How’s California doing? Well, do you believe Gov. Jerry Brown, or Blink-182?
This summer has exposed a divide in perceptions of California between the political triumphalism of our elected leaders and the more anxious state of affairs depicted in our culture.
Our state’s political and media elites tout a “California comeback” and say the Golden State is now a global model of balanced budgets and progressive policies on climate change and gun control. But nonpolitical storytellers, particularly in music and film, portray a state of frustrations and struggles.
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Nothing speaks to this alternate view more powerfully than “California,” the new album from Blink-182, the Southern California pop punk band. The album, which rose last week to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, has no talk of comebacks. Its first song is called “Cynical,” and it gets rougher from there.
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 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 California foreboding 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 riptide, cold Pacific waters keep on pulling me under,” he sang on “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 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 humans, 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.
Of course, 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. 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 public opinion may come from the song “The Other California” 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 their region is “rugged, raw and real.”
Asked her favorite California song, Erin Friedman 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. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.