“California Love”

 

I mean the song, not the state of mind. Let’s go back to ’90s studies, after my Manson essay on the death of rock. This was the alternative, rap or hip hop. This was Tupac’s most famous song. America loved it. The year was 1995, he was fresh out of jail, not yet assassinated, and had discovered California. Like everyone before, he knew immediately this was the land of love, so a new poetry was needed in America, one that orients being American around desire. Necessity doesn’t mean anything in the terrestrial paradise anyway, so it wouldn’t do to think of hard work or strive against nature. Why are people unhappy then? How could anyone be miserable under the tyranny of the life of pleasure?

This is the first strange thing about the song. Both Dr. Dre and Tupac, however embarrassing the stage names, are very good reporters. They talk about being stuck in-between their black communities and their aspiration to California greatness beyond. They’re just successful enough to learn that catastrophe is impending. What do they see trying to take over, ahem, “that sunshine state?” That it’s a mess.

This is not to excuse the irresponsibility of hip hop, which did nothing to make things better–but it did reveal the love of the all-American young white audience for the fantasy of flamboyance and death-daring in young black men. Nor to say that the political argument made by rap–a left-wing attack on rock, hippies, and the rest of the middle-class-identity music–was altogether right. It was a sacrifice of music for more democracy, for including more groups in American popularity, the true and only heaven…

This was after Dr. Dre stopped beating women, a decidedly low class thing to do, but before he made a billion dollar deal with Apple, decidedly an upper-class achievement. The in-between was not middle class, however. That’s part of what California is supposed to teach you. This was before his hipster appeal and the new, clean, business attitude. For a brief period, a bunch of these people–the song has only one producer, Dre, but lots of writers–were clear-eyed about the catastrophe of unleashing desire. This brings us to the second strange thing about the song. The video updates Mad Max for California. Who would think the ’90s in the Golden state were a post-apocalyptic nightmare? These guys did.

Partly, this is because they talk about the criminal underclass of whores and pimps and drugs. But partly because they see in the new world their new success allows them to join the small world they left behind, but writ large. California is a desert in the sense that lots of Americans want to be wild. The appeal of the wilderness is lawlessness, and that’s what California is. The argument implicit in the symbols here is this: It is typical that Americans deceive themselves thinking they want success at any cost–what they really want is to pay the price. This is not an altogether persuasive argument, but it does begin to explain the reemergence of misery in paradise. These men know what darkness they bring with them into the world of success, the world of satisfying desire, and they can therefore recognize the darkness in California.

The video and the song describe the same new class divide: everyone wants to unleash their desires, but only the successful can do so. There is therefore a double quality to the image of crews in dune buggies in the video–the correlative of being a singer representative of a movement. First, the new equality of Americans is a desperate desire to seize the most desirable pleasures. Secondly, only a warlike few can succeed in this new situation. As both song and video show, this new strife of American against American is almost entirely a matter of the imagination, but it’s not less full of misery or death for that reason. The new gods, the celebrities, cannot be kind to their votaries. They can charm by music, but must punish also–there simply is not enough in California to correspond to the tyrannic, demanding, endless love.

Tupac, unlike Dre, did not want to turn all businessman. He could never put behind him the pride of coming from nothing in the teeth of all morality. He did not want his pride humiliated, so he struggled endlessly between blaming white people for the plight of the black community and asserting the moral responsibility of black people for their own fate–between claiming all-American rights to live as he pleased, even in the spotlight, because of his earned success, and damning himself for his rampant immorality and failure to do good for his community. The look of Tupac was a fiction, as celebrity always is; but it was almost uniquely put together by his talent for acting and for clever speeches. Like every American, he tried to put the face of America on his face and show the greatness of his country.

In 1995, Tupac’s album Me Against the World debuted atop the Billboard while he was in jail. Two years later he was dead. He was right, but there was nothing he could do about it. That’s the point of that album–the stories of being a young black man of shocking success are a never-ending revelation of misery. Partly, it’s in the things themselves, but partly it’s the inability of success to do anything good for people. People loved the album, like they loved the continuous scandal of a man coming from Black Panthers and going to celebrity worship. But they stayed away from the scandal, because these things don’t end well. That’s what celebrities do in America. They embody the fantasies of the people. Each personality an exorcism, a morality play, and a fearful prayer that when success turns to ashes in the mouth, there will nevertheless be a way forward, a way to live through the desert desire has made of the world.

There are 14 comments.

  1. Member

    I prefer this one:

    • #1
    • September 13, 2017 at 3:22 pm
    • 1 like
  2. Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Didn’t see many homeless in Venice or Santa Monica, but I did in Downtown L.A. It’s not hard to figure why homeless people would flock to California. It’s just a bit difficult to laugh.

    • #2
    • September 13, 2017 at 9:49 pm
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  3. Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    So Armond White likes my desert/desire idea! I’ve been thinking about writing about his book on Tupac, but it’s hard to find a place for such writing…

    • #3
    • September 14, 2017 at 12:59 am
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  4. Member

    Morning Titus,

    I wish I could send you a frozen chocolate chip to balance my criticism. You are giving this song import which I think not only does it lack but unfortunately nearly all catalogue songs and maybe even all pop songs lack. We do not remember songs and in that way we say they are not serious, here in America that is. When Mandelstam says Russia is the only place where they take poetry seriously because they will shoot poets, in America we will not take songs seriously because we can by their songs and shake our booty to the videos. Secondly this song fails because it takes itself seriously, as if they are profound, this does not work for lyrics which are lacking the depth or understanding of the nature of man and presenting the trivial events in this wink of time as “way” deep. Better songs are “The Begat” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgYSnYv7v5M, and “Shattered”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BjQYQ5p2Ko We remember “Surfing USA” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s4slliAtQU, however we don’t think that it says more about the 60’s than the pleasure it gives to hear a happy song. It does not mean that we were using the song to numb ourselves to the turmoil of the 60’s, or that the song represented a statement of a time or even of a group, the Beachboys. Thanks for paying attention to our popular culture.

    • #4
    • September 14, 2017 at 9:39 am
    • 1 like
  5. Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Hello, Jim! Thanks for the candy!

    Well, these guys knew certain things. They came from misery & saw what that was like; they saw the way they were adored, as well as decried. They saw what it was like to go from jail & millionaire overnight. They had ambitions far beyond the usual. Dr. Dre, ended up making bank in hipster-credentialed tech. They knew the industry they were working in.

    They learned a lot about the effect of money & fame on people. They saw what people are like when they damn the consequences. What people fantasize America is. & all of it first hand. That’s worth something to the student, so to speak, of American society.

    • #5
    • September 14, 2017 at 9:54 am
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  6. Member

    Jim Beck (View Comment):
    however we don’t think that it says more about the 60’s than the pleasure it gives to hear a happy song. It does not mean that we were using the song to numb ourselves to the turmoil of the 60’s

    Really? There’s a lot to be said about the music of the 60’s counteracting the tumult with civil rights and the hippies, the movement toward Vietnam… Critics talk about the music of the 90’s as a counterpoint to the relative prosperity of the 1980’s. The 90’s are a reflection of the disillusionment of those people growing up in a time that wasn’t as good as they had been promised, begetting Grunge.

    Why is it, then, that people talk about the movies being a welcome distraction from the war? Should we just say, “No, there was no significance! It was just fun!”.

    Fun, sometimes, also has meaning. Sometimes there’s little hidden nuggets in things. Think we’d be so accepting of “alternative lifestyles” if the Real World hadn’t started the Reality TV genre? Think there’d be a show about a teenage transgender if we hadn’t first confronted a Gay Man with AIDS (Pedro Zamora, IIRC) on the Real World?

    I think you’re trying to brush it aside. Truth be told, I think Titus often ascribes too much value to certain things. But as an outsider to our culture, he’s not always wrong. There is some truth to it, though it may be less dramatic. Just something to think about.

    • #6
    • September 14, 2017 at 4:14 pm
    • 1 like
  7. Member

    Evening TheRightNurse,

    My critique of Titus’s post is that he is suggesting the life experiences of the singers which allowed them to see the world in a more complex way, perhaps even a conflicted way is communicated in the music, I think there is nothing in the music or this video which suggests this. Think of the audience, young men perhaps in lower class communities, these men have imaginations with limited horizons, these rap singers could open their eyes, they did not. These songs are not as deep as Dr.Jekyll/Mr.Hyde, they do not hint that wealth may not be entirely liberating. We are appealing to the fantasies of juveniles by feeding them words and images supporting the beliefs of juveniles; these songs offer no greater level of complexity to life and in that the artists are not speaking to the nature of life in which there is no utopian existence.

    • #7
    • September 14, 2017 at 4:57 pm
    • 1 like
  8. Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Didn’t see many homeless in Venice or Santa Monica, but I did in Downtown L.A. It’s not hard to figure why homeless people would flock to California. It’s just a bit difficult to laugh.

    Really made me laugh the first time I saw that when he sang “Marina Del Rey”.

    • #8
    • September 14, 2017 at 5:47 pm
    • 1 like
  9. Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Jim Beck (View Comment):
    Evening TheRightNurse,

    My critique of Titus’s post is that he is suggesting the life experiences of the singers which allowed them to see the world in a more complex way, perhaps even a conflicted way is communicated in the music, I think there is nothing in the music or this video which suggests this. Think of the audience, young men perhaps in lower class communities, these men have imaginations with limited horizons, these rap singers could open their eyes, they did not. These songs are not as deep as Dr.Jekyll/Mr.Hyde, they do not hint that wealth may not be entirely liberating. We are appealing to the fantasies of juveniles by feeding them words and images supporting the beliefs of juveniles; these songs offer no greater level of complexity to life and in that the artists are not speaking to the nature of life in which there is no utopian existence.

    Jim, this one you’re wrong about. California love is not about the trap of wealth, I’ll grant. But rappers like Tupac not only put that in their songs, but said it plainly in their interviews: That it’s hell for a young man coming from Panther aspirations of racial solidarity to get wealthy & then have to run from his neighborhood for fear of getting robbed. Their primary black audience knew this & recognized it in songs as well as interviews. He also talked about money meaning you can get anything you want, which leads to all sorts of misery. It’s not that they didn’t experience the problems & didn’t talk about them; it’s that it made no difference. Tupac seems to have learned early that celebrity doesn’t make you a hero, because there’s nothing you can do that corresponds to the passions you unleash in the people; so he did the other thing & self-destructed.

    There were others who made money in black pop or elsewhere in show biz & did the decent thing, build housing for people, help out those who suffer.

    But most show-biz millionaires don’t do much of that. They do end up living some version of California love. That song was important for black people & for young Americans, because it revealed to everyone what they really loved. But the two rappers had different views of the tragedy of black people. That’s why one ended up dead; the other ended up a centimillionnaire by his cynicism.

    • #9
    • September 14, 2017 at 11:04 pm
    • 1 like
  10. Member

    It may be that the current generation pay attention to interviews but from my g-g-g-generation, the interviews of Lennon, Dylan, Simon, and on, and on had little weight. We did not look to their interviews for truth. What reached us were the songs. None of the of the rap songs are expressing the views of Solomon, “All is vanity”, “Power is vanity”, “Public works are vanity”, “Sex is vanity”. The rap songs and rock songs are singing “I am what you hope to be, envy me”, “I am an artistic god, all my desires are delivered to my feet.” It does not matter whether the singer is male of female, none are singing about the complexities of life at the Super Bowl or at the Garammies, they are singing as if celebrity was a worthy idol to worship. As music has fractured for the last 50+ years, rap carries on with the narrative that you are different because of your circumstance; the music is not saying “you are human like all other humans, and that you are surrounded by brothers and sisters.” In this sense the music is playing to our juvenile world view that we are tragically singular.

    • #10
    • September 15, 2017 at 6:15 am
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  11. Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Sure, that’s a big change, & not for the better. America used to not have an MTV. Kids didn’t obsess over celebrities in the way they do now on social media. The last thirty years have been amazing, but not in the hopeful sense.

    Colin Kaepernick wouldn’t have been a social-political activist either.

    Times have changed… But this is where people now are; so we’ve got to deal with it.

    • #11
    • September 15, 2017 at 6:21 am
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  12. Member

    Jim Beck (View Comment):
    None of the of the rap songs are expressing the views of Solomon, “All is vanity”, “Power is vanity”, “Public works are vanity”, “Sex is vanity”. The rap songs and rock songs are singing “I am what you hope to be, envy me”, “I am an artistic god, all my desires are delivered to my feet.”

    Really?

    Please see the following tracks (multiple genres):

    George Michael, “Freedom ’90”

    A$AP Rocky, “Everyday”

    Miike Posner, “I Took A Pill in Ibiza”

    Jay-Z, “Holy Grail”

    T.I., “Castle Walls

    There’s more. Plenty more.

    • #12
    • September 15, 2017 at 9:50 pm
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  13. Member

    I should also point out, a big song on this topic is Cypress Hill’s “Rock Superstar”. And there you have it.

    • #13
    • September 15, 2017 at 9:54 pm
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  14. Member

    Morning TheRightNurse,

    I am going to hide behind my age (70) as an excuse. I looked at the lyrics for Castle Walls, Holy Grail; they are good. But because I am a “get off my lawn old man” (ask Titus), I have bones to pick. I don’t think these songs are but a very small part of rap, and even these songs are focused on the artist as a victim. I don’t think that the artists are in moral terms repenting after receiving life’s wisdom (wealth isn’t everything). Again, it may be my ignorance, but I don’t know of raps equivalent to Andrea Yeager (former tennis star).

    • #14
    • September 16, 2017 at 4:20 am
    • 1 like