The song became an anthem for generations of rock guitarists, being voted the #1 greatest guitar song of all time in 2008 by Rolling Stone magazine. But in the decades following the further whitewashing of rock in the ’60s, “Johnny B. Goode” increasingly became a symbol of whiteness. The best example of this trend is seen in the 1985 movie, Back to the Future, in which actor Michael J. Fox travels in time to play “Johnny B. Goode” at a dance in the ’50s with an African American band (Movieclips). As blogger Justin Peniston writes, the scene seems to project the fantasy that white Americans could have created rock ‘n’ roll, as Marty McFly (Fox’s character) plays this supposedly new song for an unsuspecting white audience as if he created that song and style. So Marty McFly serves as a stand-in for Elvis Presley, a white figure who takes African American music and brings it to a bigger audience. McFly even uses Berry’s stage moves, including the famous “duck walk”, before playing a guitar riff reminiscent of surf rock, a style heavily influenced by Berry. He then devolves (from the perspective of the audience) into a series of theatrics recalling later guitarists like Jimi Hendrix (playing behind his back), and ends the clip by saying, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet.”
Despite this being a form of appropriation where McFly takes credit for Berry’s innovations, ostensibly erasing the Africanist presence of early rock ‘n’ roll, the performance serves as the Africanist presence in a scene with an all-white audience because it is written by an African American and performed with an African American band. Similarly, the presence of Berry’s riffs, for example in songs by the Beach Boys like “Fun, Fun, Fun” served as the Africanist presence in ’60s rock as blacks were largely erased from the rock scene. When I say “Africanist presence”, I’m referring to American literature and culture appearing to affirm a race-neutral identity that is actually white and formed in opposition to the black presence in the United States (Morrison).
Historicizing the Whiteness of Rock, Part II
In the mid-’50s, the strong presence of country-influenced rockabilly and cover tunes contributed to rock becoming racialized as white. Rockabilly contributed artists like Presley, Haley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and others, but because of racism in American society, it greatly overshadowed other developments in rock ‘n’ roll that featured more African American artists. Rockabilly took the whine of postwar electric guitar from country’s urbanized honky tonk style and gave this country sound a more central role. More obviously whitewashing black innovations was the phenomenon of cover records, where usually black artists’ records on independent labels got “covered”, or recorded by more marketable white artists on major labels, to capitalize on the emerging craze of rock ‘n’ roll.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s — the period between Presley enlisting in the Army and the Beatles’ rise in the US — there was a much higher proportion of African Americans and women on the charts at this time than in other periods. As Garofalo and Waksman note, “In 1962, thanks primarily to the girl groups, more black artists appeared on the year-end singles chart than at any time in history” (151). The girl groups, such as the Ronettes, the Shirelles, and the Crystals — working with male producers like Phil Spector — were largely displaced after the British Invasion of groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but for a time, they ruled the sales charts and radio. Nonetheless, the separation between rock ‘n’ roll and R&B had become more complete by the end of the ’50s: Garofalo and Waksman write, “Prior to 1959, rock ‘n’ roll had effected an extraordinary degree of overlap between the pop charts and the r&b [sic] charts,” and this effect was surprisingly bidirectional, as black artists made it onto the pop charts and white artists made it onto the R&B charts (147-48). Thus, 1959 marked a turning point in American popular music because the markets for different genres became more racially segregated, just as the civil rights movement was preaching a more integrated society.
What made rock ‘n’ roll more of a white phenomenon in this period was the appearance of bland white teen idols who were marketed as rock ‘n’ rollers. These teen idols filled the space that Elvis Presley had left when early rock ‘n’ rollers faced scandal (Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry), temporary retirement from the entertainment business (Presley, Little Richard), or death (Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens). These “schlock rock” — as termed by Garofalo and Steve Chapple — artists, including Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell, reflected white middle class tastes as opposed to the more working class, black-dominated styles of R&B and earlier rock ‘n’ roll (Garofalo and Waksman 132-38).
In 1964, the Beatles landed in New York, appeared on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show, and helped change American culture practically overnight, but often overlooked is the fact that the British Invasion overshadowed developments in African American music. Much of the earliest music by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones was comprised of covers of songs by black R&B and rock ‘n’ roll artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. And while, as Garofalo and Waksman argue, “Their motivation in recording so many African American hits was … to pay tribute to their musical forebears” (164), their recordings did overshadow — and make much more money than — the earlier rock ‘n’ roll artists and styles to which they were paying tribute.
That said, during the mid-’60s, African American artists at Motown Records enjoyed an unusually strong life for blacks on the pop charts to date, with over 100 Top Ten pop hits in a decade (Garofalo and Waksman 156). In addition, southern soul artists like James Brown and Aretha Franklin enjoyed crossover success with unapologetically gospel-rooted recordings that sold across racial lines.
Still, when especially the Beatles and folk-based superstar Bob Dylan created original works that elevated the music to the status of an “art”, rock ‘n’ roll became rock, known for several new features, as Mahon explains:
Performers began to write their own material, and the subject matter expanded as references to cars and love were complemented by poetic commentaries on politics and everyday life. Musicians began focusing on producing albums intended to make conceptual and artistic statements, and rock became a site of authentic self-expression. […] White artists and fans dominated the scene, and the majority of young African Americans focused on soul music. (43-44)
This process further marked rock as a site of white authenticity and individualism and rebellion, while inadvertently relegating African American artists further to the margins.
Despite the rise of the civil rights movement and the overtly politicized lyrics of subsequent folk rock artists like Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, the combination of original songwriting by whites, the rising significance of (especially concept) albums, and political lyrics — all imported from the ’60s folk revival, according to scholar Keir Keightley¬ — was both musically progressive and racially reactionary in its impact. Many critics have lauded Dylan’s turn to electric instrumentation in the mid-’60s, but not many have considered the impact Dylan, the Beatles, and others had on the perception of rock ‘n’ roll, now rock, as a predominantly white genre.
The White Sounds of Pet Sounds
It was during this time that the Beach Boys released the pivotal album, Pet Sounds, a masterpiece that also reflected some uncomfortable truths about rock’s new racial identity. Pet Sounds is not a racist text, but its impact was racist because it further encoded rock as a white genre, perpetuating the institutionalized prejudice that relegated African Americans to the margins of rock.
Music scholar David Brackett describes the growing prosperity of California, the home of the Beach Boys, after World War II, as “the land of fruit and nuts … rapidly became the most populous and economically important of the 50 states. Out of the sun-drenched expanses of the rapidly growing suburbs in Southern California came surf music, with its litany of beaches, blondes, and Bonneville sport coupes” (140). This quotation speaks to Garofalo and Waksman’s argument about surf music as a white middle class, leisure-driven scene that arose out of prosperity, rather than oppression, and it also speaks to the race and gender dynamics (“blondes” signaling white female objects of desire) that surf music depended on for its appeal.
The Beach Boys’ home of southern California provides clues to the race- and class-based history obscured in Pet Sounds and its reception. It’s necessary to look at the suburbanization of Los Angeles and inquire how that racialized history affected the Beach Boys’ music. Music historian Marc Myers writes, “In the years immediately after World War II, Los Angeles became the fastest-growing city in the country. More veterans settled in the city and its outskirts than in any other region of the country” (97). This influx of predominantly white veterans meant that low-interest home loans from the recent GI Bill helped create a demand for new communities. These suburbs were commercially independent but linked by a new, extensive freeway system that made living in Los Angeles practically require a car (98-101). In addition, the music business was expanding rapidly. The recent development of both the long-playing vinyl album, or LP, and the 45 revolutions-per-minute (RPM) single for shorter recordings, alongside the older 78 RPM format, made the three-speed turntable an important part of many households (94).
Simultaneously, the suburbs were often racially exclusive: the practice of restrictive covenants barred white landowners from selling or renting land to African Americans. Even famous African American entertainer Nat “King” Cole ran into difficulty “buying his home in the segregated Hancock Park area of Los Angeles”, according to musician and manager John Levy, who claims that this was common for the most beloved of black entertainers and musicians (qtd. Myers 105). In addition, police harassment and limited work opportunities (104-11) meant that Los Angeles’s African Americans grew increasingly frustrated with their conditions of living. In the two decades following World War II, many northern and western African Americans, including in Los Angeles, experimented with nonviolent direct action campaigns against segregated schools and public facilities, but as historian Joe William Trotter, Jr., highlights, many grew frustrated with the limited results of such campaigns (546-53). In 1965, the year before the release of Pet Sounds, the uprisings in Los Angeles’s Watts District protested poor living conditions — for example, “over 250,000 African Americans occupied a space that represented four times more people per square block than the city as a whole” (560). This severe overcrowding led to riots resulting in “$40 million in property damage” (560). The lives of African Americans in Watts provided a stark contrast to the prosperity of the predominantly white suburbs of the city.
The Beach Boys’ early records reflected the affluent lifestyle of suburban southern California, especially with their emphasis on cars in songs like “409”, “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Little Deuce Coupe”. They came on the scene as part of the surf rock movement with early singles like “Surfin'” and “Surfin’ Safari”, a movement that Garofalo and Waksman interpret as being part of a white, middle-class reaction to the largely working-class and African American tendencies of early rock ‘n’ roll. This is not to say that the Beach Boys were not fond of African American music: their “Surfin’ U.S.A.” appropriated, but gave copyright credits to, Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”. However, the guitar riff from “Fun, Fun, Fun” was stolen from Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” without writing credits. Garofalo and Waksman summed up the Beach Boys’ relation to race well when they write, “Their images, like surf music in general, were bound to a kind of affluence available only to a narrow segment of the population. Seemingly oblivious to their own privilege or the social currents around them, the Beach Boys were hardly apologetic for their music. ‘We’re white and we sing white,’ the group said” (144). While one might ask what it means to sing white, this quotation speaks volumes about the perception the group had of themselves in the larger popular music scene, as they were aware of how their music did not fit within current trends of African American music.
In the years following 1963, the Beach Boys’ records reflected an increasing awareness of loss, including loss of youth. Critic Jim Miller names “Don’t Worry, Baby” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” as examples of this tendency. But Pet Sounds, released in 1966, obviously goes further, as it moves from the bliss of opener “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the heartbreaking disappointment of “Caroline, No”. The album is all about longing: longing for something better, longing for continued innocence — and awareness that what is longed for may never arrive. As a concept album, Pet Sounds moves from innocence to experience, to use a familiar trope at the center of work by writers like William Blake.
One clear marker of whiteness in the album is that Pet Sounds reflects suburban affluence. As previously noted, Los Angeles’s suburbs, including the Beach Boys’ hometown of Hawthorne, became racialized spaces of exclusion, and the “massive amount of effort” that singer-songwriter Elliott Smith noted that Pet Sounds represents (speaking on a television special from 2001) reflects a cost of money that many of the city’s African American residents were never given access to because of lending discrimination and restrictive covenants. In terms of sonic markers of this tendency, the bicycle horns and bells in “You Still Believe In Me”, near the album’s beginning, can be contrasted as a symbol of idyllic suburban life to the end of the album, where an urban scene of trains and noise replaces the suburban sense of peace. This progression symbolizes, again, the move from innocence to experience that the album’s architecture provides.
When it comes to race, another marker of historicized whiteness on Pet Sounds is its special focus on the individual and on individual relationships, in contrast to the communal and political dimensions of individual love songs in the music of people of color, particularly African Americans. What does individualism have to do with whiteness more specifically? Historians like Roediger have written about white privilege as involving constructing whites as individuals, rather than as of a specific race. As an example, taken from scholar Peggy Macintosh’s classic essay on white privilege, if a white person is stopped by a cop, they can be sure that they are not being singled out specifically because of their race, a luxury that people of color do not have in the US. In addition, as novelist Toni Morrison argues in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, themes of American literature and culture such as individualism were a direct response to the “Africanist presence” of blacks in a white supremacist country. This is to say that whites defined themselves against a racial Other that was seen as undifferentiated and incapable of producing unique individuals. So in this sense, individualism is ideologically racialized and constructed as something whites possess in the dominant culture and that people of color lack.
To be fair, pop music in the 20th century had hundreds of popular songs about romantic love, but contrast Pet Sounds to another landmark recording of the mid-’60s, such as Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”, and the sonic markers and political implications of this difference become clearer: white music is often constructed as melodic, harmonic, restrained, well composed, of the mind, and individualistic, while African American music is often constructed as rhythmic, for dancing / of the body, uninhibited, intuitive / “soulful”, and collective. “Respect” is about romantic love, but it became implicated in the African American civil rights movement as well as the emerging feminist movement, so its social uses clearly united people for cohesive political movements of particular times and places, rather than reuniting isolated suburban teenagers over multiple generations over a feeling of alienation. If anything, “Respect” is about change and movement, whereas “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” on Pet Sounds is about melancholic stasis. Though there are plentiful African American love songs of this time that are about individual relationships — Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”, for example — their aesthetics were overtly politicized, as many have interpreted the raw, heavily gospel-influenced sound of record labels like Stax and Atlantic at this time as a manifestation of the Black Power Movement and its preference for art heavily rooted in black communities. Pet Sounds, on the other hand, does have racialized aesthetics, as we shall see, but its effect is to make the listener forget about race, seeing the music as colorblind and race-less, which is often a sign of whiteness.
Another marker of whiteness — at least in rockist terms — is that Pet Sounds is a ’60s rock concept album, with a more ambitious focus on the constructed inner workings and obsessions of creative genius Brian Wilson. Especially on a song like “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” (“They say I got brains / But they ain’t doin’ me no good / I wish they could”), the lyrics express a profound vulnerability that was uncommon in the original songwriting of even groups like the Beatles at that time (their 1965 LP, Rubber Soul, inspired Wilson to create much of Pet Sounds). Though the song contains an obvious temporal reference — “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times” — in many ways, that phrase is amorphous and could apply to anyone who feels socially excluded in any time period.
Though Wilson has argued about the album, “It wasn’t really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album: it was really a production concept album” (qtd. Jones 44), there are definite themes that progress from song to song. The concept of Pet Sounds can be described as follows: naively hoping for a blissful future (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”); expressing disbelief at the continued success of a couple’s romance (“You Still Believe In Me”); recommitting to love (“That’s Not Me”); experiencing romantic bliss (“Don’t Talk [Put Your Head on My Shoulder]”); experiencing cynicism in a relationship (“I’m Waiting for the Day”); taking a break that is punctuated by trouble (“Let’s Go Away for Awhile” and the folk song, “Sloop John B”); doubt potentially overshadowing love (“God Only Knows”); fighting the perils of individualism (“I Know There’s an Answer”); his partner leaving and her new romantic interest being confronted about the fleeting nature of love (“Here Today”); asserting a loner status amidst internal and external conflict (“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”); reflecting on earlier times (the title track); and interrogating the loss of innocence and the end of a love affair (“Caroline No”).
To be fair, white pop vocalist Frank Sinatra and African American jazz musicians like Sonny Rollins and Max Roach had pioneered the concept album — a cohesive unit with no filler, arranged around a singular theme — but the rock concept album was largely new in 1966, and it was first developed by white artists like the Beach Boys and the Beatles, whose Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was inspired by Pet Sounds.
Further, Pet Sounds reflects classical music influences. Lambert writes of Wilson’s love of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue — though that contained jazz influences from African Americans — and the orchestration on the instrumental “Let’s Go Away for a While”, as well as on vocal tracks like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” reflects the influence of classical music with its strings, harp, English horn, and other instruments unusual for rock. Musicologist Philip Lambert even highlights what another musicologist calls a “Levittown sixth” chord present on Pet Sounds, named as such because Billy Joel used it later. Levittowns were suburban American settlements built for whites after World War II, so even this chord can be designated as a symbol of whiteness. Also, of course, African American classical composers like William Grant Still and Olly Wilson have existed, but as a tradition, classical music is associated with Europe and white male composers.
Additionally, Pet Sounds reflects an unusual level of creative control. Wilson’s model in this was producer Phil Spector, who became better well known than the girl groups he produced, and his most obvious other parallels in the ’60s were the Beatles and Bob Dylan. However, as musicologist John Covach writes, soul artist James Brown was an unusual example of an African American in total control of his career at this time, and Ray Charles was another rare example of an African American artist with creative and financial control over his career in the ’60s (Lydon). Nonetheless, as Grier notes, the artist resolutely following his muse has become a hallmark of what rockists value among straight white male artists in discourses of music criticism.
This creative control is not only racialized: musicologist Jan Butler writes about the economic structures in place at major record labels like Capitol, where Pet Sounds was released, to compete with rising independent labels: “(I)n the 1960s, rather than attempting to create markets through the more recent strategy of artist development, the majors depended on entrepreneur producers [like Brian Wilson] to try to meet the demands of a changing market in order to minimize the chance of a recording being a commercial failure” (225). One way of interpreting this is that the control that Wilson had surpassed that of the other Beach Boys because of his proven record of creating hit singles and albums, so that the record company was willing to invest in his artistic vision in a way that most artists — of any race — could not approach. Still, Wilson probably would have been less likely to access so many financial resources had he been African American.
Finally, Brian Wilson himself said he was searching for “a white spiritual sound” (qtd. Leaf, Pet Sounds 11). American religious music had long been associated with African Americans, going back to antebellum spirituals and stretching into 20th century gospel, which had a heavy blues influence. But Pet Sounds aimed for a different kind of religious experience in music. The most obvious religious reference was in the title of what has been called the album’s centerpiece, “God Only Knows”, but in general he was aiming for a more European classical-influenced interpretation of American pop music with a spiritual focus.
Nonetheless, as Toni Morrison’s theory illuminates, there is an Africanist presence to the album that both affirms and contradicts the album’s perceived whiteness, and it shows up at least twice on the album. “Sloop John B”, a Caribbean folk song — “[a] sea chantey with its origins in the Bahamas” (Fusilli 16) — becomes a moment for considering the Africanist roots of American culture, including internationally. Morrison would argue that American culture(s) is/are inseparable from African American culture(s), as well as international black cultures, as theorist Paul Gilroy explores in his work.
So, the question becomes, what is this song — the only song on the album that’s not written or co-written by Brian Wilson — doing on the album, besides that it was a hit single before most of the album was recorded? As Jim Fusilli writes in the 33 1/3 series book on Pet Sounds, “it disrupts the thematic flow of the album. […] (I)t’s anything but a reflective love song, a stark confession or a tentative statement of independence like other songs on the album” (16-17). The song becomes about a longing for home, but not a home in the Caribbean: it was a home in the suburbs of California. Part of the record’s inventiveness is in the arrangement, which further highlights the Africanist presence because its performances are influenced by Chuck Berry, especially the strong beat provided by drummer Hal Blaine. In this sense, “Sloop John B” is the track that most sounds like rock ‘n’ roll on the album, even with its orchestration, but it’s the album’s conceptual, thematic possibilities — and absence of a historical consciousness — that mark Pet Sounds as a rock album of its time.
The song is also literally in the center of the album — the seventh song out of 13 — which suggests that the Africanist presence is also at the album’s center, even though the Beach Boys were most inspired by the white folk group the Kingston Trio’s earlier rendition of the tune (Leaf, The Pet Sounds Sessions 15). Pet Sounds also benefits from the Africanist presence on the title track, with surf rock guitar — Wilson’s “pet sounds”, as musicologist Philip Lambert and other authors have noted — influenced by Berry.
At the time, Pet Sounds was considered a commercial disappointment, charting at #10 on the Billboard album charts in the US, but faring much better in the UK. (Butler 231). But, of course, in the following decades Pet Sounds has become considered a towering masterpiece of rock, even being ranked as the #1 most acclaimed album of all time in 2015. [According to the statistical aggregate, Acclaimedmusic.net.] Pet Sounds has gained significant stature as a work of art in the last few decades. Music scholar Carys Wyn Jones historicizes the increased canonization of a select few albums, including Pet Sounds, to the mid-’90s (25). Jones writes convincingly that any canon needs secondary literature to reinforce the value of that canon (27-29), and the ever-expanding literature on Pet Sounds is a testament to this principle. As Jones writes, words like “genius” and “masterpiece” are often applied to the album and to Wilson. Jim Fusilli, for example, writing in the 33 1/3 series book on Pet Sounds, says, “Pet Sounds raises pop to the level of art” (qtd. Jones 29)
Craftspeople and Artists
Jones insightfully highlights “the struggling, tortured, Romantic genius, characterized by William Weber as ‘idiosyncratic, perhaps odd … an unconventional spirit, seeing a virtue in resisting the rules of art or society'” (34), as uniting many of the works in the rock canon, and she goes on to write, “Brian Wilson is a natural candidate as a Romantic hero with his partial deafness and troubled past” (35). She quotes Fusilli writing about Wilson, “You wonder if some god said, ‘I’ll create a being whose work will mean so much to so many people […] And yet I’ll make him suffer terribly. […]’ ‘Beat that, Shakespeare’, said the demented god, pointing through the clouds at a little boy in Hawthorne, California, born June 20, 1942” (qtd. 35).
Scholars need to acknowledge not only more African Americans in rock, but also white participation in soul.This hyperbolic language indicates that the canonization of ostensibly lowbrow forms like rock can follow the same trajectory as that for classical music and visual art, with Romantic genius figures practically deified to uphold the canon. This contrasts with artists of the ’50s — including white ones such as Elvis Presley — who are often tied to their material conditions and the surrounding social contexts in a way that a lot of predominantly white musical forms after and artists therein, did not. As a contrasting example, musicologist John J. Sheinbaum writes of how African American ’60s soul musicians like Aretha Franklin are often tied to their context in language about “craftspeople”, versus language about the Beatles as timeless, Romantic genius “artists” (110-32).
When rock became white is when it became timeless and immaterial. Pet Sounds is conceptually sophisticated, not for dancing or entertainment as much as solitary listening and reflection. In this sense, albums like Pet Sounds became about ideas divorced from any material context, which is why it’s important to historicize such work. The commercial roots of Pet Sounds deserve further examination, as Lambert writes of the guitar sound in the title track as echoing earlier Beach Boys surf rock hits. Examining how Pet Sounds was a commercial product that did not transcend the Hit Parade (to use Miles Parks Grier’s language) would help undermine rock’s “timelessness” while recognizing that it being a commercial product of its time may not be such a bad thing after all. An obvious marker of its commercial leanings can be found in its writing history: most of the lyrics were not written by Brian Wilson.
Instead, they were written by advertising jingle writer Tony Asher. This casts serious doubts on the supposed authenticity of Pet Sounds as an individualist vision for Wilson. Of course, this album is very much Wilson’s vision as producer and composer, above the other band members: the album’s sessionography reveals that except on “That’s Not Me”, the other Beach Boys played no instrumental parts on the album, with prolific side musicians like drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye playing instead. But nonetheless, the singular vision of Pet Sounds helped reinforce rock’s de-contextualization over time, and thus, it became a symbol of the normative whiteness of rock.
Complicating Rock and Race
After the release of Pet Sounds, psychedelia and the counterculture of the late ’60s further marked rock as white. Garofalo and Waksman that the hippie counterculture was largely a rebellion against the conformity of white middle class life (181). The hippie scene, of course, did produce at least one African American star: the dazzling virtuoso Jimi Hendrix, who influenced future generations of guitarists. But the counterculture’s biggest star was Janis Joplin, who was heavily indebted, by her own admission, to blues singers like Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton. So clearly the counterculture’s predominant whiteness had some relationship with African American cultures and traditions.
Even with this heavily racialized terrain, not many other scholars have written about the racial dynamics of the separation of rock ‘n’ roll into rock, though critic Nelson George has succinctly summed up the shift by saying, “It was art. It was rock. It was white” (106). As I detailed in 2012, rock history textbooks have often perpetuated this separation by describing ’60s rock and soul music in racially opposed terms. These constructions signal usually overvaluing rock in racist oppositions such as, (predominantly white) rock is more complex and intellectual, while (predominantly black) soul is simpler and more emotional, without acknowledging the complex and intellectual dimensions of, for example, rhythm in James Brown’s soul music recordings (Friedberg).
Musicologist John J. Sheinbaum goes further and shows, in a wider range of historiography, how white rock musicians are often depicted as artists while black soul musicians are described as craftspeople, among other oppositions. These oppositions often go unremarked, as race is not discussed in the rise of the rock of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. To be fair, race is often discussed in their early work, when the Beatles were covering early rock ‘n’ roll and R&B songs and Dylan was writing civil rights anthems like “Blowin’ in the Wind”. But few critics write about race with Dylan’s and the Beatles’ mid- to late-’60s work, such as the psychedelia of the Beatles’ Revolver or the surreal imagery of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
In addition to acknowledging the racial aspects of the separation of rock from R&B and soul, scholars must work to complicate the framework such language reflects. One way to do so is to acknowledge not only more African Americans in rock — including Arthur Lee of Love and Sly Stone, in addition to the widely cited genius of Hendrix — but also white participation in soul, as white instrumentalists and producers were commonly used on the recordings of southern soul artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. Additionally, as I wrote in that aforementioned 2012 article, by the ’70s black soul artists like Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield were recording unified concept albums, as white rockers were doing (Friedberg). To further complicate the picture, we must examine Latino/a contributions to American popular music of the time, including Chicano/a rock artists like Santana on the West Coast and Cuban and Puerto Rican styles on the East Coast (Garofalo and Waksman 175-81). Nonetheless, as I wrote, we also need to acknowledge that by this time, the larger music public viewed rock as white and soul as black (Friedberg).
It’s important to tell the history of how rock became white and to also critique how that history has been told. Part of the solution to the problem of the racist binary oppositions that I note is to talk about race for white, as well as black, musicians. To truly reimagine the whiteness of rock, we need to look for more drastic alternatives to teach how constructions of race affected rock and soul than most of the scholarship available. For example, as noted in my article, in critical book and journal articles authors like sociologist Barry Shank and ethnomusicologist Ronald Radano explore how whites helped construct the dominant conceptions of white and black music (Friedberg). Shank’s article on Bob Dylan’s early work and its roots in blackface minstrelsy casts serious doubts on the sincerity of recordings like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'”.
Additionally, musicologist Karl Hagstrom Miller and scholar Keir Keightley have written texts that question the naturalization of rock’s whiteness, albeit sometimes indirectly. In Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, Miller writes of the folkloric paradigm — which sees black music as performed by black bodies and white music as performed by white bodies — as a construction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Jim Crow segregation in the South and the ascendance of the American Folklore Society tended to view isolation as key to music’s authenticity — think of Appalachian folk music or early blues. Miller shows how before this period, the minstrelsy paradigm, involving white people performing what was thought to be black music, was dominant. Miller’s text helps us question how entrenched categories of white and black music have become, perhaps signaling that at some point rock could be seen as black again. In addition, the suburban isolation of the stereotypical white male teenage rock guitarist has proven key to that caricature’s perceived authenticity over the years, so Miller’s text shows us where the idea of isolation in popular music’s authenticity took shape.
Keightley, on the other hand, examines the later ascendance of rock culture, rather than simply rock music, as defined by a sense of seriousness in its anti-mainstream stance — despite, he claims, rock culture having been born in the mainstream. Keightley reimagines the rise of rock as signaling the dominance of a new youth market that was more culturally constructed than defined by age limits. When he writes of rock culture as having been born in the mainstream, he does not explicitly name race and whiteness as part of that mainstream, but in his discussion of the ’60s, it seems logical to conclude that rock’s reflexively anti-mainstream stance was born not only out of a sense of rebellion in postwar America, but also out of the re-entrenchment of racial boundaries. To Keightley, it would seem, a newly emergent form of white identity was born out of appropriating music dominated by African Americans, and thus, rock became white.
Each of these myriad alternative interpretations offers something new to the growing discourse of Popular Music Studies, Whiteness Studies, and African American Studies. Each was published in the new millennium, and they all illuminate the promise of alternative interpretation in a world of naturalized categories that must be questioned in order for our society to progress towards an anti-racist future.