There have been quite a number of bands over the last few decades that have devoted significant time and effort to exploring what it means to be Californian. The Red Hot Chili Peppers deserve special mention. There are even more bands who hale from the Golden State that can be credited with creating a unique California "sound." That sound speaks of wide horizons, golden hills, twisting highways and canyon roads, hazy blue skies, sea breezes, and jasmine scented twilight. There's one piece in particular that's been going through my mind lately. Let me explain.
I arrived in SoCal in 1998, just in time for the ska, swing, and reggae craze that struck the Golden State and spread east. The song "Santeria" by Sublime had been out for at least two years before I heard it, but it struck me then and still strikes me now as quintessentially Californian. It's a little insight into the soul of SoCal. Every time I hear it, I can't help but think of the sun and the sprawl.
The first thing that strikes me about "Santeria" is its style. There's something about all those upstrokes that keeps the song in that permanent state of "it's all good" that California lives in. Though the subject matter of "Santeria" is serious and extreme, a man who fantasizes about killing the man who stole his girl, you wouldn't know it from the sound of the music. That odd disjoint haunts Southern California through and through. No matter what happens, with all that sun and fun it's impossible not to say that "it's all good."
The second bit of quintessential SoCal is the unselfconscious multiculturalism of the work. The lyrics are in English, the musical style is Jamaican, the terms used to describe the treacherous lovers are Mexican, and Santeria is a form of Cuban folk religion. In other words, it's a piece that's as effortlessly diverse as L.A.
The final point I wanted to raise builds off of the first two. There is an inarticulate longing that permeates "Santeria" that is Californian to the core (cf. Steinbeck). The singer keeps breaking into half-articulate digressions. Somehow he just can't keep enough steady anger to focus on getting back at "Sancho" and resist existential digression. What it is that pulls him away, the singer himself confesses that he "can't hardly define." It might be finding a new girl, it might be Love with a capital "L," but he lacks the vocabulary or the framework to express it. This is the voice of a culture that has cast off every tradition and every restraint in the journey west to very edge of the world. And there it sits on the shores of the sea under the bright sun, and the promised utopia's not there. All the bridges are burnt, and there's nothing to go back to anyway, so why not just accept that this is as good as it gets. Maybe we have deeper longings, but there's nowhere else to look and all the tools that might help us look got lost along the way. In the end it's better to just soak up the sun and hope that in the end "I'll make it, yea, but my soul will have to wait."