Do you remember the 1966 classic film, “The Endless Summer”?
It was an amazing surfing documentary about the search for the perfect wave. Like the Beach Boys themselves, that free-spirited American way of life was based on an understanding of consciousness, following your own inner spirit, and the pursuit of happiness.
I have been asked many times what does the term “Again” mean in the MAGA tagline? Of course, it harkens back to our founding and the foundational idea of America and its independence and covenant as a constitutional democratic republic, rooted in Judeo-Christian values. But there’s more to it than that.
Given Trump’s age, experiences, and his own patriotic love of country, I’d suggest explaining it indirectly by using another, more recent example.
Perhaps, “Again” alludes to a deep affection for the early to mid 1960s as an age of American innocence, grandeur, peace and prosperity, and supreme but humble importance, when all was right. It is something those who lived through it know we need to adore and try to restore where, and if, possible. It is not reactionary or phobic in any way. Nor is it a crass form of nostalgia. It is just a stated desire for the return to what made and kept the nation so great: an endless summer of greatness.
A way to think about the 1960s is to focus on one of its greatest cultural touchstones—a sort of perfect wave, as it were—the Beach Boys. They might even have been the best example of the greatness of that era.
As it happens, the Beach Boys are doing their 60th anniversary tour this year, even though two of the original members are deceased and the others, quite antique. I attended one of their concerts recently with a giant philharmonic orchestra accompanying them. It was truly amazing and the sheer quality of the sound was unprecedented. The arrangement of the musical score was that good. But on further consideration, the songs themselves present a panoply painting of the American decade in which they were originally written. They tell a story of a lost golden age.
The Beach Boys are one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful bands of all time, with over 100 million records sold worldwide. Between the 1960s and today, the group had over 80 songs chart worldwide, 36 of them in the U.S. Top 40 (the most by any American rock band), and four topping the Billboard Hot 100. Their influence on other artists spans musical genres and movements. Countless artists have cited their albums as their inspiration for creating their own musical masterpieces. Rolling Stone ranked Pet Sounds number 2 on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and the Beach Boys number 12 on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and recipients of the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, the Beach Boys are a beloved American institution that remain iconic around the world. There is no comparison.
Now the memories of the Beach Boys for those of us who grew up and came of age in that generation are truly unforgettable. I will forever have fond recollections of wildly driving to the Jersey Shore from suburban Philly in my parents’ 4-speed Volkswagen hatchback with the surf boards strapped to the top. What was playing as loudly as humanly possible, as we all sang along, were the sounds of the Beach Boys. Along with the British invasion, especially the Beatles, they were the top acts in all of popular music for more than a decade. And that was the East Coast. On the West Coast, they represented an entire weltanschauung, an American way of life, of being itself.
The simpler, purer 1960s, until 1968—when the revolt hit and the Left forced the debacle of Vietnam to destroy the country, in a war we surely could have won—were shaped by the lyrics and melodies of the Beach Boys. And what were those larger-than-life, everyday themes? They were not overly political, nihilistic, or pornographic. You could listen to the words and replay the harmonious melodies over and over again—for all of time.
Cars, Girls, and Surfing
In many ways, America should be seen as a love affair with cars. There are a number of reasons for this reality, having to do with the flight to freedom, acts of mobility, and a pioneering spirit of discovery. The Beach Boys were part of the larger Southern California culture. It was reinforced with that romance of all things automotive, from drag racing to mega horsepower. Think of hits like “Little Duce Coup,” “I Get Around,” “409,” “Ole Betsy,” “Fun Fun Fun,” and “Chug-a Lug.”
When it comes to romance and searching for that perfect girl, the Beach Boys held sway. Their greatest hits included the likes of, “California Girls,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” and many others.
But surfing effectively made the group aptly named for the beach. The sea represented a longing for that big wave and absolute ecstasy. On that theme, the song list included, “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Good Vibrations,” “Surfer Girl,” and so on.
You can listen to any and all of The Beach Boys many songs here.
According to all the liberal textbooks and histories, the 1960s in American culture was a time of “empowerment to battle social injustices such as racism and poverty.” But for those who actually experienced it, the 1960s began as an optimistic time of hope with plans to eliminate social inequalities, while ending with a failed Vietnam War and the deaths of prominent political figures. Huge cultural shifts in the 60s involving controversial political and military events brought forth multiple scandals and protests.
The iconic liberal images of the 60s include JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King’s, ”I Have a Dream” speech, protests and marches for racial justice, and of course, Woodstock were pivotal, but there is a strong counter argument to leftist narratives. The 60s were also a time of conservative values, the importance of faith and family, and a time when a vibrant youth culture emerged to both uphold and challenge those values in new ways. That part of the story never gets told or is ignored completely. Media bias and academic bigotry never want the conservative side to be known or retold.
The conventional interpretation of the 1960s emphasizes how liberal, even radical, the decade was. It was, after all, the age of mass protests against the war and social movements on behalf of civil rights and women’s rights. It was also an era when the counterculture challenged many of the values and beliefs held by morally traditional Americans. But a newer and more complete interpretation stresses how truly polarized the 1960s were. It portrays how radicals, liberals, and conservatives repeatedly clashed in ideological combat for the hearts and minds of Americans. Millions in the center and on the Right contested the counterculture, defended the Vietnam War, and opposed expanded rights and drug use. Like the Beach Boys, they just wanted to be left alone to enjoy life.
With the emergence of the New Left and the modern conservative movement, ideological lenses were sharpened. The Left did not win, however. In fact the war goes on.
In assessing the enduring importance of the 1960s on contemporary American politics and society one should also consider the role of popular music. We should highlight the polarization of the decade by focusing on the political, social, and cultural debates that divided the nation then and continue to do so now.
For conservatives, the early to mid 1960s may represent the last time America was the way it should be and therefore could be—Again.