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Barry Shank

Barry Shank teaches in the department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. He is author of Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas and A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture. Currently serving as President of the U.S. branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular music, he is completing a book for Duke University Press entitled “Silence, Noise, Beauty: The Political Agency of Music.”

 

Abstract:

"All Your Rock Critic Friends Think Brian Wilson Must Have Died"

If there is a significant distinction between the task of the media-employed music critic and the academic scholar of popular music, it might be found in different approaches to the popular music canon. Critics, pressed by the hourly onslaught of new music, must achieve their aesthetic assessments quickly, and when a sort of critical consensus has been reached, they must move on, for there is too much else to consider. An academic approach to a canon, on the other hand, requires the regular reassessment, the cyclical return to the source material, in search of new meanings and new values drawn from the artistic depths of truly great popular music.

This paper returns to the work of the Beach Boys to see if support can be found for the claim that their work contains sonic representations of the structures of feeling that have led to our current political stalemate. Amidst the feels and flows of the Beach Boys’ sonic beauty can be heard a dream of political contradiction imperfectly sustained, an early intimation of the irresolvable tensions in which our politics is now suspended. The competing structures of feeling that divided Southern California as early as the mid-sixties emerged first in Beach Boys’ recordings as the contrast between banal lyrics and sublime harmonies. But when the contributions of Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks merged with Wilson’s precisely controlled musical imaginary, a more complex synthesis of insecure self-centeredness and irrepressible longing can be heard. Columnated ruins domino as the confidence on which capitalism depends collapses.

Finding in the Beach Boys (and by extension the sixties in CA) the major conflicts of our time. Brian’s brilliant musical hopefulness, Dennis’s dreamy belief in a better world through desire, Carl’s interrogation of discipline and Mike Love’s insistence that his own feelings are always right, never to be doubted—plus Prop 19 (is that the property tax one?) and the Kansas-Huntington Beach, Orange County Republicans connection. Also, Fun Fun Fun and the theft of black music (Chuck Berry)