Performer: The Beach Boys have had four songs at #1 on the Hot 100 over the course of their career, and dozens of other way up near #1.
Writers: Brian Wilson, Roger Christian
Title: A phrase that states the main idea of the song (kinda).
Structure: Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Instrumental / Verse / Chorus
Purpose (think/dance/vibe/sing-along): vibe, sing-along
1) Earlier this week, with a little time to kill, I found myself browsing my streaming service for Beach Boys songs. What I found in the process was an album recorded live in Chicago in 1965, which includes a version of "Don't Worry Baby" in which Brian Wilson forgets most of the lyrics to verses 2 and 3. I immediately realized that I don't know the lyrics to verses 2 or 3, either. In fact, I didn't have the slightest clue as to what the song was about, except that it was in some way about not worrying about something.
2) In short, the lyrics are barely coherent, with the exception of the awesome first line of verse 1, and also with the exception of the chorus, which let's face it, is a lovely sentiment sung to the tune of a beautiful melody. Verses 2 and 3 reveal that the singer was at some point bragging about his car, and so now he has to race his car, and that the need to race his car has led him to be worried. His girlfriend "makes love" to him, and tells him not to worry. We even get this for a couplet: "She makes me come alive / And makes me wanna drive." I can't say I blame Brian Wilson for forgetting these particular lyrics. In the recording, after having forgotten verse 3, he shouts "I wrote the song, too!," and the crowd goes wild, as if to say "We don't care about verse lyrics, either!"
3) I have deep childhood attachments to The Beach Boys, and so I frantically played through several other hits in hopes that this was an anomaly. I found that it is actually pretty common for their songs to have great, focused choruses surrounded by afterthought verses; much like many pop songs of today. I have always thought of Beach Boys songs as having that signature simplicity/efficiency of the day that I appreciate so much. I assumed their songs would neatly deliver a simple but substantial idea as would a Buddy Holly song ("Words of Love"), or a Shirelles song ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"). Or maybe the songs would tell a coherent story, like Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell." And sometimes The Beach Boys pull though in exactly these ways; but largely they don't. "Don't Worry Baby," and many Beach Boys songs, are vibe songs; they make us feel some certain way deep down in our bodies, and our brains are sort of beside the point.
4) So what does "Don't Worry Baby" have that makes it such a great and timeless classic despite its forgettable, hard to understand lyrics? It has one of the most beautiful vocal melodies of all time. And though I shouldn't be, I'm always shocked by how far a great vocal melody can go in rendering the lyrics minimally important. The melody is what we physically react to; that first intervallic drop of a perfect fourth in the first line of the verse feels tense and melancholy. The soaring peak leading into the chorus makes us feel elevated and comforted in that same melancholy. The lyrics here ("And she says / Don't worry baby") really just reiterate the work already done by the melody, and give us words to remember these feelings later on, when the song has ended.