The Relevant Social Criticism of the Monkees

MonkeesThey might have been “too busy singing to put anybody down” as their self-titled theme song proclaims, but the all-too-often written off pop-rock band of the 1960s and 1970s, The Monkees, were not too busy appealing to the status quo of the post-1950s period to offer their own share of social criticism. Known best for their catchy hits like, “The Last Train to Clarksville,” “Daydream Believer,” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” I don’t know that I’ve ever come across anybody who has taken seriously the powerful — and still timely — social critique throughout the entire lyrical set of “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” For those unfamiliar with the song, here’s body of the song:

The local rock group down the street
Is trying hard to learn their song
Seranade the weekend squire, who just came out to mow his lawn

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday
Charcoal burning everywhere
Rows of houses that are all the same
And no one seems to care

See Mrs. Gray she’s proud today because her roses are in bloom
Mr. Green he’s so serene, He’s got a t.v. in every room

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday
Here in status symbol land
Mothers complain about how hard life is
And the kids just don’t understand

Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul and make it hard for me to see
My thoughts all seem to stray, to places far away
I need a change of scenery

The ironic potency of their stinging assessment of the monotony and superficiality of the “American Dream” (and, its British analog for that matter) cast in the addictive and catchy beat of the musical score is, in my not-so-humble opinion, brilliant!

(Full Disclosure — As a young child in the early 1980s I loved watching the then still-syndicated TV Series, so perhaps I’m unfairly biased in favor of their catchy tunes. You might not enjoy their fluffy-ish Beatles echo, but that’s ok. De gustibus non est disputandum. It is the social critique I’m interested in today, not convincing audiences in 2013 that this band is cool.)

The song, recently resurrected in my playlist, reminds me of some other powerful and popular critiques of the mid-twentieth-century middle-class American Dream like Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, made into a film staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in 2008.

While not explicitly “Christian,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” strikes me as a valuable cultural illustration that contextualizes what is really important by highlighting the ultimate unimportance of this vision of life and playing on the levels of irony in the suburban dream (“Mothers complain about how hard life is / And the kids just don’t understand”), the superficial goals of middle-class aspirations (“See Mrs. Gray she’s proud today because her roses are in bloom / Mr. Green he’s so serene, He’s got a t.v. in every room”), and the Revolutionary Road-esque unveiling of the latent depression such a life ultimately delivers (“Creature comfort goals / They only numb my soul and make it hard for me to see / My thoughts all seem to stray, to places far away / I need a change of scenery”).

While The Monkees made this song famous in their recording, it is actually Gerry Goffin and Carole King that deserve the credit for the penning of the lyrics. They titled the song after a street on which the song writers lived in New Jersey. The record of the song also ended in a creative devolution from the enjoyable and fun pop beat into a cacophony of reverb and feedback — how appropriate, again echoing the Yates conclusion to Revolutionary Road.

As women and men who strive to follow after Christ, perhaps “Pleasant Valley Sunday” could serve as an enjoyable reminder of what is and is not important — a cultural reminder and pep-talk.

 

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3 Responses to “The Relevant Social Criticism of the Monkees”

  1. The Monkees Headquarters was a very underrated album. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Headquarters_(album) The Monkees were given the freedom to create the music, rather than leaving it to studio musicians, and some of the songs are brilliant. Full disclosure: it was the first album I ever bought, so there is an emotional attachment.

  2. Sean Kinnevy Says:

    Yes, as a 12-year old Monkees fan in 1967 when this song came out I realized the societal criticism and it has greatly influenced my life.

  3. I’m in the same age group as Jud and Sean – have fond memories of the Monkees. Another meaningful song from the Headquarters album was “Shades of Grey” – a commentary about the world in the 60’s and how complicated things get when you’re growing up.

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