Where I work they play an eclectic mix of acoustic cover songs. Aside from murdering classics by the likes of Oasis and Adele, the cover of Red Hot Chili Peppers song, Californication, resonated with me. The lack of guitar riffs and drum beats provides an opportunity to concentrate on the lyrics. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of America’s great bands. Their blend of rock and funk help to define a twenty-first century America which had emerged victorious from the Cold War, more intent than ever on exporting its values to a global audience.
The song Californication, from their 1999 album of the same name, concerns the band’s state of origin and touches at the heart of what America was during this time and what it still is today. Through the medium of song, lead singer Anthony Kiedis poetically praises the Californian ideal while simultaneously alluding to its inner flaws. The song’s lyrics delve into further ideas about California’s position in the modern world.
Located on the west coast of the US, California is, as Kiedis sings, “the edge of the world and all of western civilization”. Geographically it lies at the edge of the West, beyond it the vastness of the Pacific and further still Asia and the East. California also stands at the forefront of technological and human advancement. It is the birthplace of inventions that have changed the world. Examples include the Martini Cocktail and the Hula Hoop but also more important technological innovations such as the iPhone and soon the driverless car.
The state is America’s most populous with nearly 40 million people. It is also it’s richest. If taken alone the Californian economy is the 5th largest in the world. California boasts the headquarters of the world’s largest multinational corporations, Apple, Google and Facebook, whose products play an immense role within all of our lives for better and for worse. These companies are innovative, exciting and through cutting edge technology are connecting people in unprecedented ways. The state of California has facilitated growth and innovation both for America and the world, improving the lives of millions in the process.
The song also points to a darker side of both Californian society and the American ideal, as Kiedis sings that “tidal waves couldn’t save the world from Californication”. The term “Californication” is synonymous with the advancement of neo-liberalism and globalisation, two major socio-economic forces sitting comfortably at the helm of the current world order. Since the 1990’s America has exported the benefits of the former while harnessing the latter. Now it dominates many aspects of global culture, finance and society.
California stands at the edge of this neo-liberal pier, forging a path for the rest of the world to follow. On the one hand, this has brought with it many benefits and has contributed to the highest standard of living in human history. On the other, California’s place at the vanguard of human achievement has created a number of moral and ethical dilemmas concerning the world it is creating. Such a world may need saving from the sinister side of Californication in the near future.
All that glitters is not gold in the Golden State. The success of California distracts from the underlying levels of poverty within the state and America more broadly. California possesses one of the greatest levels of economic inequalities in the United States and little has changed since the end of the last century. It epitomises an American model of economic development that creates gaping economic inequalities and leaves many of California’s poor wondering where companies like Apple and Google’s huge profits end up.
California is not alone. Such a model has been spread globally, rendering inequality a growing issue across the developed world. California’s problems also possess a racial stain that has long since marked American society. As the Chilli Peppers rocked crowds, West Coast rappers were turning into global superstars and spoke of the struggle young African Americans face in California’s urban areas. Little has changed. Modern-day Californian hip-hop artists continue to speak of inner-city violence, gangs and poverty.
Furthermore, California has one of the most expensive prison systems in the world. It leads an American penal system which some see at worst as a form of modern slavery, at best a method for the continued repression of the rights and freedoms of African Americans. People picture California as a place of wealth, luxury and sweet living. For many it is. This nevertheless masks the state’s struggle with inequality, poverty and race. The divide between rich and poor and between different ethnic backgrounds is a dynamic that is spread across America and the West.
California’s global influence is cause for further celebration and concern. The Californication tidal wave that has swept the globe has been spearheaded by multi-national companies such as Facebook and Google. We marvel at the products these companies create and rightly so; they connect us to distant friends and family, improve the flow of everyday life and provide endless entertainment. However, upon reflection, many are beginning to question the impact these internet companies are having upon our politics and our societies.
Social media sites based in Silicon Valley have interfered, if not played a substantial role, in subverting democratic procedures in recent years. Whether that be selling data for manipulation to the highest bidder or fostering an army of Russian bots to influence political discourse, the position of Facebook and Twitter within our democracy is under increasing scrutiny. Many are beginning to argue that the entrenchment of political divisions and sharpening of political spears have been fuelled by these websites, creating echo-chambers that hamper political understanding and cooperation.
The capacity of these companies begs wider societal questions. The impact of social media has given rise to questions about disinformation, mental health and wellbeing in this new digital age. The dangers they possess are perhaps why Silicon Valley employees don’t allow their own children to use the very products they created. One former Facebook executive even apologised for social media’s role in ‘tearing society apart’ by deforming the kinds of social interaction we need in order to feel connected with one another.
While it may be true that social media and internet algorithms optimise our usage and improve the quality of service, many of us freak out when adverts for products we were just searching for or even talking about appearing on our feeds. It often seems these companies have invaded every aspect of our lives. In many ways, this intrusion has been welcomed in the name of progress. But the warning signs are there. Recent events make it all too easy to foresee an Orwellian-like future, in which we are misinformed, subdued and ultimately controlled by a Californian based tech giant. It is perhaps in midst of wildfires that occur annually and with an increasing ferocity that California’s model for the future becomes most relevant.
California has felt the full force of climate change, the defining issue of our time. To understand the scale of these fires, the Mendocino Fire complex that occurred this summer was larger than the metropolitan areas of New York and Paris combined. This was not as large as the fires in November which covered over nearly 2 million acres and cost an estimated $3.5 billion in damages. Such wildfires are an ominous threat to local inhabitants and will persevere in being so as long as the greenhouse gas effect continues to distort our planet’s climate in unpredictable ways.
Reports of California’s rich and famous employing private firefighters to protect their homes while convicted felons fought those same fires for $1 a day demonstrates the injustices that fester within California’s apparent paradise. Climate change will impact all of us, however, events in California demonstrate that the affluent increasingly possess the resources to save themselves while others suffer unaided. President Trump has blamed the recent blaze on poor forest floor management, evidence that the world faces not only a fight against climate change but also against ignorance in the face of facts. America is a global power with the ability to mitigate climate disaster. Yet as California burns, a worryingly large number of Americans disbelieve the science, including their head of state. If this nonsense is to be exported globally with the waves of Californication then we are all to suffer.
California is America’s most prosperous and innovative state, leading the way in a brave new world. Yet this should come with caution. The issues arising within the Golden State transcend onto a global scale; the impact of growing economic inequality, the role of the internet within society and the fight against climate change. If twenty years ago the Chili Peppers forebode the advancement of ‘Californication’ their prophecy has been fulfilled. Yet as the song’s chorus tell us to ‘dream of Californication’ modern day California is showing us a glimpse of some of our worst nightmares.
Written by Michael Wood
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