|For a Song
Pop Sociology of the California Dream: The Beach Boys "I Get Around," "Fun, Fun, Fun," and "Catch a Wave"
In fourth grade, asked what my favorite song was by another student who said she was doing a survey, I replied without hesitation, "I Get Around by the Beach Boys." It was 1964, and the tune had reached #1. "Fun, Fun, Fun," released the same year, reached #5. Neither of those songs by the premier surfer band mentions surfing! But the bands first and second hits, "Surfin Safari" in 1962 and "Surfin U.S.A." in 1963, told of picking up a girl in ones "woodie" (an old wood-sided station wagon, not what it means today), strapping surfboards on top, and heading for the beach.
While "Surfin Safari" and "Surfin U.S.A." convey the fun of going surfing, "Catch a Wave" is a richer song lyrically and more original musically. "I Get Around" outlines a teenage boys experience of youth car culture, "Fun, Fun, Fun" a girls, and "Catch a Wave" some of the meaning of riding a one-person water vehicle with no engine. Four decades on, millions of people know these tunes immediately. And what better time than January to think of sun n fun -- when its absent for so many of us in the northern hemisphere. So pop some Vitamin D, put on your favorite Beach Boys album, and read on!
Gettin around not for the faint of heart
The Baby Boomers were the first generation to grow up with automobiles an assumed part of family and social life, suburban sprawl accelerating dramatically post-World War II after slowing in the Great Depression. And Los Angeles with its vast and ever-growing residential environs has always been the nations car capital. In just a few lines, "I Get Around" conveys important aspects of the outer life car culture produced and the inner life it generated for young middle-class boys.
After the opening repetitions of "I get around," when the singer-narrator says, "I get bugged driving up and down the same old strip / I got to find a new place where the kids are hip," we become privy to the imagination born when cheap gasoline made it possible to go anywhere rather than be saddled with whatever group of people happen to live in walking distance of ones home. Are the kids on the block "dullsville"? Just shop around for hip ones who can make life more fun. Already being out on a "strip" meant wheels had freed one from the residential part of the neighborhood; now you could even find another commercial area, in another neighborhood.
That made it more likely to encounter "bad guys" -- young men who considered their neighborhood their territory. Those driving into it from outside were invaders. "My buddies and me, were gettin real well known, yeah / The bad guys know us and they leave us alone" says in just a few words that these bad guys could be dangerous, but they allow the songs protagonists to cruise their turf because they see how hip they are -- possibly in part because of their car.
More than one girl, anyone?
A couple of decades before scientists established that fetal boys start sending testosterone to their brains early in gestation, making sexual pursuit a male priority, the Beach Boys sang "None of the guys go steady cause it wouldnt be right / To leave their best girls home on a Saturday night." What a clever rationalization for the abundance of sexual-pursuit brain cells scientists less than two decades later discovered in early male fetuses! Supposedly true love in teen land meant "going steady." "I Get Around" says adventure is preferable to true love. Even if you have a "best girl," youd cruise on Saturday night looking for other girls. Since that wouldnt be right to do to your best girl, you just dont go steady -- then youre not betraying anyone!
Girls want to have fun, too!
The boys and girls populating this hip new world -- and the parents in the background but ultimately responsible, as the boys and girls of early Beach Boys songs are clearly minors living in their parents homes -- are not hip to feminism. Rather than "my car" -- the vehicle belonging to the first-person male narrator of "I Get Around" -- the first line of "Fun, Fun, Fun" says the songs female protagonist "got her daddys car and she cruised to the hamburger stand now." Not only that, she lied in order to get her daddys keys: "Seems she forgot all about the library like she told her old man now."
The double standard by which boys can "sow their wild oats" but girls have to be strictly guarded was largely unquestioned. It would be simplistic to suggest times have changed universally, but many white middle-class youth portrayed by the Beach Boys later attempted sexual equality in their marriages and child-raising, influenced by 1970s feminists.
Though the stereotype of the female as a "crazy driver" is implied, in claiming to go to the library and instead cruising through the hamburger stand, the girl makes her daddys T-bird, his Thunderbird, an item of fun as it was meant to be -- scary and dangerous as it might be for the stands patrons. Ostensibly the latter are first and foremost male, the pursuit of flesh customarily being marketed to the coarser sex in ways that conflate "meat" with female humans, as in "meat market." We might picture "the guys" who dont "go steady" in "I Get Around" salivating as they interpret the girls reckless driving as suggesting she is "fast." That is confirmed as she "leads on a wild goose chase" guys who "try to catch her."
Spending time in the library rather than in some action-filled activity doesnt build ones identity as fun-loving in this car-oriented world. "[C]ruisin just as fast as she can now" was more like it. "With the radio blastin" suggests shes into rocknroll, which was not only recorded and announced mostly by males but early on was considered too provocative to be safe for girls. The name "rocknroll" itself originally refers to the sex act. And its "blastin" means people all around, beyond the confines of the automobile, can hear it.
Hitch a ride with me!
Perceiving all of this about the girl out cruisin by herself in the car her father is too un-hip to have lots of fun with, the male singer is eager to take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself when the dad gets wise to his daughters deception. Her "fun" isnt "all through now," as she needlessly worries. She can "come along with" the singer because, as he suggestively puts it, "weve got a lotta things to do now." That is, they can still go off together in the boys car and do what boys and girls do: Her fathers taking her keys wont stop her. Her adventure itself is the key to popularity with the boys.
Especially because the verses rhyme even without "now" at the end of each line, I find it interesting that the word comes in each time anyway. Possibly the song is saying "now" differs from before, when the songs daddy was young and when many girls would not have been permitted to drive alone to the library. It also signals the listener to pay attention to the details, suggests theyre telling us something more than appears on the surface.
A different kind of ride
As if the only reason not to surf were fear, "Catch a Wave" begins by exhorting the listener not to be afraid to try it, also asserting that its "the greatest sport around," so youre missing out if you dont give it a try. Its being the "coastline craze" plays on the listeners sociability: No one wants to miss what "everyone" is doing. Interesting, considering the simplicity of a surfboard versus the sophisticated technology of the automobile that dominates social life in "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun." Interesting, too, the human-crafted landscape in which the latter take place versus the seascape to which "Catch a Wave" calls the listener.
The very brief refrain, "When you (they) catch a wave, youll (theyll) be sittin on top o the world," says a successful ride on a surfboard offers social status through a transcendent experience. One is not only physically higher up when lifted by a wave while standing atop the board; the expression "sitting on top of the world" means one has achieved something great, is admired, need go no higher.
"Not just a fad cause its been goin on so long" hints at the long Hawaiian tradition behind the activity. Even though its a "craze," it isnt superficial; it connects todays participants to past generations. It provides a link to the past for young people whose parents -- as in "Fun, Fun, Fun" -- exist mainly to trick so you can have fun. Even hip young people -- if theyre serious and not superficial -- perceive a need to connect what they do to some kind of tradition that makes it meaningful. It isnt the past thats un-hip, just older people who are out of touch.
Surfing is a male initiation -- "So take a lesson from a top-notch surfer boy" -- and girls are never mentioned in this song, though boy-girl relationships are central to the other two songs were talking about. Surfing is a serious tradition, "not just a fad": "And dont you treat it like a toy" -- dont trivialize it; dont "put it down." "Just get away from the shady turf" -- dont remain sheltered -- "And baby, go get some rays on the sunny surf": Expose yourself to the light and the heat; risk getting burned; be a man, not a baby; respond to the beauty and mystery; find connect with the sun and the sea, the sources of life; come out of the darkness and into the light.
As an extension of the human body, the surfboard provides only the thinnest boundary between the surfer and the vast, powerful, shimmering sea. Surfing puts one "on top of the world" by fostering mastery over that part of the world that has lured and destroyed the likes of all of us from time immemorial. No wonder the singer looks forward to surfing all week while in school -- "Every Saturday boy": Sitting in rows of chairs being told what to read and what it means cant measure up to a powerful direct experience of the real world.
The fun is all through, for now
If "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun" were and are more popular than "Catch a Wave," it might be because surfing has remained more distant than "cruising" from most peoples experience and many people continue to doubt that surfing really matters. All three have the shimmering harmonies, electrifying rhythms, and unabashed statements of what the singers personally value and enjoy that might seem unsophisticated with the rise of Bob Dylan and the Beatles Maharishi Mahesh Yogi sojourn.
Beach Boys songs communicate a lot, though. Their drama lies in the search for meaning in the car-oriented world theyve been presented with. Cars take boys and girls to the library, the hamburger stand, bad guys turf, a new place where the kids are hip, or the edge of the sea. Dads decide when boys and girls will use them -- except when boys "makin' real good bread" can purchase their own and call their own shots -- and hence when they will explore the world now that everything within walking distance is paved and largely devoid of life.
Huck Finn had the Mississippi River; the Wilson boys, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and millions of people seized by their polished work -- that way in part, ironically, due to un-fun, un-hip Wilson dad Murray -- have strips, motor vehicles, and a natural world mediated by human inventions. The Beach Boys lyrics would not widen jaded eyes at a bookstore-basement poetry reading. But the songs structures, rhythms, and economy, and the astonishing harmonies and timing of the vocals, gild the words, shaping what might otherwise sound mundane into a socio-spiritual idea that is now indelibly lodged in the souls of multiple generations.
...David J. Cantor
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