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

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.

Whitewashing "Johnny"

To trace the whitewashing of rock, I want to focus on a song that inspired generations of white rockers, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys. By discussing Chuck Berry's 1958 guitar-driven anthem, "Johnny B. Goode", we can illuminate the compromises Berry felt forced to make for the emerging white teen market that both downplayed and highlighted what Toni Morrison calls the Africanist presence in '50s rock 'n' roll and beyond.

The shift from "colored boy" to "country boy" indicates the unfortunate realities of white supremacy in a country where a less racially specific term, such as "country" can become a universal trope covertly signaling whiteness and white values.
The basic guitar riff of Berry's "Roll Over, Beethoven" -- later copied by the Beach Boys in "Fun, Fun, Fun" -- is used again in the opening to "Johnny B. Goode". This opening is propulsive, repetitive, and exciting, incorporating stop-time rhythm here and at other instrumental passages in the recording. The opening verse sets up a class narrative that attempts to transcend race:

Deep down in Lou'siana close to New Orleans

Way back up in the woods among the evergreens

There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood

Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode

Who never ever learned to read or write so well

But he could play a guitar just like a ringin' a bell. (qtd. Taylor 166)

As Berry wrote in his Autobiography, he originally wrote the lyrics as "a colored boy named Johnny B. Goode", but he "thought it would seem biased to white fans to say 'colored boy' and changed it to 'country boy'" (157). This decision reflected African American artists' growing awareness of the white teen market and its salience: it was clear by the '50s that the capital African American artists craved was often supplied by a lucrative white consumer base, growing with the economic prosperity following World War II.

The lyrics reveal numerous signifiers of poverty in this verse: from a remote location, "[d]eep down" in the South, "[w]ay back up in the woods", with an extremely simple "log cabin made of earth and wood", emerges an illiterate "country boy" who is naturally gifted on the guitar. Berry seeks to convey the humble origins of the title character, who clearly comes from a place removed from so-called civilization: rural, impoverished, and possibly pre-industrial. As musicologist Timothy D. Taylor notes, other parts of the song are filled with "rural African-American imagery, such as gunny sacks and railroad tracks" (170), so the song does not disavow Berry's roots in African American culture, but the shift from "colored boy" to "country boy" indicates the unfortunate realities of white supremacy in a country where a less racially specific term, such as "country" can become a universal trope covertly signaling whiteness and white values. When Berry made the lyric change, he recognized that the dominant methods for interpreting music involve not recognizing race, and "country boy" fits within this paradigm. [I should note that "country" does have white connotations, perhaps including the historical nostalgia that scholar Geoff Mann says marks country music as "sounding white".]

Many read this song as a kind of autobiographical myth for Berry, though he grew up middle class (Garofalo and Waksman 95). As critic Dave Marsh notes, by changing the lyric to "country boy", he made the story applicable to Elvis Presley and his white fans (3). Berry wrote in his autobiography that he originally intended the song to be a tribute to his pianist, Johnnie Johnson (156), but it quickly became about a Berry-like figure whose mother dreams that he will be a star. Though the song is often interpreted as about fame, Marsh asserts that the song's title character is dreaming about the chance to escape poverty (2).

The song became an anthem for generations of rock guitarists, being voted the #1 greatest guitar song of all time in 2008 by Rolling Stone magazine. But in the decades following the further whitewashing of rock in the '60s, "Johnny B. Goode" increasingly became a symbol of whiteness. The best example of this trend is seen in the 1985 movie, Back to the Future, in which actor Michael J. Fox travels in time to play "Johnny B. Goode" at a dance in the '50s with an African American band (Movieclips). As blogger Justin Peniston writes, the scene seems to project the fantasy that white Americans could have created rock 'n' roll, as Marty McFly (Fox's character) plays this supposedly new song for an unsuspecting white audience as if he created that song and style. So Marty McFly serves as a stand-in for Elvis Presley, a white figure who takes African American music and brings it to a bigger audience. McFly even uses Berry's stage moves, including the famous "duck walk", before playing a guitar riff reminiscent of surf rock, a style heavily influenced by Berry. He then devolves (from the perspective of the audience) into a series of theatrics recalling later guitarists like Jimi Hendrix (playing behind his back), and ends the clip by saying, "I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet."

Despite this being a form of appropriation where McFly takes credit for Berry's innovations, ostensibly erasing the Africanist presence of early rock 'n' roll, the performance serves as the Africanist presence in a scene with an all-white audience because it is written by an African American and performed with an African American band. Similarly, the presence of Berry's riffs, for example in songs by the Beach Boys like "Fun, Fun, Fun" served as the Africanist presence in '60s rock as blacks were largely erased from the rock scene. When I say “Africanist presence”, I’m referring to American literature and culture appearing to affirm a race-neutral identity that is actually white and formed in opposition to the black presence in the United States (Morrison).

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.

Prev Page
Next Page






Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.