Brian Wilson performs at Pitchfork on Saturday night, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his great work of sensitive, idiosyncratic genius, the seminal R&B album Pet Sounds.
OK, it’s true: Pet Sounds isn’t usually thought of as an R&B album. In fact, in some ways it’s thought of as an anti-R&B album, or even as an antimatter R&B album. Bring Pet Sounds into contact with a James Brown LP, and the two will annihilate each other—vulnerable white feyness and masculine black swagger vanishing in a puff of incompatible aesthetics. Compared to the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or Dylan, the Beach Boys lacked grit and soul. Their carefully rapturous harmonies framed narratives of vulnerability or inoffensively wiggy wistfulness. The one cover song on Pet Sounds isn’t a deep-soul track but rather “Sloop John B,” a tune popularized in 1958 by the vigorously unsoulful folk revivalists in the Kingston Trio. “I want to go home / Let me go home / This is the worst trip / Since I have been born” is a deliberately infantile lament, a performance of ostentatious innocence inseparable from the Beach Boys’ sun-bleached whiteness.
The thing is, though, that while “Sloop John B” came to Wilson via the very white Kingston Trio, it was originally a traditional song from the Bahamas. By the same token, many elements of the Beach Boys sound which seem coded white—the fussy arrangements, the pure harmonies, the childish vulnerability—come out of a tradition of pop R&B.
The Drifters, a band the Beach Boys covered on occasion, seem like a particularly relevant touchstone. The early-60s track “She Never Talked to Me That Way” projects a hapless ineffectuality every bit as pronounced as that in “Sloop John B,” with singer Rudy Lewis delivering a weepy lament of childish emasculation as the strings surge above a railroad chug and the backing vocals echo him with sad mockery. “You just kissed and kissed so endlessly / Tears filled my eyes, I could not see / You never never never never kissed me that way, honey.” The Beach Boys’ masterpiece of sunlit yearning, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” is foreshadowed in the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. “On the roof’s the only place I know / Where you just have to wish to make it so,” much like “I wish that every kiss was never-ending,” is about a utopia just out of reach—both songs are cheerful, immaculate pop confections barely concealing failure and melancholy.
Late Chicago DJ and soul historian Bob Abrahamian often talked about the way black music is stereotyped as rough, authentic, and virile. The smooth, polished, sensitive soul music he loved is seen as less important—or more often just forgotten altogether.
Wilson’s legacy has been shaped by that dynamic as well. In theory, the Beach Boys could be seen as a linchpin in the development of smooth soul—a transition between the polished pop harmonizing of the Drifters in the 60s and the experimentation of, say, Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites, whose easy groove on the 1972 single “Oh Girl” makes the wah-wah harmonica and the strings fit together into one lonely psychedelic package. “Oh girl / I’d be in trouble if you left me now”—this forthright declaration of haplessness contrasts with the perfection of the arrangement in a way that the composer of “God Only Knows” would understand.
But the Chi-Lites are mostly forgotten, at least compared to the Beach Boys. Wilson’s brand of vulnerable genius is generally seen as presaging not smooth soul but rather indie pop, epitomized at Pitchfork this year by the likes of Sufjan Stevens. Stevens’s 2015 album, Carrie & Lowell, is much more stripped-down than your average Beach Boys record. But its confessional narrative, about Stevens’s mentally ill mother, captures something of Wilson’s childlike brokenness. The feeling of abandonment in “Sloop John B” is given a more personal twist in lines such as “When I was three / Three maybe four / She left us at that video store.” Distracted Wilson odes to emptiness such as “Busy Doin’ Nothin'” serve as precedents for Stevens’s “All of Me Wants All of You.” Wilson would never say “You checked your texts while I masturbated,” but the song’s stoned wistfulness and half-hearted but still perfect oohs are recognizable variations on the Beach Boys’ masterful performance of inadequacy.
That’s not to say that R&B has given up on vulnerability. Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons” couldn’t have been much more of a sensation, but it’s notable that the pain in that swaggering song is about being forced to be tough: “Daddy told me not to cry.” And of course, people are reluctant to think of Beyoncé as an idiosyncratic, vulnerable genius like Wilson; pick an article about her on the Internet, and you’ll find commenters lining up to declare her a plastic pop contrivance who doesn’t deserve songwriting credits on her own material.
Black R&B performers following Wilson’s inward-turned path do exist. But they’re often perceived as “R&B with an asterisk.” Pitchfork performer FKA Twigs, for example, has been stamped with the PBR&B label—a joking name for what’s also called “alternative” R&B. (The reference is to Pabst Blue Ribbon, a beer beloved of white hipsters.) Her song “Pendulum”—fractured and echoey, the beats placed with painful care—makes sense only, apparently, in a white tradition. The song’s obsession with isolation can almost be seen as an ironic comment on critics’ efforts to pigeonhole her as a “unique” black artist, without precedent or connection. “Come fill your gaps with people / I know no one,” Twigs moans. The song makes her sound like she’s hesitantly folding up into a pristine cage in her own head.
That cage is Wilson’s territory; he’s pop’s reigning granddaddy of insular woundedness. He has that title in part because he’s deservedly seen as one of the great American musicians of the past 50 or 60 years. But he also has it because he’s white, and preconceptions about race, authenticity, and who can and can’t be vulnerable make it harder to see performers such as the Drifters or the Chi-Lites or even Marvin Gaye as exemplars or prototypes of fragile idiosyncratic excellence. Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray, that will change before another 50 years go by. Wouldn’t it be nice. v