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

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.

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This article was originally published on 27 September 2016.