October 31, 2016

BEACH PRIVILEGE. THE STRUGGLE IS REAL, MAN. Ben Ratliff goes “Looking for the Beach Boys” in the New York Review of Books, jumps the shark, and overshoots the landing ramp so hard he winds up instead trapped in a box canyon worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. And if you think that metaphor is overwrought, get a load of this:

But time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Their best-known hits (say, “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around”) are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights. Brian Wilson’s great integrative achievement as a songwriter and producer was absorbed in bits and pieces by others—Paul McCartney especially—but it mostly worked for him alone. In their rhythm and humor the Beach Boys sound squarer all the time compared to Motown, the Beatles, and the Stones, and a lot of Phil Spector. Of course, it comes down to individual songs.

We all like songs. But we also tend to regard a cultural institution like the Beach Boys—a fifty-year-old rock band, heavy with institutional honor—as having some kind of fixed identity and owning some kind of essential rightness. What is, or was, the essence of the Beach Boys, and what were they right about? In this time of curation and reassessment, we have cash in hand and we are here to understand the Beach Boys. What are we paying into? What are we understanding?

Exactly. What are we understanding? (By the way, somebody must have recently edited Ratliff’s Wikipedia page. As of the time of this post’s draft, his bio ends, “He teaches cultural criticism at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and is known for introducing the concept of ‘beach privilege’ into popular vernacular.” Achievement unlocked!)

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