Before The Beatles, The Four Seasons were The Beach Boys’ greatest rivals. Both groups, while most famous for their intricate multi-part harmonies, also played their own instruments and wrote their own material – both rarities in the era of Brill Building songwriters and studio musicians. While The Beach Boys were the California kids who sang about cars and girls and being true to your school, The Four Seasons were Jersey Italians who, if not for talent and luck, would have been shift workers or street hustlers. “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” weren’t celebrating adolescent America; they were sneering at lovesick kids who had lost their cool. And unlike the Wilson brothers’ angelic voices, Frankie Valli’s falsetto was shrill, almost threatening.
The Four Seasons had always held the edge in popularity, scoring three number-one singles before The Beach Boys had their first. But with the British Invasion came an ultimatum: either step up to the new rock and roll – one with a harder beat, more complex arrangements, and fresher melodies – or start booking tours on the nostalgia circuit. As “I Get Around” hinted, The Beach Boys chose the first option. Most other mainstream acts, however, settled into the latter category.
Perhaps The Beach Boys’ second-best status gave Brian Wilson the competitive zeal that drove him toward innovation. After all, success can have a paralyzing effect. Some groups, having tasted the top, would do anything to delay the inevitable slide down the charts. If that meant trading swagger and hiss for pabulum about a young girl in dirty clothes, then so be it. The Four Seasons were still old-fashioned entertainers at heart, just with a little more street cred than the average bubblegummer. They couldn’t compete with The Rolling Stones’ brand of nasty anyhow. So they turned to the old trope of the moneyed rock star crooning about the poor kid from the wrong end of town. “Rag Doll” has the decency to be a little less maudlin than most, but it lacks the social consciousness that would feature in similar songs later in the decade. In a late ‘60s soul or country song, for example, there was the sense of artists speaking about issues within their own marginalized communities, whether it be the ghetto or Appalachia. “Rag Doll,” on the other hand, plays poverty as an emotional hook. Actually, “poverty” may be too strong a word – for all we know, the “rag doll” is just a girl cursed with the unspeakable horror of hand-me-downs. The real tragedy of the song isn’t even the girl’s struggle against the socioeconomic forces binding her within the underclass – no, it’s that the singer’s parents won’t let them date because of her sartorial inadequacies.
One of The Beach Boys’ great successes was their ability to write songs about a specific type of middle class, suburban California adolescence that stood in for a universal teenage dream. But “Rag Doll” finds The Four Seasons losing touch with their rock kid fanbase. Not only had they adopted the pop star POV, but they’d gone musically stale. Of course, there would still be an adult market for smooth, harmonious pop, especially once 1962’s teenagers got married and grew out of rock and roll. But never again could the most formidable of the early ‘60s pop groups speak for the new teenage experience. 4
Hit #1 on July 18, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
113 of 984 #1’s reviewed; 11.48% through the Hot 100