Fred Schendel, songwriter and keyboardist for the progressive rock band Glass Hammer, has written a highly interesting disquisition on differing aims of popular music artists, taking as his starting point Brian Wilson’s great album SMiLE. Looking at the rise of popular music in critical estimation in the 1960s, Schendel writes,
“Inspired by the provocative style of Bob Dylan, the Beatles began to speak out on any and all subjects to an ever-eager press, and their words spread like gospel. And so it has been throughout the subsequent history of rock music. From the über-angst (brilliantly articulated) of the Who to the antiwar and antiestablishment blathering of almost every acclaimed late-Sixties band to the political ramblings of the Bonos and Michael Stipes of today, the idea that rock music (and musicians) had a chance—no, a duty—to speak out about things traces directly back to the Beatles.
“And the manner of this speaking shall be negative, depressing, and anger-inducing to the extent possible. This is the unwritten commandment of rock and roll consciousness-raising, and it has been followed to the letter by countless so-called artists of the last forty years: Grumpiness equals respectability.
“Meanwhile, shifting our story back to the Sixties—there were the Beach Boys, with nothing more important to say than Have Fun and Be Happy. They were doomed. They could be fun, and popular. But never Important; never really respected.”
Schendel’s observation that an artist must be somber in order to be considered serious by most critics is quite accurate. Like the writings of P. G. Wodehouse and the films of Buster Keaton, there is much more to the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys than many critics are willing and able to see. By definition, those critics are superficial.