Don’t You Forget About Me: The Beach Boys – “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” 1964
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 24, 2010
First off, let me say this: The first season of Men of a Certain Age was significantly better than any TNT show (especially one endlessly hyped during the MLB playoffs, usually a sure sign of deathliness) has a right to be. It feels like a show that should have happened decades ago–a grounded, well-acted portrayal of the constant stresses and occasional rewards of life close to the half-century mark, without the snappy punchlines and caricatured supporting cast such a premise would normally suggest. (Forgive me, Modern Family enthusiasts, but I just can’t take another explanation-less faux-documentary sitcom in my life right now.) Andre Braugher’s greatness is no surprise, of course, and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Scott Bakula from my days of watching Quantum Leap re-runs on Sci Fi, but the revelation here is Ray Romano, who when freed from the cruel oppression of an interminable laugh track, a perpetually pissed off Patricia Heaton and a family of Emmy-clawing ingrates, turns out to be an impressively expressive and relatable actor.
The show is strong all around, but perhaps its biggest home run is with its credit sequence and theme music, which proves once again that sometimes the most obvious choice is the best one: The Beach Boys’ “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man).”
To most music listeners, the central question surrounding the Beach Boys is usually something like this: How exactly do you go from “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “I Get Around” to “Caroline, No” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in the space of two years? Well, there were a couple of missing links in the Beach Boys’ transformation from being their generation’s Weezer to being their generation’s…well, still Weezer I guess, but you know, the heavy stuff. Perhaps the most important one was “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” the Beach Boys’ (and more specifically, leader/songwriter/headcase Brian Wilson’s) paean to the intimidating mystery of impending adulthood, one of the earliest signs that Wilson knew (or at least strongly suspected) that he was eventually going to have to deal with problems in his life weightier than how to best schedule catching high tide in between scoping out chicks on the beach.*
When I was younger and I used to hear it on my parents’ double-cassette Beach Boys greatest hits collection, I tended to think of “When I Grow Up” as one of the Boys’ sillier songs, a kind of pandering, simplistic number tossed off without much more thought than, say, “Be True to Your School.”** It wasn’t until I heard the song for the first time in a long time as a late-teen, maybe the summer before I first went off to college, that I realized it for the personal, kind of devastating song it really was. Of course, by then I knew more about the real-life history of Brian Wilson, his struggles with identity, his familial demons, and the mother of all quarter-life crises he experienced while his band was still one of the biggest acts in the world.
Wilson was 22 when he wrote “When I Grow Up,” and I think most would forgive me for assuming that when an adult by most non-car-renting standards writes a song about the eventual day he grows up to be a man, that it probably comes with a high dose of preciousness. But for Wilson, the song’s essential question of “When I grow up to be a man / What will I be?” was still a particularly pressing one. Struggling to gain independence of his life and his music from his overbearing father, and pressured by family, fans and record label into writing and recording the teen anthems that had made him famous but no longer spoke to his own experience (if they ever had), Wilson was stuck in an understandable state of arrested development. Viewed under those circumstances, the song takes on a significantly more harrowing tone than your garden-variety teenage-regression tune.
But really, it’s not just Wilson’s miserable personal story that makes the song such a stunner. Despite the distance implied from grown-up status by the title, the song asks the kind of questions about impending adulthood that nobody really asks until they’re right there at the precipice. Will my priorities in women change? Will I have to settle down in a full-time job right away? Will my kids like me? Will I still be able to have fun when I’m 30? These really aren’t the questions that anybody thinks about when they’re 12 or 13 or even 16 or 17–they’re far too pragmatic to be contemplated when life still seems that wide-open. But as legal drinking age approaches, and expected maturity is around the corner, they certainly start to creep in, and with far greater weight than you ever would have thought when you were younger.
This is what makes this song so brilliant, as well as what makes Men of a Certain Age so compelling. The fact that Wilson wrote the song at 22–and actually kind of sounds like a real-life 22-year-old in it–suggests the idea that indeed, we’re none of us fully grown up, and that the questions and worries about the future never really go away for good. This is similarly true about the characters of Men, who have such problems and insecurities in their own lives that they occasionally need to look to their own kids (or in Bakula’s case, significantly younger girlfriend) for guidance. For me, it’s beyond refreshing–too often in pop culture, life is presented as You’re a confused teenager, You grow up as a young adult and then You’re good from there, and if anyone out there has actually found that to be the case, be sure to drop me a link to your autobiography in the comments section.
And really, to talk so much about the thematic resonance of the song sort of short-changes what a musical accomplishment the song is as well. It’s got the gorgeous melodies and pitch-perfect harmonies that you’d come to expect from any Beach Boys record, but it does a couple of things as a song that continue to stun me with their ingenuity. One is the number counting going on in the background of the song throughout from 14 to 32–a perfect, subtle little reminder of just how fast youth falls by the wayside, and which becomes particularly heartbreaking during the outro, as Wilson laments “Won’t last forever / It’s kind of sad.” Another is just how succinct the song manages to be, running a scant 2:12 while still packing in three verses, three choruses, a bridge and an extended outro–a musical economy rarely witnessed before or since.
My favorite thing about the song, though, has got to be the shift in the chorus. As Wilson and company continue to speculate about the uncertainties of the future in immaculate harmony, just as it gets to the “When I grow up to beeee a maaaaaaan” line, the song shifts up in key (or at least it sounds like it does), jarring in its unexpected sharpness, though certainly no less pretty for the wear. No matter how many times you’ve heard the song, it still kind of catches you off guard while you’re listening to it, and makes that one line–the song’s key line, naturally–stand out with all the more poignancy. Not to mention that as a sheer songwriting maneuver, it remains pretty damn ballsy for 1964, if not for ever–who else these days would have the guts to put a melodic shift like that in the middle of their hit single’s chorus?
If you haven’t heard the song since you were a kid, be sure to give it another listen. And support Men of a Certain Age when it (hopefully) comes back for a second season later this year, lest we get stuck with more Law & Order knockoffs or the resurrection of Frank TV come next MLB post-season.