Brian Wilson Critical Essays

Introduction

Brian Wilson 1942–

American songwriter, musician, musical arranger, and producer. Wilson's music is noted for authentically capturing the American teenage experience and for helping to create the international image of Southern California as a youthful utopia. The Beach Boys, which he formed as a teenager with his two brothers, Carl and Dennis, a cousin, Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine, gained fame in the early sixties with songs that depicted a mythic world of long-haired girls and golden boys who live for surfing, cars, and long summer nights. Wilson's descriptions of this free lifestyle did not come from experience; he wrote as an outsider looking in, and built his career out of his displacement. His music, which started as confident and joyous in the surf genre he created, gradually became more introspective with songs like "In My Room" and "When I Grow Up." Filled with inner turmoil, pain, and longing, these songs were wrapped in lush arrangements and were characterized by their distinctive chord progressions and unique harmonies. Influenced by the close-harmony vocals of the Four Freshmen, the jaunty rockers of Chuck Berry, and, especially, the mini-operas of producer Phil Spector, Wilson concentrated on creating and overall sound that would be both musically innovative and commercially successful, much as the Beatles were doing. The Beach Boys became phenomenally successful, and demands were made on Wilson to churn out hit singles in the fun-and-sun mold despite his own desire to concentrate solely on improving his composing and production talents. This pressure on his creativity caused him to retreat further into himself, and he stopped performing with the group and suffered a series of breakdowns. After the commercial failure of Pet Sounds, an album which some critics consider both Wilson's definitive work and a milestone in pop music, he retreated from the music scene, and the group floundered without his leadership. Musically, he released fragmented but exciting works such as Smiley Smile, but seemed to lose interest in his work and entered a period of creative inertia. During the late sixties and early seventies The Beach Boys became considered a reactionary, clean-cut anachronism that had no relation to a period of social change and revolution. Wilson's lyrics were criticized as being sophomoric, weak, and unworthy of the maturity of the music, and he became more well known for his eccentric behavior than for the quality of his work. However, the band returned to public favor in 1974, after dogged touring and the success of a greatest-hits compilation. Wilson returned to the group in 1976, but their recent albums have achieved only minimal success. It has been argued that no songwriter has been better at depicting the joy and sorrows of adolescents than Wilson, in a language that was specifically their own. Certainly many young people have related to his innocent, lyrical yearnings and have appreciated his undeniable musical gifts.