“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the first and most well-known single from the Beach Boys’ critically acclaimed, commercially underrated album Pet Sounds, is an angst-y, yet hopeful anthem to the trials and tenderness of teen lust. Before the song’s lyrics can even be heard, its opening harpsichord riff lilts across a smattering of upper range notes, trilling sweetly to recall the gentle flickering of sunlight across an estuary. Then, just as the innocent melody has seeped in the ears of its listeners, it is abruptly punctured by the swift kick of a drum. Songwriter and Beach Boys front man Brian Wilson’s voice then cuts through the instrumentation with a straining falsetto to deliver the song’s infamous opening lyrics:
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong
Wilson (himself 24 at the time of the track’s recording) described “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” as a song about “what children everywhere go through… wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, or could run away and get married.” While tempered in the context of Wilson’s lyrics, themes of adolescent imagination and rebellion remain unavoidable in his composition. The immediacy of young love, an insatiable desire to remain inseparable, and the perception of time as both a bottomless resource and an insurmountable obstacle to adulthood are all alluded to within the song’s yearning for an early onset of the future.
The tangible innocence and earnest desire so acutely expressed in “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” made it an apt if not somewhat romanticized depiction of teen romance and ambition. The songs lyrics voice the timeless and familiar tension experienced by generations of hormone-addled adolescents: between wanting to physically express newfound lust and a consciousness of this desire’s taboo. In the context of “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” teen lust takes the form of a boy’s aching for the physical presence of his girlfriend. His anxiety, mounting frustration, and feelings of bewilderment are painfully recounted as he describes the well-known teen ritual of self-denial and placation:
You know it seems the more we talk about it
It only makes it worse to live without it
But lets talk about it
“Wouldn’t it Be Nice” is not simply a song about teenagers wanting to be together–it is a song about teenagers wanting to sleep together as well. Its covert yet undeniably sexual references become apparent in more of Wilson’s unsatisfied lyrical musings:
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up
In the morning when the day is new
And after having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night through
As well has his more longing ones:
You know its gonna make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and stay together
As well as his less subtle ones:
I wish that every kiss was never ending…
But perhaps the most telling line in Wilson’s song is not an explicit or an implicit mention of sex itself, but a pre-requisite of sex, in this case, marriage:
We could be married
And then we’d be happy…
This message of deference to the social doctrine of pre-marital abstinence belies the realities of American society with which Wilson, along with many teenagers who felt an affinity to his expressions, was grappling. That Wilson’s struggle exists not only between a young teen’s lusting and his sense of propriety but also between his personal desires and social expectations at large; speaks to the conservative attitudes toward sex, teen lust, and relationships that prevailed at the time of the song’s release. At play are the opposing forces of what was done and what was expected with regards to teen sexuality. The song’s protagonist ultimately acquiesces to societal demands as a means to an end: he will be happy when he and his young lover have consummated their affair. And they will just have to get married first.
Wilson’s begrudging willingness to wait (or to at least pretend to wait) until he’s older to sleep with the object of his affection acknowledges the development of a recognizable dichotomy in the process of sexual maturation: behavior that is prescribed in accordance with social norms, and behavior that is consciously or subconsciously desired, but not yet fully understood. The mere fact that Wilson has expressed these desires suggests that he has some knowledge of sex, but his blind deference to social suggestion demonstrates that this knowledge is not yet comprehensive. It is more likely to be incomplete and contraband, gleaned from some informal source or word of mouth.
The acquisition of sexual knowledge that is implied in “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” is a nuanced phenomenon within the adolescent experience. It relies on the gradual collection of facts and scraps of evidence from formal and informal guides and derived from a young adult lifetime of social cues and experiences. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” captures a teen caught somewhere between initial sexual curiosity and competence. Sex is a fascinating but still largely foreign subject for Wilson’s protagonist who attempts to straddle the gap between boundaries he’s learned to respect and those he wishes to break.
The success and popularity of “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” and other Beach Boys’ music hinged in part on its incorporation familiar images from teenage experience, including a curiosity about sex. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” like the rest of Beach Boys’ catalog, makes infrequent overt mention of sex (embittered rejection ballad “Wendy” being one a notable exception,) but the band’s music makes frequent references to the other universal struggles suffered by teens at this socially anxious, sexually curious stage of life: raging hormones, young love, summer lust, peer pressure, and slingshot vacillations between manic triumph and crushing disappointment.
Frequently set against a coastal backdrop, these musical discussions constituted an informal source of information for an audience that was curious about the music’s themes. Other Beach Boys songs such as “I Get Around” and “Don’t Worry Baby” peppered their lyrics with descriptions of the coast, conflating images of the ocean landscape with hints of teen sexual conquests. The band’s frequent coupling of beach imagery with descriptions of teenage sexuality was no coincidence. Considering the standby use of the ocean as a metaphor for cyclical pubescent capriciousness and emotional fluctuations, the Beach Boys’ comparisons of crashing waves, mysterious changes in sunlight, and thrilling coastal landscapes to temperamental and sexually motivated teen romances were appropriate and even somewhat predictable.