A while ago, I posted an article about how ‘Hook’ by Blues Traveler was a genius piece of songwriting that people might have not noticed the first time round. More recently, I found myself listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers song ‘Scar Tissue’ and wound up listening to the title track from that 1999 album ‘Californication’
‘Californication’ is, as expected, a portmanteau of ‘California’ and ‘Fornication’ that repeats itself a lot through the song, and can offer a listener or amateur lyrics analyser a few different points in the direction of what Californication can actually mean. Urban Dictionary defines Californication as “The spread and influence of western memes and culture, esp. that of California, across the world. Including a focus on the selling of sex.”
Flea stated in an interview with MTV: “It’s not a sexual reference. “Californication” is really just the act of the world being affected and saturated by the art and the culture being born and raised in California. Traveling around the world, no matter how far I go, I see the affect that California has on the world. It’s about that good and bad, beautiful and ugly.”
The song begins with John Frusciante’s guitar work alternating between an A minor and F major chord arpeggio with Flea adding some bass embellishments before Chad Smith’s drums and Anthony Keidis’ vocals enter. The whole song has this laid back groove that is common of that ‘California sound’ that The Eagles used to have. It has that driving a convertible up I-5 at sunset feel about it. As far as Chili Peppers arrangements go, it’s a pretty simple one. I guess that’s the other great thing about it and it’s been a staple of secondary school band set lists for years. Anyway: Keidis’ lines:
Psychic spies from China try to steal your mind’s elation
And little girls from Sweden dream of silver screen quotationAnd if you want these kind of dreams
This first part of the song talks about the paranoia of an outside agent trying to prevent you from using your mind freely and mess with your lives (‘spies from China… Elation…’). A lot of the people with these crackpot theories tend to live in California and into Nevada, which has been parodied in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto V which are both set in worlds based on California. The Swedish girls, continuing, are a metaphor for people in other countries having this rose-tinted view of California and how awesome it must be to live and work there while all the time being totally oblivious to the darker side of it all.
Within the second verse, Anthony Keidis tells us what ‘Californication’ is:
It’s the edge of the world and all of western civilization
The sun may rise in the East at least it settles in the final location
It’s understood that Hollywood sells Californication
This can mean a couple of things, literally and metaphorically. Literally, California (and also Oregon and Washington) are pretty much the last majorly inhabited regions of the
Western Hemisphere before crossing the Pacific Ocean, the International Date Line and arriving in New Zealand or Japan. Metaphorically it can be pointing at the decline of civilisation and how humanity consumes so much ‘fake’ stuff coming out of California that our minds are now something else. The fear of the ‘Chinese spies’, the naive girls from Sweden trying to pursue the American Dream and the debauchery of civilisation are three things that Hollywood sells and sells perfectly.
Pay your surgeon very well
To break the spell of aging
Celebrity skin is this your chin?
Or is that war your waging
Plastic surgery. ‘Nuff said.
First born Unicorn
Hardcore soft pornDream of Californication
Unicorns can signify strength and determination, which can symbolise those who are determined to make it in Hollywood. It can also mean that Hollywood is in fact the unicorn, portrayed as being beautiful and perfect yet that perfection, like the unicorn, does not exist. Finally, the unicorn can represent purity and virginity: You are first born one and thanks to Hollywood you find out about it, have it and lose the innocence. “Hardcore soft porn” is also a contradiction in that while Hollywood will sell us a lot of sex, it does so in such a way we get really benign stuff but it’s dressed up as being sleazy. In a ‘yeah, she’s naked in this scene, but you’re not going to see any boob’ kind of way.
Marry me girl be my fairy 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
Is he addressing an actual person or is he addressing Hollywood? Will the girl be his guiding light in this place or will is he being guided to Hollywood and that be his guiding light (or constellation) in this case? Stars are supposed to determine our fate; is he asking for Hollywood to take him all around the world as it’s supposed to be fate he ends up there? Not sure; read into that what you will. Have you also noticed that when teenagers get pregnant they wake up from whatever rebellious world they live in and realise they need to get their shit together? They bury their heads into books, work harder in school and get the grades to help their new family prosper. The last verse can also be interpreted two ways: Who reading wouldn’t mind their own star on Hollywood Boulevard? I personally wouldn’t. Or is Anthony Keidis pointing to corruption again in that those stars are bought with a few backhanded cash exchanges?
Space may be the final frontier but it’s made in a Hollywood basement
Cobain can you hear the spheres singing songs off station to station
And Alderaan’s not far away
Star Trek references and Star Wars references all in the same verse make me a happy happy man. We spend millions every year putting green screens up in disused aircraft hangers to offer our own takes on what space is like when money could be given to NASA and the ESA to go and actually find out for ourselves. He also mentions a Cobain which is most certainly Kurt Cobain who kicked off a trend that was consumed and distorted through Californication. In addition, Dave Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana and his new band Foo Fighters (which are a reference to flying suacers which were in the early years called ‘Spheres’) used to play The Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie as a tribute to Cobain in their early years which resulted in the MTV Unplugged version by Nirvana getting a lot of airplay on radio across the US. The song was by David Bowie, who released the album Station to Station. So: The guy from the Foo Fighters (Spheres) was playing a cover of a David Bowie song from radio station to radio station and Keidis is asking Kurt if he can hear Dave Grohl and his new band carrying on the torch. It should be noted that The Man Who Sold the World is from the album of the same name, not from Station to Station.
The reference to Alderaan is from Star Wars and is depicted as being a paradise in the galaxy that whilst inhabited was peaceful and many areas outside the cities being untouched and left to their natural beauty. It is where Princess Leia was raised by Bail
Organa and thought to be one of the worlds where the Rebel Alliance was formed. In the film, Grand Moff Tarkin decides to test the Death Star’s planet blower upper gun on Alderaan much to the shock of Leia. Alderaan can be used as a metaphor for Earth, saying that at the rate we’re going our planet will be destroyed- intellectually or literally.
Born and raised by those who praise control of population
Everybody’s been there and I don’t mean on vacation
We’ve all experienced it first hand, even if many of us have never visited California.
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
It’s the Alderaan metaphor again, but this time seeking to find out if we can take the bad and turn it into good. California is susceptible to earthquakes and ‘the big one’ is going to happen at some point. Even if California is wiped off the map, would we still be able to make good movies, good music and good television? Earthquakes cause vibrations and vibrating guitar strings make music. Creation, from destruction. California is destructive, but maybe we can get some good from the bad.
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
Keidis comes back to the plastic surgery bit from before, and stating that this desire or obsession to look perma-young and to be a part of this twisted world as an actor, musician or just to experience it for a week is sick, as the writer has seen what California is actually like.
But we as consumers of Californication want it.