Californication (Series II)

This page written circa 2 December, 2009.

It is a brilliant word, Californication, conveying association with everything Californian, with becoming or wanting to become, with a healthy sexual allusion thrown in. I used the word for a Soapbox in 1999, asking questions about why people live where they do, as I was "becoming Californian" at the time. It is now the title of a television program as well as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers song. (There was a law suit there.) In the program the "fornication" bit is central, in the RHCP lyrics, not so. As regular readers might know, I love poetry, especially dense and cryptic examples. It seems a lot of other people do, and if you ask Mr Google to explain something like American Pie you can find lovely, informed, professional analyses. Not so for the RHCP song. Don Mclean said of American Pie: "People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity. Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time." The same can be said of Californication.

The song centers on the phenomenon of California, LA, and Hollywood in particular being a global ideal for so many people on account of the movies, music and celebrity lifestyles seen there. (Actually I picture a kind of contour map like a hurricane on the weather program, with Hollywood at the eye, with the intensity of plastic decadence spreading out with distance. Northern California is in the calm wake, this is more a SoCal thing.) The song suggests that this view is of something superficial and false, with something nasty underneath. The neologism of the title embodies references to California, to becoming something, and to seeking fleeting pleasure. Like much of the song, multiple connections and meanings spring from each line. This richness of references probably constitutes much of its appeal.

> Psychic spies from China
> Try to steal your mind's elation
A reference to Chinese piracy of movie IP stealing the fruit of Hollywood's imagination. The first line is reputed to have been heard from an "old lady in a bazzaar".

> Little girls from Sweden
> Dream of silver screen quotations
The obvious meaning is that cute blonde girls still flock to Hollywood in search of movie fame.

> And if you want these kind of dreams
> It's Californication
This explains the title and theme: The spread of the ideal of life in Hollywood/California.

> It's the edge of the world
> and all of western civilization
This is the first double entendre. California is the westernmost part of the USA (the pinnacle of civilisation, one might say), but it is also the most way out culturally and morally.

> The sun may rise in the East
> At least it settles in the final location
The ultimate lifestyle might once have come from far away, but it's the Californian one now.

> It's understood that Hollywood
> sells Californication
The reason for the spread of the "Californian dream" is the movie industry.

> Pay your surgeon very well
> To break the spell of aging
> Celebrity skin is this your chin
> Or is that war you're waging
This is another easy one: You have to look good/young to enjoy the lifestyle, so plastic surgery is a big part of the strategy. "Celebrity Skin" was an album/song from a band formed by Courtney Love, so this is a simultaneous reference.

> First born unicorn
> Hardcore soft porn
> Dream of Californication
> Dream of Californication
The unicorn is associated with purity and maidenhood, in contrast to porn. The word "hardcore" means something like intense, unswerving, or bold to Americans but is predominantly used to mean "un-soft porn" elsewhere in the world, as in "hard core porn". The "first born unicorn" reference alludes to `The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten, 1960-1980' by Peter Bogdanovich, detailing a tragic life and death of a young girl around the Hollywood porn movie scene. A classic case of the dream gone wrong.

> Marry me girl be my ferry to the world
> Be my very own constellation
> A teenage bride with a baby inside
> Getting high on information
> And buy me a star on the boulevard
> It's Californication
This verse mixes the ideas of marriage, of marriage as a ticket to whatever, of pregnant young girls using the internet to learn about pregnancy rather than the traditional reliance on family and relatives, and of a career leading to movie recognition symbolised by having your name in the pavement with all the greats. These are all "healthy" parts of Californian aspirations, perhaps the reverse of the "first born unicorn" verse. Sounds like a Hollywood movie....

> Space may be the final frontier
> But it's made in a Hollywood basement
Reference to Star Trek, and how things (like the CA lifestyle) that look glossy and fantastic are really images manufactured in a very unpretentious place.

> Cobain can you hear the Spheres
> Singing songs off Station to Station
As often noted, Cobain died not long before the song came out, and this is a reference to him listening in heaven to the heavenly spheres producing covers from Bowie's album Station to Station. Bowie was very "spacey", as are the other two references in this verse, and he was an icon of Cobain. The Spheres are covering, bringing up the idea of heaven having adopted something popular instead of generating their own music.

> And Alderaan's not far away
> It's Californication
Reference to Star Wars, more "space opera" manufactured not in Hollywood but nearby in the Lucas Ranch in Marin.

> Born and raised by those who praise
> Control of population
> Everybody's been there
> And I don't mean on vacation
California was built up by the likes of Disney, conservatives who felt they should disseminate and enforce their ideals for lifestyle. It is unclear if the thing raised was California or the writer, but the effect is the same: Disneyland is the reference, but it is the dictation of values, not the having of fun that concerns the author in this verse. Disneyland is an icon of conservative enforcement, and has been the subject of some legal controvesy on account of this. The writer is saying that he refers to "Disneyland, but what motivated it, not to its function as a place to holiday". The commentators that I could find via Mr Google offer no explanation of this verse.

> Destruction leads to a very rough road
> But it also breeds creation
> And earthquakes are to a girl's guitar
> They're just another good vibration
> And tidal waves couldn't save the world
> From Californication
Again there are a few ideas juxtaposed here. California is an earthquake zone, but also a seat of creativity. The destructive effects of the disseminated lifestyle are paralleled by the dissemination of creativity and imagination. The good vibration hooks in the old Beach Boys' song (an early global view of California) and resonates with the earthquake/music theme. Tidal waves come from earthquakes, but this is likely to also be a reference to the track Aenema by Tool where it is suggested that LA be flushed away. The writer finished by pointing out that this would not prevent the effect of some polished up lifestyle image becoming an icon and global goal.

> Pay your surgeon very well
> To break the spell of aging
> Sicker than the rest, there is no test
> But this is what you're craving
This is the conclusion: The verse says "You people want this lifestyle even though it is unhealthy on the inside, nobody really tests the ideas before they idolize them."

It is the multiplicity of possible allusions that make this song enthralling, as much as the depth of its message, just as is the case with American Pie. Kay and I often weigh up California against New Zealand, and from reputation you would expect California to offer a more rich experience. The objective figures don't support this expectation, as I have noted in Empire Records. However, there is a good deal more money sloshing around California, and the weather suits people. What makes for riches?

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