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 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.