Is the first emo album the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds?

Eighteen years ago, a random blogger made an unsubstantiated claim about a popular album. Today, a certain subset of music nerds loves repeating the statement. You’ve likely heard or read it before if you spend a lot of time online. Behold: “Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ 1966 album, is sometimes considered the first emo album”.

Thus reads the “Predecessors” section of the Wikipedia article on Emo. A BBC article cited later on the page says something similar, if more dismissive: “some claim, perhaps rather wryly, that the Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds is the first true emo album”. Neither piece provides examples.

And yet, it’s true that people say this. Though mainly because they see the above line and either react in disagreement or think “actually, that take checks out”. Either way, they think they’re the first person to make the discovery. Occasionally, they aren’t even the first that day. A Twitter advanced search for the terms yields many, many posts along these lines, although I first remember seeing it on Tumblr.

It’s an evocative phrase. The Beach Boys are, in the popular consciousness, a peppy surf rock band, and “emo” is a phase a bunch of millennials went through. They seem incompatible – until you spin the album a few times with 10 tabs of Lyric Genius pulled up. Musically, no, they’re nothing alike. But lyrically, I see why someone would make the argument. And so, I have done so below.

But first, some important context

Before the album’s 50th anniversary in 2016, Pet Sounds was considered the first emo album exactly once. Ernest Simpson made the claim in a 2004 review for Treblezine.

A group of friends founded the site in the fall of 2003 as a place for posting thoughts on their favourite albums, and that certainly describes the Pet Sounds review. Simpson is clearly a fan who appears to write about the album lovingly.

His claim that Pet Sounds is the first emo album also seems to be something he had spent much time thinking about. Simpson calls his theory a “hypothesis that I don’t have near enough room here to prove”. Regardless, he suggests “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” as a song that would help him make his case.

That was as close as he came to doing so. For 12 years, the line was just a throwaway aside in a review without a score that is mostly about the album’s historical reception. It didn’t even show up on Wikipedia until May 31, 2016.

That came after the album’s 50th anniversary. To celebrate, Pitchfork published an article that quoted Jack Tatum of the band Wild Nothing who, for the second time in history, considered Pet Sounds the first emo album.

No one ever made the argument. They just repeated the thesis. And from that point, every couple of days, someone posts about it online. It’s less the stuff of music criticism than it is a sort of digital folktale.

What we talk about when we talk about emo

I mentioned above that people have two wildly different reactions to the idea that Pet Sounds is the first emo album: they are either taken aback or they somewhat agree. I think this has to do with their understanding of the term “emo”.

For music nerds like me, “emo” refers to active bands like The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Into It. Over It., and Tigers Jaw. Their style calls back to that of late-90s/early-00s acts like Death Cab for Cutie, American Football, and The Promise Ring.

I expect the average reader’s reaction to that paragraph was something along the lines of “what the fuck?”

For most people, I imagine “emo” points to an embarrassing phase they or people they know went through in the mid-to-late 2000s. The music was provided by My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights, Underoath, The Used, etc., and the clothes came courtesy of Hot Topic. Fashion was as important to this moment as the music. In fact, the bold styles of the era are probably what most prominently comes to mind.

Simply put, I suspect people who don’t see the emo-ness of Pet Sounds have this image of emo in their heads. And, yeah, Pet Sounds has very little in common with that image-focused version of the genre.

Those who can kind of see the argument (not to mention the people who initially made it) probably have other interpretations of the genre in mind. After all, Simpson was writing for Treblezine in 2004, before the popular image of emo was solidified. Tatum talked to Pitchfork well after the “emo revival” of the 2010s was a well-established concept that would have redefined the term in the minds of music nerds.

Neither was likely thinking about the layperson’s idea of emo. And, for this post, neither am I.

Pet Sounds as proto-emo

The idea that a cultural object could encapsulate a genre it predated is precedented in academic criticism. Literary critics, for example, cite The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne as the first postmodern novel, even though it was published about 200 years before postmodernism came to be.

They don’t mean this 18th-century novel was actually a postmodern work. They mean that it exemplifies the ideas of that 20th-century literary movement. That’s how I’m choosing to interpret the claim about Pet Sounds. Its genre is obviously not emo per se, but perhaps the work nonetheless captures what it means to be emo.

On the rare occasion where someone makes a “Pet Sounds is emo” post that goes further than to simply restate the claim, often they point to the lyrical content as being particularly proto-emo. In my mind, that’s really the only place where the argument makes sense.

But it doesn’t start strong. Pet Sounds opens with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a song that leans into the teenage angst of the song’s central character. The boy laments that, at his age, it’s impossible to do things such as have sleepovers with his lover. It’s a sad number, but it’s more forward-looking than a typical emo song. “This sucks, but one day it will get better” isn’t the message the genre is known for.

Thankfully, “You Still Believe in Me” and “That’s Not Me” immediately redeem the argument. The lyrics contain what would become standard motifs of emo. The first is an introspective lament of the singer’s failure to be who his partner wants him to be. The second is, essentially, a 60s version of the trope “I don’t need this town”.

This introspective, downtrodden tone is all over the songs of Pet Sounds.

The song that apparently proves the first emo album argument

Simpson cites “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” as the song that would help him make his argument. Sadly, he never did. He continued writing for Treblezine until 2018, but it doesn’t look like he ever had much of a web presence. I couldn’t find a Twitter account, and he shared his name with some long-dead British guy who was important enough to have a Wikipedia page, which ruined all my Google searches. I could not find a way to contact him to see if he still feels the way he did, and it looks like no one else ever bothered.

Thankfully, it’s an easy argument to make, so I’ll do it for him. The song’s long title would not be out of place on an emo record, and neither would its sentiment. The song is about social alienation, and features the line “sometimes I feel very sad”. Decidedly emo.

The lyrics are of their time, so I’m hesitant to quote them, but they do evoke themes that call to mind many an emo song. The singer is “looking for a place to fit in” (again, very “I don’t need this town” with a hint of “no one understands me”). He feels constantly let down by his unreliable friends. He partly internalizes these constant let-downs. And he asks vague, unanswerable questions: “what’s it all about?”

There’s no real story here, just a sad man voicing frustration. And if that isn’t emo, I don’t know what is.

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