Friday, January 7, 2011


This entry will not be about the Phantom Planet song 'California' that introduced the deeply mediocre TV show The OC for several years. Nor will it be about any song written by Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have shaped a nice career for themselves with songs like 'Californication' and 'Dani California.' The Phantom Planet track shows California as it appears in popular culture, sunny and laid back, a place apart like Florida. By contrast, RCHP are Californians who see the state for what it really is: seedy underneath a cheap, flashy exterior. A Hollywood film set with false-front buildings that collapse in a month.

But, as I said, this entry isn't about those songs. Instead, it's about the way outsiders look at California. Not just outsiders from other states, but from another hemisphere. When I chat with my British friends, I usually find that their US geography is limited to New York, Disney World, and California. The rest of the country is just background noise. (I told an acquaintance this summer that I lived outside Philadelphia. His response: 'Is that to the left or right?') So today I'm looking at the way two British bands think about California, and what that says about the place America occupies in the international imagination.

Let's start with a song that admits it doesn't take an objective viewpoint in its understanding of place. Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys released 'Fake Tales of San Francisco' in 2005 on their breakout EP Five Minutes with Arctic Monkeys. Debuting to massive hype, the Monkeys stood out because their songs spoke so directly about life for average young people in Britain. Tinged with Alex Turner's slang ridden, dialect-heavy lyrics, their debut album was a snapshot of British society. With that in mind, it's no wonder that Turner seems spitting mad about American influences in the British indie scene in 'Fake Tales.'

The track roundly criticizes bands that mask their own culture in favor of pretending they're part of the American music scene. “Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook,” the Monkeys tell posing “super cool band[s]” with “their trilbies and their glasses of white wine...weekend rockstars." The song challenges bands that try to distance themselves from their British roots. “Yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem/ you're not from New York City, you're from Rotheram,” Turner says coolly before condemning an Americanized band as “fucking wank.” (A lyric quieted down to 'not very good' on subsequent releases-- it doesn't quite capture the venom of the original.) You can practically hear the band's eyes rolling when the titular "fake tales of San Francisco echo through the room." In this track, there's not a lot of warmth for the state that many people consider the most pleasant place in America. (At least 37 million of us do, according to the 2010 Census. That's 12 million more than California's nearest competitor, Texas). But Turner sees "more point to a wedding...without a bride or groom" than he does in pretending to be from California. And really, what's so wrong with being from England? It's working out all right for Arctic Monkeys.

Art Brut also take on, with their usual tongue-in-cheek attitude, the clash between British life and fantasies of California in 'Moving to LA.' Singer Eddie Argos complains satirically that “there’s not much glam about the English weather...I’m considering a move to L.A." Unlike the Monkeys, Art Brut aren't angry that people from Britain might rather live somewhere sunny, warm, and glamorous. They're just putting out a friendly warning that they might be let down once they get there. The song is a litany of increasingly ridiculous stereotypes about what happens in on the West Coast. Here's an excerpt:

Hang around with Axl Rose
Buy myself some brand new clothes
Everything is gonna be just fine
I hear the murder rate is in decline...

When I get off the plane
The first thing I'm gonna do is
Strip naked to the waist
And ride my Harley Davidson
Up and down Sunset street
I may even get a tattoo
My problems are never gonna find me
I'm not sending one letter
or even a postcard back
I'm drinking Henessey
With Morrissey
On a beach
Out of reach
Somewhere very far away

It's up for grabs whether or not Art Brut actually thinks they'd like to live this life. It sounds fun, but my suspicion is no, they wouldn't. There's a slightly cruel undertone to the whole song. A little touch of, "Here's what we've been told about California. We're not really going for it, but thanks for trying." In the modern era of constant, dismal tabloid photos, some of the glamour has been drained from Hollywood, and Art Brut is mocking how tacky and ostentatious the culture has become. In their own way, the band is expressing the same sentiment heard in 'Fake Tales'-- don't sell out for a California dream that isn't worthwhile. Celebrities aren't Grace Kelly anymore. Now they're Lindsay Lohan staggering out of a club at 4 am every single night, or the millionth shot of Chris Pine getting a coffee (does the man do anything else?) 'Moving to LA' is a wink where 'Fake Tales' is a punch in the jaw, but both are telling you to look again at one of the quintessential American states. Art Brut isn't buying what Arnold is selling in his California tourism ads. And anyway, would Morrissey even like California? It seems far too sunny and busy for contemplative moping.

People from other countries, like Americans themselves, no longer see California as everyone once perceived it-- a promised land. Countless waves of people have come to California looking for a new life: prospectors and wagon trains coming west in search of gold, immigrants from southeast Asia seeking new paths in America, and endless generations of young people who think they can make it in Hollywood. California, like Florida, is probably a popular song subject because it's a dreamland more than a reality, easily shaped to fit what your imagination desires. It's no coincidence that Walt Disney chose to build his other great escapist attraction here. But the illusion never seems to last; there's always cynicism underneath, a fitting metaphor for a state that's all about appearances. Views of California could be a microcosm for the way perceptions of America in general are changing in the modern international world, but that's a difficult generalization to make.

To close, Brits aren't the only ones with some reservations about the Golden State. Arcade Fire's stunning The Suburbs, which we'll return to with Texas, fleetingly mentions the state in 'Half Light II: No Celebration.' Win Butler begins the song with a surrender: "Now that San Francisco's gone/ I guess I'll just pack it in." Whatever he was looking for-- solace? fame?-- he doesn't find it in California. He suggests "we head back East/to find a town where we can live." As a symbol of an older part of our national history, maybe he's seeking deeper roots, something more organic and substantial than what California has to offer. That's what The Suburbs seems to be about, after all. Escape from mindless, modern sprawl. But is the East really any better? We'll find out soon, because I'm tackling the big one next: Springsteen and New Jersey.

Fake Tales of San Francisco
Moving to LA
Half Light II: No Celebration

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