Brian Wilson Paved the Way for the Sensitive Pop Revolution

The music of Brian Wilson is great for any season.
The music of Brian Wilson is great for any season. Photo by Jeff McEvoy
Art pop, indie pop, chamber pop, baroque pop, folk-pop — you name it, and Brian Wilson’s influence is most definitely all over it.

Wilson’s genius is hard to overstate; Art Garfunkel even called him "the Mozart of Rock 'n' Roll." The Beach Boys frontman redefined the role of the pop composer and opened the door for his rock 'n’ roll peers to experiment with new musical material.

Beyond sonics, his ethos of innocence and his sweet soul have also bled into the fabric of pop music of the past century, making him the godfather of sensitive pop — the unapologetically tender and earnest kind.

Wilson will head to South Florida to kick off his latest solo tour, where he'll get the chance to celebrate his legacy of delicate, melodious music. His gift for yanking on heartstrings will be on full display this Friday, January 17, when he performs at Magic City Casino.

Wilson’s musical journey began with his obsession with girl groups of the '60s and groundbreaking producer Phil Spector’s trademark production style.

As gentle and soft-spoken as he is neurotic and obsessive, Wilson reportedly became fixated on topping the grand “Wall of Sound” techniques Spector mastered in his iconic recordings.

His personal favorite of Spector’s? The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” which Wilson estimates he has listened to about a thousand times and which proved instrumental in influencing the making of one of the Beach Boys’ most celebrated songs: “Don’t Worry Baby.”

Wilson's obsessiveness also led him to his next goal: making an album better than the Beatles’ Rubber Soul.

The result was the Beach Boys' landmark 1966 album, Pet Sounds, a record so grandiose, timeless, and meticulously divine it’s still lauded and celebrated by critics and fans across generations as one of the most innovative albums of all time.
Perhaps not as frequently discussed is his influence in softening the status quo in pop music. Wilson’s songwriting asserted the value of finely crafted pop music as equally important and valid as the primal, hard-driving rock 'n’ roll the world had come to know since then.

Pet Sounds helped to expand the idea of rock music beyond the standard template of guitar parts paired with drum and bass. Wilson’s pop-rock was ornate and romantic and inspired a whole new mode of musical expression among his contemporaries and those who followed in his footsteps.

One, in particular, was the mighty Paul McCartney, who was so moved by Pet Sounds he made it his mission to make something of the same caliber (funny, considering Wilson created the album to one-up the Beatles' Rubber Soul.)

Soon enough, the Beatles released the avant-garde and benchmark-setting Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Wilson’s story is one of both triumphant highs and profound lows, where new heights of musical beauty were reached just as childhood trauma, substance abuse, and mental illness stood to undermine the singer-songwriter's achievements.

Personal arc aside, Wilson's most impressive achievement may be the reach of his influence. His spirit still inhabits the music of today, from the soft folk-pop of singers such as Sufjan Stevens and the extravagant pop of Harry Styles to the chillwave of artists like Toro y Moi and Panda Bear. Beyond the more self-evident sonic successors, Wilson has also been deemed a godfather to punk, indie rock, and even emo.

In the words of his late brother and former bandmate Dennis: "Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. He is the band. We're his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We're nothing. He's everything."

Brian Wilson. With the Cowsills. 7 p.m. Friday, January 17, at Magic City Casino, 450 NW 37th Ave., Miami; Tickets cost $25 to $125 via
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Patricia Cárdenas is a Colombian-American arts and music journalist. She loves '80s pop, bike rides, and thrifting.

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