October 29, 2013 by Ian Goldstein
The word Californication can be separated into three parts: California, vacation, and fornication. All three suggest joy, relaxation, and escape. For the Red Hot Chili Peppers escape does not equal happiness and therefore Californication is synonymous with fleeing, abandoning what is truly important in life. Californication is losing yourself to material desires and false dreams, a warning that is screamed to you in every song on their famous album, but some more subtly than others.
Californication was released in June, 1999. It sold over 16 million copies and is the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ biggest commercial success. Though released in 1999, the album doesn’t include songs that scream ‘90s music. Instead it’s inherently RHCP; there’s rap, funk, rock, pop, acoustic guitar, soul searching and sexual innuendos—everything one would ask for in a RHCP album.
I was fed RHCP singles from MTV and VH1 in the late ‘90s. I enjoyed the melodies, respected the lyrics, and tried to emulate the guitar solos, but these were only catchy singles. And knowing only the hits was akin to reading only an introduction and epilogue of a book; you know it’s well written, you know what the resolution is, but you don’t know what it really means until you read it in its entirety.
“Around the World” is the single that serves as the introduction. It’s loud, fast, and melodic. It celebrates life in all of its beauty and excitement, demonstrated through the soft chorus and the hard verses. It gives context to the listener that the world has splendor outside of the United States, outside of California.
Californication is a camera with a very strong zoom. From afar the listener hears songs like “Purple Stain” and “Get on Top.” These songs are the outer most layer, the most zoomed out part. They’re songs that are straightforward in their intention. “To finger paint is not a sin. I put my middle finger in. Your monthly blood is what I win.” It’s self explanatory. But these songs need to be there to balance out album’s deeper layers. That first layer peels off and the song “Californication” emerges.
When I first saw the music video for “Californication” I fell in love with it; it was a video game. You could snowboard as Chad Smith, swim as Anthony Kiedis, or run to the “teenage bride with the baby inside” as Flea. You choose your character. You choose your fantasy. But the video means more now. It’s not just a video game; it’s a virtual reality illustrating the song. The game, whether this was intentional or not, represents the falseness in which each character/band member lives. They are living in a fantasy world and we want to play that video game too. We want their lives. The chorus comes in—“dream of californication”— and in we see RHCP standing in the sky, as humans not as animations, making us aware they are cognizant of the false lives in which they all live. The lyrics portray how others seek the Hollywood life: “Pay your surgeon very well to break the spell of aging” and “Little girls from Sweden Dream of silver screen quotations.” But are these dreams based in reality? Should these be the dreams of anyone? It’s all fake in California. Space is a grand, infinite concept, but in Hollywood it’s made on a budget.
Resting on the same layer as “Californication” are songs like “Easily” and “Savior,” songs that deal with idolatry. “Easily” is another song that hits on the overlying theme of Californication: how simple it is for the masses to get carried away with something— a cult, a religion. “Savior” brings the listener to the innermost layer of the album. It deals with Anthony Kiedis’ personal demons, “Savior” might be the most underrated song on this album. Kiedis discusses idolatry again, but now from personal experience. “Your hero’s destined to waver.” The song is written about Blackie Dammet—Kiedis’s father and a barely notable actor in his own time. The song discusses being loyal to someone, idolizing him or her but questioning it. The lyrics show a fickle man who declares someone a savior, but realizes his hero is just a man. The savior is only a human with flaws. What’s so powerful about this song is that it explores Kiedis’ childhood and how his father exposed him to a lifestyle of drugs and women at a very young age. But Kiedis is forgiving him saying “No one here is to blame for.”
“Otherside,” “Porcelain” and “Scar Tissue” are inner demon songs as well. “Otherside” is about his drug addiction. Kiedis questions how far will let himself slide and how he needs to get to the clean side of his life, where drugs are no longer necessary. “Porcelain” reflects on the connection Kiedis had with a woman who was simultaneously trying to take care of a child while fighting a drug problem. “Drifting and floating and fading away,” Kiedis sings softly. This is the 8th track that splits the album in two and expresses a dichotomy of reality and virtual reality. The baby is salvation, something real that brings true happiness while the addiction is a false happiness. But the mother and Kiedis have trouble deciphering between the two.
“Scar Tissue” is loneliness. But this reveals an authenticity. There’s no sexual fantasy, no false notions of reality. The singer is saying he will share a lonely view with the birds, but it’s his view. The song exists outside of Californication because the singer is willing to look at reality, even if it is depressing, and void of joy. It’s a melancholic embrace of life.
“Road Trippin” is about true escape, a genuine euphoria based on friendship, not drugs. It’s about Kiedis traveling with John Frusciante and Flea. It’s the perfect ending to the album. The song escapes California for Anywhere, USA. It’s a celebration of Frusciante returning to the band after facing a heroin addiction. The song is entirely acoustic (with an occasional orchestral background). It gives visuals of what makes the U.S. and life beautiful. “Blue you sit so pretty west of the one.” The sun reflects on the ocean as Kiedis looks out and experiences life, a true feeling of peace.
Though Californication does not tell a linear story, it’s songs tell a narrative of how fantasies and delusions can draw a dreamer in and destroy them. The theme runs through each song on the album, even the ones that appear not to include it. In each song RHCP says that Hollywood is fake. But it’s fun. But it’s destructive. And somehow it’s what everyone desires. People want to pretend. Californication doesn’t object to it but tells of the consequences of pretending and let’s the listener decide from there.
Look at the cover art for the album. It’s a sea of blue over a pool of orange. The ocean’s vastness suggests freedom and elation while the pool is filled with what looks like hell. California’s ocean waves can draw you in, but if you’re not careful it will push you into your personal swimming pool of destruction.
***It’s also worth noting that “Quixoticelixer” is a b-side from the album that deals with the same issues of falseness and depression. It also has one of their best melodies and is probably one of the greatest songs not to get featured an album. It deserves a few listens.