A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me enough joy to deserve a write-up, I’ll do it on the spot.
The Song: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
from the 1966 album Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys
peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100
The crash is everything. Without the crash, it’s just a normal Beach Boys masterpiece. Nothing wrong with that, of course, Brian Wilson stuffed Pet Sounds full of masterpieces and another one joining their ranks is no biggie. But the crash singlehandedly makes “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” transcendant. Before the crash: a single airy guitar, tinkling its way through A major, like a melody floating down the beach on a gentle summer’s day. But just as you’re settling in, preparing yourself for a harmless little ditty: a single hit on the drums, and suddenly the ground has caved before you. You are falling through the air, and perhaps your two legs have buckled in real life, as mine did when I first listened to it standing up in my bedroom. All the time you’re falling, the guitar continues to play, but it sounds distant, as if it’s mocking you with its continued existence.
Before you’ve even got time to react, Brian Wilson and Mike Love’s vocals swoop in and catch you: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older/ Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long…” But wait. These vocals sound wrong. You were originally in A major: how the hell have you suddenly shifted down TWO keys? It sounds impossible, it sounds weird, but you’re not paying attention to any of these: for by now you’re already caught up in the vocals, which are the closest thing to a ray of sunshine that music can ever get. The accordion, buried in the mix, skips along and encourages you to skip as well. By the time that first verse is over, you’re already lost in this new, strange musical wonderland.
All that amazement would normally take AGES to build up. You need to have either numb your audience, or route them through excitement, trepidation and ecstasy. Both choices are normal pop fare, and many a classic is written that way. But Brian Wilson, as their publicist keeps on telling us, is a genius. So all this is just what happens in the first dozen seconds of the song, and all the time you are aware, you are far too aware of what he’s singing and what’s he’s trying to tell you. This is a song about being too young to marry each other — typical puberty stuff, almost the epitome of teenage existence. (I say almost, because my very asexual best friend exists.) But even though we do plenty of that everyday, and though we’re sick and tired of listening to each other moan about these petty little matters that in the end aren’t interesting because they aren’t about me, you listen.
And here’s the genius of it all: you KEEP on listening. When he wrote Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson said that he really only wanted to do one thing: create a teenage symphony to God. Very well, but a young person’s God is very rarely the deity that they have been hastily converted into by their parents when they were a child. Their gods are the girl of their dreams, the sun and their friends, and relentless, relentless fun. Brian knew this, and so this song contains it all, pushing the teenage package to you all in one go in the hopes that you, the listener, will recognize yourself in that longing teen, that you will somehow become overwhelmed by this flood of emotions. You are. And yet you continue to listen.
You listen, because “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” somehow convinces you that this is an excitement that you have and that you do not have at the same time. You have it, because the melody tells you that you are in a beautiful paradise, where every single problem you have is solved. Not just forgotten, but solved. Immersed in the liquid sunshine of the melody, you are aware of every single turn of the tune. So when the time comes for melancholia, you realize that you do not have it at all: because this is a song about longing, a point that the lyrics drive home HARD: “then we could be married/ And then we’d be happy”. And strangely, when he says this, your response is not to pity this poor young man, to somehow feel sorry that he’s not old enough to bone with the person he loves. (That would be masterful, but to repeat the point: Brian Wilson is a genius.) Your response is to wonder, and to believe: you immediately envision a future where these two lovebirds are together. Because you are the singer, and you want all these things, and everything else about the song has told you that yes, all this is possible. It’s contradictory, of course. But isn’t that what teenage love is all about anyway?
There’s more beyond the ending couplet — so infamously claimed by Mike Love, as if “goodnight my baby/ Sleep tight my baby” is something that Brian needed Mike to work out for him — but everything that comes afterwards doesn’t seem to match up to this cosmic supernova of a song that symphonies and twists its way through teenage love and longing in two and a half minutes. (Sure, “God Only Knows” is definitely even MORE beautiful, but that’s different. That one makes you sad and depressed, because come on, you’re definitely losing that girl if you’re combining a declaration of love with a death wish.) It’s special, in a way that “God Only Knows” or “Good Vibrations” or “Heroes and Villains”, for all their complexities, never manages to achieve.
Why? A specific emotion. Something which many try to attain, but few ever reach.
My father says that he dislikes a lot of pop music because of the way it grabs you, messes with your emotions. I haven’t listened to enough pop music to say if this is true or not, but I’m sure that quite a few of us listen to music precisely to have a good time, and to feel things that we can’t feel in real life. Lots of us also listen because real life is depressing, and for a few minutes those songs allow us to experience a heady rush of feelings that’s pure escapism. So it’s no surprise that happiness is an emotion that we constantly reach for in songs, and that we’ve sought, for millennia, to recreate as fully as possible the full spectrum of positive emotions: longing (“Sugar, Sugar”), ecstasy (“We Will Rock You”), amusement (“Parklife”), contentment (“Perfect” — yes, I’m not THAT much of a boomer). But then there’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. It fits none of the above — it’s definitely not amusement, the young person singing this can hardly be said to be content. “Longing” and “ecstasy” are two words too tame to encapsulate what this song is — it’s such a blast, you need something stronger. And my answer surprisingly comes from the annals of lit class. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, as a song, is 151 seconds of utter, utter bliss.
Oh sure, a lot of songs have also aimed at bliss. You probably can think of a couple which approach it: The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”, probably, or anything from your favourite romantic playlist. (Yup, trust me to slip in a Beatles reference in anything I’m writing.) But with all due respect, I’d say those are different: those try to steal their way into your heart and try to convince you of their beauty. But bliss, my lit crit professor taught me, is pleasure at its most extreme, something that you slip in and out of. And not only do you not notice it, you also stop noticing anything else: for bliss is, more than anything, a suspension of the world, something that has expanded to fill your life so that there’s nothing left but just you and whatever that’s giving you bliss. That’s what young love is all about: you and me, nothing more, the world be damned.
And that’s what Brian Wilson does in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”: with that drum crash at the very beginning, the song’s already battered down the door and made itself at home while you’re still APPLAUDING at the wonderful way it gained entry to your heart. When it plays, you are immediately submerged in that pleasure, and you fixate on the wonderful phantasm that is young love — usually a hard slave master, always leaving a bitter aftertaste, yet undeniably and unabashedly a lovely thing to have and to hold if you stop to think about it. And that, to me, is the ultimate wonderful thing about “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and about the music that gives us bliss in general: for two and a half minutes, you’re willing to stop the world, just to listen to a teenager as he pours out his heart, and symphonies his way towards God.
(Cover copyrighted to Capitol Records: lower resolution than original and only used for identification. Can I just say I absolutely LOVE the incogruity of that cover when you think about what’s inside: the sounds of summer and young love, and yet here are the Beach Boys feeding a goat. Simply funny, that mismatch.)