Racializing Rock: The ’60s and the White Sounds of ‘Pet Sounds’

The Beach Boys’ 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.

Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys
Capitol Records
16 May 1966

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.

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