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The Beach Boys And California Mythology

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The music of the Beach Boys during their peak creative period (1961-1967) is a key element in the “California myth,” which depicts the state’s culture as a youthful, exuberant paradise made possible by affluence, technology, and climate.

It presents to the world in image of the state (particularly its southern coast) as an ideal place for the young to enjoy the climate, their freedom, and the benefits of an affluent society – an image that belied many of the region’s social realities and presented an appealing but ultimately distorted picture.

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The music itself has little intrinsically “Californian” about it. The vocals owe a great deal to white doo-wop from the late 1950s (particularly the intricate group harmonies), while the music derives heavily from that of Chuck Berry (indeed, “Surfin’ USA” is merely a blatant rewrite of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”). However, their lightness and upbeat, propulsive sound coupled nicely with Brian Wilson and Mike Love’s lyrics, which celebrated their own yearnings and their idealized vision of California culture.

During their first six years of recording (before Brian Wilson’s mental illness became evident), the Beach Boys promoted southern California as a teenager’s paradise. Critic Jim Miller writes that, at their peak, the group “propagated their own variant on the American dream, painting a dazzling picture of beaches, parties and endless summers, a paradise of escape” and created “odes to affluent hedonism” (DeCurtis 192).

Numerous songs depicted life there as a near-constant revel, in which teenagers had easy access to cars and thus to parties or the beach, where surfers dominated and one could find numerous opportunities for romance. The image of the sun-tanned, affluent, young white surfer spread internationally shaped perceptions of California throughout the world. The picture they presented repeated the same message – that California was a place where one could find pleasures unavailable elsewhere.

Several of their songs, such as “409,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Little Deuce Coupe” (and more whimsically, “Little Old Lady from Pasadena”) exalt the automobile as a key component of their lifestyle; indeed, cars made the beach more accessible, accommodated dating and socializing, and liberated teenagers to a great degree. Furthermore, these cars had to be not simply serviceable, but also powerful and impressive; owning a hot rod was a status symbol in Beach Boys songs, giving one the most prestige and the most appeal to the opposite sex, as made evident in “I Get Around” (which combines cars, fun, and prestige in no uncertain terms).

Regarding the opposite sex, their tunes celebrated California women as an ideal, attracted by fast cars or surfing prowess and blessed with good looks and warm, liberated personalities one could never find elsewhere. “California Girls” in particular spread the image of the young California as blonde, frequently found at the beach, and responsive to affluent male surfers with fast cars and status among their peers. They also helped make California synonymous with surfing, though one only one of the group (drummer Dennis Wilson) actually did it.

“Surfin’ USA” and “Surfin’ Safari” depicted it as a nearly-ideal outdoor activity, which let one enjoy the mild climate, attract members of the opposite sex, and live in a hedonistic and relaxed atmosphere seemingly devoid of troubles or pressures. The affluence of the California they depicted made cars available, and, by extension, dating and fun impossible to find elsewhere, and the Beach Boys combined these in their material. Miller writes that “the group’s pursuit of fun, whether on a surfboard or in a car, set them apart and assured them . . .

of an audience, no matter how restrictive the specific motifs, although surfing, cars, and the California locale all became emblematic” (DeCurtis 194). Though the Beach Boys’ material offered the promise of California as a virtual paradise of fast cars, status, and opportunities for romance, they neatly hid the broader realities of California life, creating the paradoxes that Rawls mentions. Most importantly, this vision did not apply to much of California, especially its northern half, a diverse region of mountains, urbanized areas, agriculture, and a much colder coastline.

Also, the groups’ members hailed from blue-collar backgrounds, and the Wilson brothers (only one of whom actually surfed) came from a violent, hardly idyllic home. Their songs glorified not only a lifestyle that the group’s members generally did not practice, but it also celebrated a happiness that the troubled Brian Wilson could only yearn for, as well as eternal youth – an impossibility which seemed less relevant as the members aged.

It also managed to present a distorted picture of the Los Angeles region by focusing on a small class of young people. According to scholar Mike Davis, “It was the mesmerizing vision of a white kids’ car-and-surf-based Utopia” (Davis 66) that was generally not relevant to poorer youth or people of color. Their picture of California also excludes the region’s racial tensions; indeed, the Watts riots of 1965 erupted during this period, expressing realities that never figured in the Beach Boys’ music.

The Beach Boys’ early music summed up California life as rooted in affluence and dependent on fast, flashy cars, which made leisure and attraction of the opposite sex possible. They presented an idealized and rather sanitized picture of a diverse, sometimes conflicted region. Indeed, class differences, racial tensions, and the more disturbing realities of the 1960s seem invisible, masked by the image of California as a place where one could have constant fun and revel in constant youth.

Though they created a distorted, highly selective picture, the image remains potent to people outside the state and still colors many people’s perceptions of southern California. REFERENCES Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. New York: Vintage, 1992. DeCurtis, Anthony, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, eds. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York: Random House, 1992. Maasik, Sonia and Jack Solomon, eds. California Dreams and Realities. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

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