The Politics of the Beach Boys

The Beach Boys at the Grammy Awards in February 2012.

(Reprinted from The New York Times)

Be True To Your School

In May, James Werrell, a syndicated columnist for McClatchy, speculated that the real reason behind the incident at the Cranbrook school in the spring of 1965, in which Mitt Romney, then 18, held down another student, John Lauber, and cut his long bleached hair, wasn’t that Lauber was gay, but because he looked like a surfer. It was too radical to have a “bushy bushy blond hairdo,” as the Beach Boys sang in “Surfin’ U.S.A.

More than four decades later, Romney included “Good Vibrations,” the band’s most psychedelic hit, on one of his Spotify playlists. And at a recent stop in Cincinnati, the Romney campaign played the song not once, but four times before the candidate came to the podium for his stump speech.

Meanwhile, the Beach Boys are enjoying a renaissance. Buoyed by an evergreen songbook and resurgent interest in Brian Wilson, the formerly reclusive genius behind all those glorious harmonies and arrangements, the band is marking its 50th Anniversary by calling a truce.

After the death of Carl Wilson in 1998 (drummer Dennis Wilson died in 1983), the Beach Boys split into two touring factions, with Love and Bruce Johnston touring in one and Al Jardine in the other. Now that Brian Wilson, who had worked solo since 1988, is back in the fold, all three living original members have reunited. There is a new album, a world tour and TV appearances on the Grammys and Jay Leno.

The band’s Independence Day gig, always their largest and highest-profile, will take place on Wednesday at the annual “Stadium of Fire” event on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. With that part of the country being both a Republican and a Mormon stronghold, and this being an election year, it’s worth remembering that the Beach Boys, like the country itself, have several conflicting legacies to reckon with.

On the one hand, we have our country’s first, and to many ears its best, rock ‘n roll band, our only rival to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Revived interest in Wilson’s artistry and its influence on a new generation has been a large part of this reevaluation. It culminated last year, when the band’s legendary album, “Smile,” shelved in 1967 after squabbles over its radical musical departure, was finally released. Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God” is now rightly hailed as a masterpiece, receiving the Obama generation’s stamp of approval with a perfect 10 from Pitchfork, the indie music aficionado Web site.

On the other, we have “America’s Band,” as Ronald Reagan dubbed the Beach Boys in 1983, willing participants in presidential political theater. For many Republicans, the rags-to-riches story of the band embodies an imaginary time of consensus politics and an American Dream at once white-bread and innocent. The band tapped into this sentiment well before the Reagan era, and it’s this strain of the Beach Boys’ peculiar cultural DNA that has supplied them with steady bookings as political mascots for Republicans and conservative causes.

These twin legacies each have their own protagonist, and the Beach Boys’ mythology naturally pits them against each other. It goes like this: Wilson, the childlike Icarus, had his artistic wings clipped by the lead singer Mike Love, his cocksure cousin, who wanted to stick with the proven formula of singing about girls and cars, fun and surf. Wilson then withdrew, crestfallen, into a self-imposed exile and battles with personal demons and drugs. Love, meanwhile, led an increasingly ersatz Beach Boys on a long strange trip that culminated in playing the private 2008 Romney “campaign reunion” event in Houston that doubled as a John McCain fundraiser. (McCain had the chance that night to sing his own foreign policy faux pas parody of the Beach Boys’ classic “Barbara Ann”—“Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran.”)

Taken further, you might say that the Beach Boys’ long history of feuds, friendships and lawsuits exemplifies two sides of the American character. On the Brian side we have an uncompromising blue-state idealism, and on the Mike side we have red-state utility and sticking with the formula. If you buy into the Beach Boys’ myth, no analogy seems too highfalutin. We’re talking Jefferson versus Hamilton, Buckley versus Vidal, Gore v. Bush, Occupy Wall Street versus Tea Partiers. It should only take a few seconds to contrive your own parallels.

The need to reconcile an artist’s politics with his art depends on one’s own politics, of course. I suppose it’s not impossible to picture someone who could both appreciate the genius of the “Pet Sounds” album from 1966, for example, and applaud the band’s appearance at a $100-a-head fundraiser gala at the 1984 Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan. (Oddly, Brian Wilson was arrested at the event for not having proper credentials.) And maybe it didn’t make a difference to young music fans at this year’s Bonnaroo music festival, where the Beach Boys shared a bill with Skrillex, Ludacris and Radiohead, that Mike Love once put up $5,000 seed money for Tipper Gore’s Parent’s Music Resource Center (P.M.R.C.) to censor and label records that had sex, violence or drug-related lyrics.

For the casual fan, this latest tour probably won’t seem much different. The band has been promoting a more or less endless summer and promising “fun, fun, fun” in various incarnations since 1961, when they first sang in the Wilsons’ home in Hawthorne, Calif. The same songs that established the Beach Boys as chart-toppers — “California Girls,” “Surfer Girl,” “God Only Knows,” to name just a few — will be performed amid the usual sea of Hawaiian shirts and huarache sandals.

To what degree the Romney campaign co-opts the Beach Boys’ concert on Wednesday remains to be seen. But I’ll be curious to hear what comes out of the band members’ mouths. For longtime Brian fans like me, who prefer to keep images of Ronald Reagan out of our heads as much as possible, the chance to see every living Beach Boy onstage and hear those harmonies sung live leaves me conflicted over which Beach Boy legacy I’m supporting.

Daniel Nester, an associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose, is the author most recently of “How to Be Inappropriate.”




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