How is California doing? The answer depends on whom you believe: Gov. Jerry Brown or Blink-182?
This summer has exposed a divide in perception of California, between the political triumphalism of our elected officials and the more anxious state of affairs depicted in the broader culture.
Our state’s political and media elites are selling the idea of a “California comeback.” They say the Golden State is now a global and national model of balanced budgets and progressive policies in climate change and gun control.
But the portrayal of California by nonpolitical storytellers is far less triumphant. In music and film, we’re in a state of frustrations and struggles.
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No document speaks to this alternate view more directly than “California,” the new album from Blink-182, the Southern California pop punk band. Last week, “California” rose to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart, which ranks the top albums across all genres.
California the album has no talk of comebacks. Its first song is called “Cynical” and it gets rougher from there. In “Home Is Such a Lonely Place,” Blink-182 sings, “we’re falling faster than we can fly/Forgotten seconds out on Sunset Drive And I hold on tight/But not enough to hold you back.”
The hit “Bored to Death” repeats that “life is too short to last long” and people are “broken, lost and cold and fading fast.” The album’s title track begins: “Beige little boxes in a row/Neighbors and friends that you don’t know/ Here’s a form go wait in line.” My favorite song on the album is “No Future,” with a chorus that taunts: “Yeah, they don’t care about you.”
Blink-182 is punk, of a sort, and punk isn’t supposed to be happy. But the same sense of foreboding about California has been a strong theme even from more upbeat singers. Last year’s California-heavy album “Wildheart” from Miguel, the Grammy winner from San Pedro, was popular for its frankly sexual songs but couldn’t disguise an underlying fear of decline. “Heart caught in a rip tide, cold Pacific waters keep on pulling me under,” he sang in the hit “Leaves,” with its chorus juxtaposing “sweet California, sour California, bitter California.”
Blink-182 writes about not being able to go home again, the same idea at the center of the plot of the year’s top grossing movie, “Finding Dory,” from Emeryville-based Pixar. Dory, a Pacific blue tang with Ellen DeGeneres’ voice, rides a current to a very scary California. A giant squid tries to eat her fish friends, and she gets stuck in an aquarium.
But Dory is from Morro Bay. And like so many Californians who grew up along the coast, she dreams of returning to live near her parents. While this is very difficult for human Californians, who face stagnant incomes and sky-high housing prices, Dory is a fantasy fish so – spoiler alert! – she escapes the aquarium and reconnects with her family in San Luis Obispo County.
These days, no California triumph can be celebrated wholeheartedly. The San Francisco startup Niantic (a Google spinoff) had little time to celebrate the global triumph of its Pokémon Go before a massive public backlash against the free smartphone game began. And then hackers shut it down, temporarily ruining everyone’s fun.
California’s mix of political triumphalism and cultural anxiety has left the public somewhere in the middle. In a new Field Poll, a narrow majority of voters says the state is “on the right track” even as other surveys show deep concerns about jobs and the cost of living.
The best cultural approximation of California public opinion may come from the song “The Other California,” written by Erin Friedman, who with husband Craig make up the duo Still Married. Their song celebrates the far north part of the state – the musicians run a shipping business in Redding – while acknowledging the region is “rugged, raw and real.”
On the phone, I asked Erin Friedman to name her favorite California song. She mentioned the Eagles’ “Hollywood Waltz,” which argues for finding a middle ground between California’s hype and disappointment.
“So give her this dance,” went the chorus of that 1975 hit. “She can’t be forsaken. Learn how to love her with all of her faults.”
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.