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

Oblivious Affluence

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,] 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)