As New York-born Lana Del Rey continues to graft California and its (anti-)cultural trappings for her music, it leads one to take pause and reflect on the state’s rich aural and visual tradition of beckoning to weirdos through song. As Del Rey’s latest single, aptly titled “Freak,” from her Honeymoon album, indicates, California persists in being the premier destination for burnouts, dropouts and otherwise non-conventional non-functioning members of the U.S. And no, Oregon (a.k.a. Portland) is not a contender in the same arena.
Starting, most distinctly, in 1965 when The Mamas & The Papas released “California Dreamin'”, it became clear that the Golden State wasn’t your average place to live. Fittingly, John and Michelle Phillips wrote the song together while in New York, lusting after the golden sunshine and non-intense pace that only CA can seem to afford when one doesn’t have dual citizenship. The 1960s, in particular, were a time of beautiful respite for hippies, freedom fighters and drug revelers–especially in Golden Gate Park. One could wear flowers in her hair (just like the Scott McKenzie song mentions), twirl about and feel the positive energy of others. And that was enough. Post-Manson murders in L.A., however, the tone of songs about California slightly shifted. With the 60s coming to a close, the “vibes” changed. And yet, California remained a place people flocked to for respite–to feel a bit less freaky in a world that made them out to be just that.
Still, the somber, sinister nature California had taken on as the state that yielded the highest number of serial killers is evident in the melancholy of The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” released in 1977. Co-written by Glenn Frey and Don Henley, the track was inspired by a drive into L.A. at nighttime, the rush of dreams and possibilities assaulting them from every corner. From this concept, Frey built on it by adding what he called “a weird world peopled by freaky characters.” There’s that word again. And yet, in spite of being a reprieve for the bizarre, Frey still notes, “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell” and mentions another female guest at the hotel who remarks, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.” And yes, the highways and byways of California, Los Angeles being the most obvious example, can often feel like a The Shining-inspired cage entangling you within its contorted clutches.
As the 80s dawned, the sort of life Bret Easton Ellis talks about in Less Than Zero was a common affliction of Los Angeles, the ultimate representation of California during this decade. Hence, seemingly superficial songs about status, like Missing Persons’ “Walking in L.A.,” bring to light the material side of California existence–especially when it comes to being able to afford a worthwhile car.
The shift in popular musical interest to hip hop and gangster rap in the 90s brought us what are arguably two of the best California-themed anthems, 2Pac’s “California Love” (1995) and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Going Back to Cali” (1998). The latter is perhaps more lyrically notable for Biggie’s rare admission of liking the West Coast (though this was in the aftermath of the East Coast/West Coast hip hop rivalry). He raps, “See some nice breasts in the West/Smoke some nice sess in the West, y’all niggas is a mess/Thinkin’ I’m gon’ stop givin’ L.A. props/All I got is beef with those that violate me/I shall annihilate thee.” 2Pac’s more iconic “California Love” is not just about the pride of being from or living in the state, but also 2Pac’s need to prove himself tenfold after being released from prison and putting out his first single for Death Row Records. Naturally, he name checks the progenitor of the entire genre of songs about California as he declares, “Out on bail fresh outta jail, California dreamin'”.
With the advent of the 00s, California held strong with its cachet, notably after New York became a war zone in 2001. It wasn’t until the years of 2009-2010, however, that the resuscitation of a proverbial coast war occurred, initiated by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” which would prompt Katy Perry to create the response, “California Gurls” featuring Snoop Dogg, in 2010. Though Perry presents a modernized perspective on the state with lyrics like “You could travel the world/But nothing comes close to the Golden Coast/Once you party with us, you’ll be falling in love,” the track still possesses the same principles of retro classics like the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” And then, of course, she makes subtle reference to how great the weed is, which is the primary reason CA has so many disciples. The countless songs about the many virtues of the state have also been exemplified by the likes of everyone from Fleetwood Mac and The Runaways to Best Coast and Grimes, who have all embodied the distinct aesthetic and auditory characteristics of California. But there are only a select few tracks (all mentioned within this brief history) that truly serve as a tribal call to the human anomalies of the world.
So now, finally, here we are in 2016, with Lana Del Rey bringing us the hippie-infused stylings of “Freak.” More overtly taking the tone to a “vintage” level, Del Rey imbues the sound of “Freak” with psychedelic-friendly beats that wear down your defenses as she insists, “Come to California, be a freak like me too.” The line, indeed, makes for great postcard potential. The video she’s been teasing for it features Father John Misty and the girls from “Music To Watch Boys To” in archetypal hippie garb. So regardless of how time soldiers on in California, it would seem that those attracted to it are still allured by the crux of what it originally offered in the 60s: freedom to be an ethereal so-called freak not of this earth.