California Gurls and California Girls

California Gurls and California Girls

What does Katy Perry have in common with The Beach Boys?

Today’s post, like my last post, is about two songs with a complex and suspect legacy. The first is the 2010 summer jam “California Gurls” by Katy Perry, which features third-wave feminism, cynical exploitation of the historical East Coat / West Coast hip hop feud, and Snoop Dogg in his least gangsta video to date:

And the second is, of course, the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” from 1965, a song that seems a lot simpler than it is:

What do these songs have in common, what is different, and why do neither of the videos show girls in California? This and more, after the jump –

There are these girls, you see. Yeah, that’s the ticket. And they’re from, guess where? California!

These songs, just to state the obvious, are about how women who live in California are allegedly more sexually desirable than women who live in other places in the United States. To the Beach Boys, it’s a mythologizing recollection – supported by generalizations drawn from firsthand experience by the Beach Boys meeting women as they tour around the country.

For Perry, it’s a jingoistic anthem, perhaps written as a third-wave feminist “girl power” anthem about how “melting popsicles” with one’s sexiness is empowering. According to reports, it was allegedly written as a(n inadequate) response to Alicia Keys in “Empire State of Mind,” perhaps hoping to cash in on the unfortunate American addiction to Hegelian dialectic. Yes, there are two sides to every story, and this one is worse.

Oh, and for David Lee Roth, it’s about being a huge womanizer: At least he acknowledges that every song in this tradition reductively categorizes women by their sexual qualities as if for purchase. Diamond Dave acknowledges it; he just doesn’t have a problem with it, the kid in me thinks it’s awesome, while the adult in me thinks it isn’t awesome at all (it’s a Frosted Mini Wheats moment):

I like his video more than the other two videos I’ve posted so far, because he’s being honest about his intentions, and also because it has an element similar to Edward D. Hoch’s classic short story, “Zoo,” where the girls are the nominal object of the audience’s attention, but we are reminded that the audience (and DLR himself) are perhaps the stranger of the creatures and more entertaining to look at. Sometimes, when you stare into the California Girls, the California Girls stare into you.

Gretchen Wilson flips the script and speaks from the political standpoint of post-rural American persecution narrative, using California Girls to build a straw man her brand of cowboy hat imperial superiority can take potshots at to make itself look better. By which of course I mean she scores cheap points by making fun of Paris Hilton. Jay Leno would be proud:

I should clarify that the song does have a message of self-acceptance, but it frames it in a fairly negative and hypocritical way — we should all be ourselves, except the people we hate. They shouldn’t be themselves. And also, there are only a few of us left, the real America, because the other people whom we hate have unjustly reduced our numbers by infringing upon us with their non-Merle Haggard standards of beauty. It’s a classic, “everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others” song.

At any rate, “California Girls” is more than just one song (fitting for the results of Brian Wilson’s first acid trip), it’s a whole cultural space – part of the literary tradition, something people understand often immediately and intuitively, even if, upon inspection, it makes a strange, ambiguous statement.

I wish they all could be

The way I see it, “I wish they all could be California Girls” means one of two things:

1. California girls are superior to other girls, so if other girls were replaced 1 for 1 with California girls (or if they changed sufficiently to earn the designation), the speaker would find it preferable.

2. Women everywhere have great qualities, but there is something about California that adds even greater qualities, so all other women should move to California and add their distinctness to its own, Locutus-of-Borg style.

Do the singers want the Midwest Farmers’ Daughters to stay in the Midwest and start wearing more bikinis (this is what the DLR version seems to think)? Or do the singers want the Northern girls with the way they kiss to move to California where the Beach Boys live so the Beach Boys can kiss them more and so they can get tans? I think the song is ambiguous on this point, which is part of why it is interesting. (well, really, it’s interesting because of the music, not the lyrics, and the Katy Perry version is interesting in a Ke$ha-esque way in that it identifies weird things that aren’t necessarily true, but I’ll get to that).

None of this makes the song or the ideas it suggests admirable .It’s an “I want I want I want” song, careless about the major changes it asks women to make in their lives and extremely superficial, in any version, even the country ones that say drinking beer and being good at sex are the unique provision of dyed in the wool red-staters, with what it thinks makes women more sexually desirable or otherwise superior.

(By the way, I’m making political statements about Gretchen Wilson, not about country singing in general – Gretchen Wilson is a very politicized country singer, who sings for one of many politically convenient imaginings of what country might be like maybe but really isn’t.)

But why?

Here’s the rub, though. The Beach Boys come up way short of justifying their claim of California girl superiority. Let’s look at the relevant lyrics:

The West Coast has the sunshine
And the girls all get so tanned
I dig a French bikini on Hawaii island,
Dolls by a palm tree in the sand

These are the only lines in the Beach Boys song that actually talk about California girls, and they talk much more about the place than about the women. I don’t know about you, but the other girls mentioned in the song all sound more fun and more interesting than California girls, who are just tan and wear bathing suits. Women in Florida are also tan and wear bathing suits. And I hate to break it to Brian Wilson, but if you go to Revere Beach on the North Shore here in lovely scenic greater Boston Massachusetts, you can find girls in bikinis who have tans. It’s not tremendously exotic – although this was perhaps much earlier on in the ill-conceived but nonetheless unstoppable march of tanning technology.

The last two lines are a bit cryptic – I might not have gotten them right, but this is what the lyric sites say. Are they not even about California, but about Hawaii? It’s pretty weak that you have to already begin talking about another state, even if, at the time of the song’s initial recording, it had been a state for fewer than 10 years.

And calling the women dolls does not make them more attractive. What man wants to play with dolls? When the other girls “with the way they kiss, they keep their boyfriends warm at night” the “dolls by a palm tree” are hardly flattered by comparison.

Hey, why don’t I just take my girl whom I have met elsewhere and has regional qualities all her own to California so she can sit next to a palm tree?

And hey, if the East Coast Girls are hip, and you really dig the styles they wear, then maybe they would be better to hang out with than the ones who are “dolls.” It seems as if dollhood has already been surpassed.

You could take a cynical view of the Beach Boys’ attitude toward controlling women – that they must love the idea of dolls because it is in their songs. They certainly aren’t discouraging it. But they also talk about cars a whole lot – so maybe they just run out of stuff to talk about or really like Toys ‘R Us.

Meanwhile, in naked Candy Land, which is not California at all

Katy Perry provides some interesting explanation for “California Gurls” in the video below. It’s particularly interesting how the references to Snoop Doggy Dogg were added to the song before he was signed on to be featured in it as a way to encourage him to do so – and also because Katy Perry apparently loves Tupac so much the force of her love projects him back in time 30 years so that “California Love” was recorded before “California Girls.” In the Earth in which Overthinking It exists and publishes, “California Love” was not the original California song, but string theory does admit to the possibility of multiple universes:

So, if you consider explained the appeals to Death Row era West Coast Rap and some of its terminology, as well as the dated and needless call Katy Perry has issued to “West Coast represent, now put your hands up,” which were added for business reasons and because Katy Perry intended for this song to exist in opposition to “Empire State of Mind,” that leaves the song with the following:

I know a place where the grass is really greener
Warm, wet and wild, there must be something in the water
Sipping gin and juice, laying underneath the palm trees
The boys break their necks trying to creep a little sneak peek

If you’re by the water where there are palm trees, why is there grass rather than sand? The song is at least a little sarcastic, or at least posturing in its arrogance, which makes sense because it is an anthem meant to rouse people who already believe what it is saying. Usually “the grass is greener” implies that it isn’t really any better than what you already have, and, as I prove in every article I write, the word “really” adds nothing. What is really different here is that it is from the perspective of the girl and it really talks about California right away, rather than really talking about a whole bunch of other places. Really.

You could travel the world
But nothing comes close to the golden coast
Once you party with us, you’ll be falling in love
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

Okay, so this is a lot like the Beach Boys song, although it’s a bit blunt. There’s no description of other places, just a suggestion that you could go there if you wanted to.

As for the falling in love part, why will you be falling in love once you party with them? And will you be falling in love with one of them? With all of them? With the state of California? That isn’t clear, and I think that’s on purpose, by tone and feel if not by design.

See, sexual superiority is a tough value to hang your regional superiority on, because when you’re creating imperial language to boast about your culture to other places and extend partisanship for your regional/cultural identity into other areas, as Katy Perry is doing here, you want to have everybody on the same team, and sexual selection is divisive, even within groups (especially within groups).

So, Katy never in the song talks about a specific person falling in love with or having sex with a single person. Tupac does the same thing in “California Love.” He talks about crews, not about individuals. Women are always presented plurally, never singularly.

California girls, we’re unforgettable
Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top
Sun-kissed skin, so hot will melt your popsicle
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
California girls, we’re undeniable
Fine, fresh, fierce, we got it on lock
West coast represent, now put your hands up
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

Here we learn that California girls are “unforgettable” and “undeniable,” which I think bespeaks the central insecurity that got the song written. They are negative compliments — they suggest Katy is opposing people who are attempting to forget or deny California girls – namely, that Alicia Keys is encouraging them to do so, and Katy Perry’s friends are doing it with Alicia Keys when they toast to “Empire State of Mind” at parties.

The “Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top” is interesting, because a) the video never really shows it b) it’s new; I haven’t heard it in a pop song before and c) Daisy Dukes are associated not with California, but with the American South (that is, the Southeast). Daisy Duke is of course the name of the Jessica Simpson character in the Dukes of Hazzard remake. I mean the name of the sister on the Dukes of Hazzard who always wore short shorts, and Hazzard is in Kentucky.

You could travel the world, and if you did, you’d probably find out Kentucky is not in California, because you’d see a map at some point.

According to Urban Dictionary, “got it on lock,” means “To be in 100% control of a particular situation, and to have previously orchestrated a favourable conclusion.” Thank you, British-spelling contributor to Urban Dictionary!

The “unforgettable, undeniable, fine, fresh, fierce, on lock” etc. is the Spice Girls breed of third-wave feminism at work – that all this stuff about being sexy and having fun is empowering and promotes kick-assitude. This sort of feminist thought is always tricky to pin down, because third-wave feminist tries to be post-modern and anti-essentialist, which means it refers more to a group of people talking about a broad topic under a wide array of circumstances than people making points that are collectively cogent.

I do not know whether Mary Wollestonecraft “got it on lock,” but, by virtue of her strong place among eighteenth century British political philosophers, she “got it on Locke.”

The popsicle melting part means that California girls are sufficiently attractive that, under the right circumstances, they will cause men to ejaculate. Just in case Katy Perry didn’t make it obvious enough with her coy and artful wordplay, “popsicle” means penis.

Sex on a beach we get sand in our stilettos
We freak in my jeep, Snoop Doggy dog on the stereo

This means people are doin’ it in a car, wearing inappropriate clothing for the circumstances. This part is not in the Beach Boys song. Just in case Katy Perry didn’t make it obvious enough with her coy and artful wordplay, “freak” means “have sexual intercourse.”

You could travel the world
But nothing comes close to the golden coast
Once you party with us, you’ll be falling in love
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

It’s worth noting that the best parts of the song from a memorable in a Ke$ha sort of way / dance party perspective are the “Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top” line and the “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.” Transcribing that lyric doesn’t really do it justice.

[Snoop Dogg]
Toned, tan, fit and ready
Turn it up cause its gettin’ heavy
Wild wild west coast
These are the girls I love the most
I mean the ones, I mean like she’s the one
Kiss her, touch her, squeeze her

This might be the laziest rap Snoop Dogg has ever written. This says virtually nothing, other than that California girls are tan and in good shape, which we already know, because it is the only thing that ever is said consistently about them in all the other songs.

The girl’s a freak, she drives a jeep
The men on the beach,
I’m okay, I won’t play, I love the bay
Just like I love LA
Venice Beach and Palm Springs
Summer time is everything

This is definitely the laziest rap Snoop Dogg has ever written. He’s literally summarizing the lyrics to the pop song to which you are currently listening, in case you didn’t hear what Katy Perry said fifteen seconds ago. It’s as if they handed Snoop Dogg the Katy Perry lyrics while he was brushing his teeth, and he finished this rap before he was done flossing. But to be fair, Snoop Dogg is always flossin’.

To try to not be such a judger, this part of the song is about how, even though we have already identified that owning a jeep in which to have sexual intercourse is one of the singular and most identifiable qualities of California “gurls,” having this jeep is also associated with being a “freak,” or somehow unusual. Also, Snoop Dogg is speaking in the singular – probably about Katy Perry, as we’ll find out soon, which doesn’t match up with the rest of the song, which speaks collectively. There is a literary ambiguity here — a freak is also somebody who has unusual or especially enthusiastic sexual intercourse.

Snoop Dogg continues by mentioning a couple of places here that are in California, and says he likes the summer, which is not a controversial statement, but still nice to know.

Come on boys, hanging out
All that ass hanging out
Bikinis, tankinis, martinis, no weenies
Just to get in betweeny
Katy my lady (yeah)
You looking here baby (uh huh)
I’m all up on you
Cause you representing California

Okay, this overthinking has devolved into scorn as I’ve actually read these lyrics. We’re pretty far off the reservation at this point. Snoop Dogg is just coming up with random words that rhyme and are associated with women in some way. Snoop Dogg then praises Katy Perry for praising the state he lives in by humping her or something.

“Well East Coast Girls are hip
I really dig those styles they wear,
And California girls, with all that ass hanging out
And who don’t have weenies to get in betweeny…”

Yeah, the magic is gone.


[Snoop Dogg]
California girls man
I wish they all could be California girls (x2)
There’s only a few children who do what we do

Aaand, I’m spent, and the song is over. That didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. And it didn’t for Snoop Dogg either, as there was a bunch of publicity and legal flak because the penultimate and pen-penultimate lines were plagiarized from the Beach Boys song, which is still under copyright protection (thank you, Walt Disney Corporation, for bribing our national leaders!).


So, there are four things the Katy Perry song says about California girls that the Beach Boys song does not:

  1. They have lots of sex of at least serviceable quality.
  2. They wear inappropriate clothing, either for their region or for a given activity.
  3. Partying with them is important
  4. They indulge in freakish jeep ownership

I still don’t think any of these people has made a strong case for why California girls are different from other girls, let alone why “Gurls” are different from “Girls.” There’s no differentiator. If you’re going to treat different regions as different sorts of sexual objects, then you should at least set apart and describe the one you recommend so people know why to buy it.

But alas, perhaps because of the creepiness of what is being suggested, nobody really can explain why they like California girls or why they are special.

And this goes back to why the Katy Perry song was made in the first place – the crippling fear, perhaps justified, that California girls are just like other girls and are not special at all. Maybe there is no differentiator.

“I wish they all could be Calfornia girls…” well, maybe they already are, because a lot of California girls come from somewhere else. Like Candy Land. Right.

23 Comments on “California Gurls and California Girls”

  1. John Perich #

    (1) While lots of songs are written about American states (“Georgia on my Mind”, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “My Kind of Town”), I have a hard time coming up with songs that are explicitly about the people from that place. Most state-based songs call out the virtues of the territory – its weather, the skyline of its cities – and say a few nice things about the people, too. But “California Girls” is rare in that it says no, what’s great about California are the people. There’s something about being born or raised in California that transforms you.

    Are there a lot of other songs that do that?

    (2) “So hot, we’ll melt your popsicle” confuses me as a lyric.

    So I take it “popsicle” is not a euphemism for the male genitalia here. I say that only half-joking, as it’s effectively impossible to depict a woman in Daisy Dukes (with bikini on top) eating a popsicle without it being a sexual innuendo. And given all the other imagery in the video, you’d presume that if Katy Perry wanted to be associated with popsicles, it would be in a sexual way. But “melting a popsicle” is not a sexy thing to do, in this context.

    Also, it’s not particularly hard to melt a popsicle. They start melting as soon as you take them out of the freezer. Is this damning with faint praise?


  2. fenzel #



    Off the top of my head, there’s “Mississippi Queen,” if you know what I mean, and “L.A. Woman” by The Doors. Bruce Springsteen has “Mary, Queen of Arkansas.” Townes van Zandt has “Colorado Girl” – actually at this point I’m just referencing this list; check it out:


    “So I take it “popsicle” is not a euphemism for the male genitalia here.”

    Why would you take it that way? It’s a euphemism for male genitalia. Sometimes a popsicle is just a guy’s junk.

    To add a layer though, yes, melting a popsicle in the summer is easy, and it happens anyway, without any intervention from a woman, and it’s generally not a desirable thing.

    So, I suspect that it refers at least a little bit to frustration rather than satisfaction, albeit obliquely so.

    The main element I didn’t mention though is how infantile it is — the Candy Land trope shows this as well, but Katy Perry definitely skews WAY younger than she is in this song. Katy Perry is 25, and the tone and simplicity of the lyrics recalls a permanent teenager — she’s a dream-girl fantasy, not a dream-woman fantasy.

    This sort of sexualization by infantilization is pretty common and one of the more unfortunate ways sexism can affect the way we think about people’s capabilities.

    I mean, if we think of women all playing dress up, fawning over Snoop Dogg, and giggling about how they can give all the boys’ “popsicles” that little something extra, it’s hard to think of her, say, running for Congress or managing an IT department.


    • fenzel #

      Oh, and I’m sorry I missed this, but Katy Perry’s album on which this song is featured is called “Teenage Dream.” So you know where she’s going with the whole cutesy thing — she’s trying to hit a market demographic.


  3. John Perich OTI Staff #

    Also! Despite singing about “California Gurls” as a broad group, Perry is pretty clearly singing about

    (1) white girls: “sun-kissed” implying tanned by the sun, not by natural complexion, plus check out the dominant ethnotype in the music video, and;

    (2) girls from Southern California. Girls who live in Big Sur or the Inland Empire need not apply. Not only that, but we could narrow it down to L.A. – San Diego can be pretty intemperate; not beach weather year round – and probably specific neighborhoods of L.A. as well.

    This isn’t a unique viewpoint that Perry has; Brian Wilson did much the same thing. There’s a persistent trend to take Los Angeles as a synecdoche for California, despite California being a huge state with a variety of geographies and demographics. Bakersfield, CA has more in common with Bozeman, MT than with Los Angeles, CA.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      In fairness: Jay-Z also does the same thing in “Empire State of Mind,” unless he’s giving a shout-out to White Plains that I missed. But when Kander & Ebb sing about New York City, they call their song “New York, New York.” They specify the municipality.


      • fenzel #

        New York State of Mind by Billy Joel (which I’ve noticed rarely gets mentioned alongside Empire State of Mind despite the obvious connection) does the same thing, although he does take a Greyhound on the Hudson River Line, which takes him through a bunch of different towns.

        Yeah I’, on that Po-Kip,
        Now I’m up in Rochester
        Orange up in Syracuse,
        But I’ll be blue forever,
        I’m the new Nystrom,
        ‘Cause I score in overtime,
        Getting higher every time,
        Excelsior every time.

        I used to roll in Ithaca
        Next to Cornell College
        Cross the city is IC
        N in NY’s for Knowledge
        Took my shit to SUNY
        Stony Brook researchers,
        Catch me buyin’ summer
        Credits from the guys Purchase.

        Cruisin’ down the thruway
        Green Subaru Outback
        Decent highway mileage
        Handles well when the snow comes back
        Driving up to Utica
        Second Chance City
        Poppin’ in with Bosnian
        Immigrants gettin’ busy.

        Say what up Oswego
        ‘Cause you know how we go
        Strapped with 16 tons
        My mule pulls me where the canal flows,
        Up like Saratoga Springs,
        Deep like the dynasty
        Of Roosevelts who like me
        are historically

        From New York
        Empire cinched up with a rust belt
        There’s nothing we don’t do.
        Now you’re in New York
        The folks two hours’ drive from you
        Are completely unlike you.
        ‘Cause you’re from New York
        New York
        New York

        Catch me with Hazek from the CZ
        at a Sabres game,
        As many fans showed up
        As players on the Sabres came.
        I’m in the state assembly,
        but I’m not in Albany
        Still just as little gets done
        with me as without me.

        Old land of the Mowhawks
        Quarries where they mining rocks,
        Cortland Country Music Park
        And home of the hip hop
        Town of Rome, Athens, Corinth,

        Jesus, how much longer do I have to go before I get to say “It’s a pity that Jim Kelly didn’t make it?”


  4. fenzel #

    Two more things about this song that strike me:

    1. When Gretchen Wilson wants to prove she’s not a California Girl, what does she wear? Daisy Dukes with a bikini on top. Now, granted, fashions changeed between 2005 and 2010, but it’s interesting that this went from anti-California garb to distinctive and characteristic California garb in five years. Either that or somebody didn’t get the memo.

    2. When they are freaking in Katy Perry’s jeep, Snoop Dogg is playing on the stereo. I love Snoop Dogg, but why would you do this? I mean, I guess he has been featured on some tracks that would suit the purpose, and he’s tried very hard to associate himself with sexiness, but Snoop Dogg music in general isn’t appropriate for “freaking.”

    “Oh, baby, let’s get in the mood. Put on ‘Vato’ or ‘Murder was the Case!’ That’s my jeep-freaking jam!”

    I mean, I guess you could have sex to “Drop it Like it’s Hot,” but it’s clear Katy is singing about Snoop Dogg as he would like us to think about himself and his brand, not Snoop Dogg as he exists in the California, national and global zeitgeist.


  5. Robert Q #

    I’ve never thought about the Beach Boys’ version in this way before, but you make an interesting argument about the antithetical message of the song – that girls from everywhere else in the country have great qualities, but California girls are pretty vacuous (i.e. dolls). If only the good girls from the country could come to California (which they spend more time complimenting, anyway), then us California guys could have the best of both worlds. If only the country’s girls could replace the Californian girls, or to re-word the lyrics: “I wish California girls could be all of them” instead of what they are now.

    Of course, for young 60’s rock stars, vacuous bathing-suited women are just what the doctor ordered, so it’s not like they’d really be complaining. But the derisive nature of the insult-by-distinction (California girls are not hip, kiss poorly, and do not provide satisfactory warmth) can easily be viewed as mocking the state’s female population.

    I don’t think that was the intention of the song, for whatever author intent is worth in OTI world. I presume the intent was to suggest that California girls have some je-ne-sais-quoi that makes them superior to other girls despite their stated skills and attributes. Still, I shall smile smugly when I hear this song in the future.

    As for your copyright Disney poke – Brian Wilson would still own copyright to the song even if the Mickey Mouse Protection Act wasn’t enacted. At the very least, BW would have to die first before copyright terms start ticking away. And if it was corporate authorship somehow (which it shouldn’t be) it should still be covered under the original 70 year term. I’m not super knowledgeable on US copyright law, but I’m pretty sure that’s correct.

    *Long post complete*


  6. lauren #

    Even though it’s not even remotely within the realm of pop music, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how The Magnetic Fields’ “California Girls” fits in. This is the best YouTube version I can find.


    • fenzel #


      Ah, interesting song, thanks! On the Magnetic Fields’ “California Girls” —

      My first reaction is that it sounds a _lot_ like a Weird Al Yankovic original song. The biggest reasons for this, other than the lead singer’s voice, are the large intervals in the melodic lines and the rhymes, which often pick strange and difficult syllables to choose to rhyme (mostly the “earl” syllable), and then pick words that are out of place for the genre to complete couplets.

      You know he’s going to say “girls,” so rhyming it with “earls” as in the nobility or “whirls” as in the ground spinning toward them as they die in a crazy Weird-Al esque murder fantasy (a la “The Night Santa Went Crazy”) is funny. There’s an expectation – a hurdle set up, and he leaps over it in geeky fashion, like Weird Al does.

      Other than the fact that it sounds like a novelty song, it’s basically a slightly ironic ressentiment fantasy. Wikipedia defintes ressentiment as such:

      “Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.”

      It’s ironic because it’s obviously reductive — nobody literally breathes coke — and he’s talking about this heightened fantasy idea of the California girl anyway. In saying “sans derriers” (another Weird Al style rhyme if I ever heard one), it’s all L.A. face, no Oakland booty, as it were. They have to know this isn’t really the way people are, that they’re self-conscious about their hatred and its pettiness.

      Then this pettiness in turn is set against the pettiness of the people they despise, as the song structure and tone of the vocal interpretation both recall bubble gum pop of the sort that supports the image the song supposedly tries to destroy.

      You could say the song is self-hating, because it identifies with the California Girls while it hates them, and because its idealized California Girls probably hate each other anyway, since the song indicates they’re really selfish and mean-spirited.

      So, I’d say the song is, yeah, an ironic ressentiment ballad about a symbol the rock band can’t help but somewhat be the party of, even as it tries to destroy it. It’s another cut off Vader’s head, see your own face kind of moment.


      • fenzel #

        Upon further research, I find the song is sung by a woman, which doesn’t really change much (a woman can be just as frustrated as a man can be with idealized women – moreso, even), and that the theme of the album on which this appears is supposedly the relationship between melody and distortion, which makes a lot of sense. This is a pretty textbook, heavy-handed way of looking at that relationship – adding a boatload of virtriol to a song about this stereotype and seeing what happens; I’d be more interested if the distortion were more nuanced or specific, rather than just rote hatred for a wide variety of moral, physical and cultural crimes.

        But I guess if it got too nuanced and androgrynous, it would stop being a Magnetic Fields song and become a Belle and Sebastian song.


  7. Darin #

    “I wish they all could be California Girls.” Prima facie, it certainly looks like Brian Wilson and DLR wish all girls were exchanged one for one.

    I think there is kind of a 1.5 option. I want to live in California (and surf and womanize). I want women around particularly those that are naked or have a Jeep fetish. It may not be anything particular about the GREAT state of California that makes California girls, it’s coincidental to something else.

    In simpler terms, I like where I live and I want to believe that I live in the best place with the best women.


  8. Martin #

    The third-to-last is the anti-penultimate, not the “pen-penultimate”.

    Also while I’m here it’s very obvious from that behind the scenes video that Katy Perry didn’t write the song.


    • fenzel #


      I know, I was being ironical :-)

      And it’s the antepenultimate, as in, “before the penultimate,” not the anti-penultimate, as in “not the penultimate.”

      Yeah, it’s always hard to tell in these massive collaborations who is actually doing the work. The song has five credited songwriters, which, well, seems like a lot.


  9. Mike #

    I must admit I’m not particularly familiar with the work of Ms. Perry, but I’ve long enjoyed the music of the Beach Boys. However, I always interpreted “California Girls” to have the second meaning summarized above.

    In my mind, the Beach Boys’ logic ran like this:
    – There are many varieties of women out there, with many different admirable qualities (the styles they wear, the way they kiss, etc…).
    – The Beach Boys live in California.
    – The Beach Boys wish that all of those different types of women lived in California too, presumably so that they (the Beach Boys) could enjoy a more diverse dating pool.

    In other words, the song isn’t praising California girls at all (as the author mentioned, the Beach Boys are surprisingly quiet about the attributes of girls from the Golden State). To the contrary, the Beach Boys, having traveled the country and indeed the world, would prefer for all of those other women to come and live with them in California.

    Again, the author hinted at this interpretation in the section on the song’s ambiguity, but the rest of the article seems to prefer the first interpretation – that the Beach Boys find California girls to be superior to those from other locales.

    I admit I had never thought of the song from that perspective, though I now recognize the ambiguity. I just… always thought the Beach Boys’ song meant the opposite!


  10. Alex #

    I very much enjoyed the article, but where did you get your lyrics for California Gurls from? They’re massively incorrect, as even a cursory listen to the song alongside them would tell you (hell, even by sheer osmosis from it being everywhere over the last three months – that’s how I spotted it). I demand academic rigour from my overanalysis of pop culture.

    The Snoop rap is easily the lowest point of his musical career.

    Do you have any thoughts on the disconnect between the song and the video? It feels like they had a concept kicking around and just chucked it at the first song they found, regardless of content. If they were really aiming for anthem status, surely basing it around some shots of California (and its gurls) would have helped? Funnily enough if you watch the promo for the follow up single (the name eludes me) it is far more appropriate, at least in my opinion.


  11. Dan #

    This review of “One of the Boys” is one of the finest dismantlings of Perry I’ve read:

    Key quote:
    “Given this long line of botched starts, maybe it makes sense that the 24-year-old trollop is singing with the desperation of a fading burlesque star twice her age”


  12. emily #

    there is also little texas’ “G-d blessed texas” ( and skynyrd’s love for alabama, but i don’t think those can be dissected in a sexual context. more just like “wooo! i love where i’m from.” which admittedly, is not as much of an interesting read.


    • Valatan #

      Well, in Sweet Home Alabama’s case, there’s the whole “who are you to complain about segregation? We like our governor who does what he must do to take care of us.”-angle.

      It amazes me that that song is acceptable in polite company in 2010.


  13. cat #

    I get the feeling that a) she thought it would be too arrogant to write a song about how awesome and special, she, Katy Perry is b) she wanted the song to relate to as many people as possible c) she had realized that people love anthems and anthems about particular places get played over and over in those places. The song she has written is flawed…but perhaps there was no way to prevent it from being flawed (yes, it could have been better but it still would have had issues). It’s difficult to make the argument that arbitrarily associated groups of people are special unless they’re part of a group or society that singles them out as special (like a college, or mensa). She wants to write a song about how she, as an individual, is special. Instead, she globs all the other girls in California into her song and thus…the problem. How can you define a group of people full of so many individuals with characteristics that you can’t ascribe to all of them?

    Having listened to all of the tracks on One of the Boys, I’d also have to say she’s not a very good songwriter. It’s a little hit and miss. And rather offensive sometimes.

    Random observation: Katy Perry and Gretchen Wilson both have albums titled “One of the Boys”. Coincidence? There are no coincidences!


  14. Mattie #

    I’ve just been assuming that the part about “Bikinis, tankinis, martinis, no weenies” was a bit of a “slap chop” reference:
    (go to 1:23)

    Maybe not? I like to tell myself that Snoop is still a teeny bit clever and in touch, anyway.


  15. Andrea #

    I’ve thought “California Gurls” was a craptacular song ~30 seconds after I first heard it, but reading your essay on the various ways we can interpret it, especially the parts where new analysis can be offered if we allow ourselves to consider certain unlikely forces – like time travel, for one – having an impact on the songwriting, allowed me to associate a glimmer of pleasantry with it. Thank you. You’ve made something that it is (distressingly often) cropping up in my life slightly happier. Not to mention, I just plain old love a good, thorough lyric deconstruction.

    If you haven’t seen this parodistic response to “California Gurls”, please take a few minutes to watch G33k and G4m3r Girls. I enjoy the song for many reasons, and high among them are that a) the G33k and G4m3r culture references make sense, unlike many of the California references, and b) this song is bragging about the things geek and gamer girls know and can do, rather than bragging that they are somehow “better” girls.


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