The meaning behind Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers
8 June 2020, 19:55
The LA band’s acclaimed seventh studio album was released 21 years ago… but what’s the meaning of its thoughtful title track?
Released on 8 June 1999 in the United States, Californication marked a turning point in the career of Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Their previous album, One Hot Minute, had been considered a disappointment on its release in 1995; as the follow-up to the hugely successful Blood Sugar Sex Magik, it was a step back for the band in terms of sales and success.
One criticism levelled at One Hot Minute was the absence of guitarist John Frusciante. He was replaced by Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro for the record, who took the band’s music in a “more” traditional “rock” direction to the displeasure of long term fans. Navarro was fired in early 1998 over “creative differences”.
Frusciante had endured battles with addiction during his time away, but returned to the Chili Peppers in the Spring of 1998 clean and ready to take the band in another direction. For the follow-up to One Hot Minute, the guitarist favoured a more sedate sound.
Anthony Kiedis and Frusciante spent the summer of ’98 working on songs that took in stories and themes from the turbulent personal lives. Kiedis was no stranger to substance abuse struggles himself, as his autobiography Scar Tissue relates at length, and he told the press that the new record would “tell tales of wandering souls who've lost their way searching for the American dream in California”.
And this is where the title of one song - and the title of the album itself - would come in.
The mood of the album was more introspective and the song Californication mused on the nature of fame and success.
The lines “little girls from Sweden / Dream of silver screen quotation” and “Space may be the final frontier / But it's made in a Hollywood basement” talk of the Hollywood dream, of making magic in the middle of mundane life.
In his book, Kiedis says the opening line “Psychic spies from China / Try to steal your mind's elation” comes from a woman he heard ranting on the street in New Zealand.
Other lines mention Kurt Cobain and David Bowie’s landmark 1976 album Station To Station (“And Cobain, can you hear the spheres / Singing songs off Station To Station?”) and the home planet of Princess Leia from the original Star Wars movie (“And Alderaan's not far away / It's Californication”).
The title itself is obviously a portmanteau word combining the name of Hollywood’s state California, with the word “fornication”, which usually means sex between people who are not married.
The word summarises the way that the US entertainment industry creates a manufactured culture that puts sex, money, celebrity and violence at the forefront of life - the “Californication” of society. In the new reality TV era, it seems that Californication is everywhere, with every single person given the opportunity to be famous… if only for a time: “It's understood that Hollywood / Sells Californication”
Kiedis wrote, however, that the band struggled to find the right music to fit the song: “We tried ten different arrangements and ten different choruses, and nothing ever worked. We’d been working for a few weeks when someone started playing an ultra-sparse riff that sounded like nothing we’d ever done before. As soon as I heard it, I knew it was our new song.”
The song summed up a phenomenon so perfectly that it became the title of a US TV series starring former X-Files star, David Duchovny. The Chili Peppers tried to sue the producers, but the programme makers successfully proved that the term had been used in Time magazine as far back as 1972. The case was settled out of court.
Californication was released as the third single from the album, following Scar Tissue, Around The World and Otherside. While the album had its funky moments, the audience responded to the gentler, more mature sound of the Chili Peppers and the album has been certified four times Platinum in the UK.