The Beach Boys and the Sound of the Suburbs

Essential Question

How did the music of the Beach Boys reflect the suburbanization of postwar America?

Overview

Embodying the optimism and ideals of mid-century America, the Beach Boys caught the attention of teenagers across the country with their close vocal harmonies and lyrics about surfing, cars, and romance. As members of the Baby Boom generation, the Beach Boys grew up in a postwar nation that was characterized by rapid suburban development. According to U.S. Census figures, by the year 2000, half the American population lived in areas described as “suburban.”

This shift from urban to suburban living began in the years after World War II, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned from overseas, ready to start families. It was an era defined by prosperity and rapid growth—growth that encompassed both the construction of sprawling suburban housing developments made up of one-family homes (epitomized by Levittown, the country’s first planned development, which added over 17,000 homes to a tract in Long Island, N.Y., between 1947 and 1951) and the building and expansion of roads, which increased mobility and made life in so-called “bedroom communities” more practical. That growth was aided by the G.I. Bill, which offered low-cost mortgages to war veterans, putting the “American Dream” of a home with a yard and a driveway within easier reach.

For teenagers, the shift toward the suburbs offered space that was both metaphorical and literal; their own room, perhaps, or maybe a garage or a finished basement where they might gather, away from adults. At the same time, the introduction of the transistor radio in 1954 gave teens more opportunity to listen to “their” music, away from the family entertainment console.

In short, the country’s landscape was changing, in ways that would have a major impact on American life and culture, and, certainly, on the worlds of young people. In this lesson, students will analyze the rise of the suburbs, and the ways in which the Beach Boys made music that evoked this important demographic trend.

(Please note that the instructor should pay particular attention to the location where the lesson is being delivered. For example, this lesson and its focus on middle-class, postwar suburban development will likely play out differently when delivered in an inner-city classroom comprised of low-income students than it will in an affluent suburb. The instructor should carefully consider the proximity or distance of his/her particular students to the demographic trends represented in this lesson and modify his/her questions accordingly.)

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Objectives

Objectives:
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The impact of suburbanization on American identity and popular culture
    • The important musical contributions of the Beach Boys
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Identify connections between artistic expression and the broader social context in which that expression occurs
    • Common Core: Students will analyze and interpret texts, graphs, photographs and song lyrics to develop an understanding of suburban culture (CCSS Reading 4; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)
    • Common Core: Students will explore the advantages and disadvantages of suburbia (CCSS Writing 1)