Gay Pop

Did the Beach Boys write a secret queer anthem?

When Brian Wilson gave the world Pet Sounds in 1966, critics were slow to pick up on the revolutionary themes and sounds of such an intimate album. Today, Pet Sounds is an iconic piece of art that feels like the mark of a sea change in music: The Beatles were inspired by it, or perhaps Wilson was inspired by The Beatles to create it. So many legends have sprung up around its recording that it’s hard to tell the truth from hindsight-inspired fiction. But one thing is clear: as far as influence goes, you can’t beat Pet Sounds‘ mix of painful growing-up-is-hard anthems and ballads foreseeing the death of the 60s. “Wilson’s bildungsroman about the life and death of adolescent love wasn’t just a great record,” wrote Jason Guriel for The Atlantic in 2016. “It was also a record of a great artist’s mind—popular music’s first long-form investigation into the psyche of an auteur.”

But there’s something even more interesting about Pet Sounds that pop culture scholar Rosie recently pointed out on TikTok. Almost two decades after the release of the album, its first track “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” took on a deeper queer cultural meaning, thanks to a comic strip.

As Rosie explains, cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s comic Doonesbury had been running in local and national newspapers since the 1970s: it focused mainly on the depressing office life of its main character, Michael Doonesbury, and his friends, all of whom mysteriously happen to have his exact face. Be that as it may: in 1976, the comic strip debuted its first out-gay character, Andy Lippincott. Some publishers balked at the idea of a queer character taking up real estate in the comic and refused to run it any longer, but Andy stuck around. And by 1989, when even cis, straight Americans were becoming aware of the AIDS crisis, Andy was revealed to be living with HIV. For the next year, readers followed Andy’s health struggles, culminating in the beloved character’s death in 1990, the year Pet Sounds was first released on CD. Andy gets his hands on the CD and plays it over and over again, finally passing away singing the first few words to Pet Sounds’ title track “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

That was all it took. Even though Brian Wilson never expected for his upbeat track to become a queer anthem, the queer community embraced it openheartedly.

Since the Doonesbury strip came out, queer fans have given a lot of thought to the song’s lyrics, reinterpreting them in a queer context. One Redditor wrote a thread about the song easily standing in for the plight of closeted 60s queer people, who want to live in a “world where [they] belong,” where they can be “married” and “happy.”

But it doesn’t take too much reinterpretation to know what “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” might have meant to queer people on release. It paints a picture of a better world, one in which love doesn’t have to overcome so many obstacles to survive. No wonder it’s lived such a long life in pop culture, and in gay history.

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