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.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 27 September 2016.
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 a 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 2000s, 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.