I admit it: I love to listen to CHR—Contemporary Hit Radio, i.e. the Top 40 station. One of the best things about living in California (after the weather) is the fact that rather than normal Top 40 stations, we have “Rhythmic Contemporary” stations. This means, basically, that you get all the great pop, R&B songs, and hip-hop songs of a normal CHR station, still skipping some of the hip-hop that would play on an “urban only” station (which generally tends to be the hip-hop I enjoy less), and skipping most of the rock and country songs that other CHR stations would play.
This last part is key. I do certain rock (e.g., U2), but I don’t do other rock (e.g., Nickelback). I appreciate a radio station that doesn’t make me listen to any more rock than I have to, since I tend to dislike more than I like. Unfortunately, however, even my beloved AMP radio is making me listen to other disgusting excuses for art. Indeed, Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” does not even perform well against other dumb and potentially offensive songs. Yes, even “Carry Out” by Timbaland and Justin Timberlake ranks far, far above “California Gurls” in my mind.
I dislike “California Gurls” for many reasons. First, its spelling. Secondly, it’s labeling women as girls. (Thanks, Jennifer Hagin, for ruining my ability to mindlessly accept colloquialisms.) Thirdly, Katy Perry’s barely cloud-obscured nudity in the video. Fourthly, Katy Perry’s costumes because they are just sexist and disgusting. Fifthly, the song’s insinuation that men should pick their women based on geographic location and that women are valuable as members of a group rather than as individuals. “Carolina Girls” may be a much more innocent song, but I’ve always hated it, too—along with the thousands of “Carolina Girls” t-shirts sold at UNC Student Stores every year.
One of the most frustrating things about “California Gurls,” however, is the aspect of it that is true. Of course most women here don’t walk around in bikinis, drive Jeeps, or have sex on the beach on a regular basis. However, there is something different about women (and many men) in California: an increased concern with appearance. In California it’s easy to walk around in what you think are normal-people clothes and feel like a total bum. As my friend Kate noticed on a visit here, people seem to dress up even just to visit the mall. After traffic, this is probably my least favorite part of living in Los Angeles county. There are plenty of kind-hearted and intelligent people out here, but the stereotype that L.A. residents are shallow, materialistic, and always sporting the latest styles sometimes feels very true.
Back in college, the dominant culture was that of the over-achiever. It was this culture that our InterVarsity staff encouraged us to struggle against—that we might find our value in God’s love for us rather than our achievements. Here, I wish we had a few more prophetic voices encouraging us to not buy into the SoCal mentality. I wish this partly for selfish reasons—so that I wouldn’t feel as out of place just because I don’t wear make-up and could stand to lose a few pounds—but I also want it because I hate seeing the damage that comes from misplaced priorities. Unfortunately, L.A. sometimes seems to specialize in cultural flaws (though, of course, it also has its share of cultural beauty), and it can be difficult to know how to adequately address a culture’s influence in our own lives, much less help anyone else with this task. Still, I think this is a task we are called to, as we try to better love God, ourselves, and our neighbors.
With no further brilliance to share, I will conclude by recommending two recent books that I have not yet read: Unsqueezed, an entertaining book about culture and body image by Margot Starbuck (author of The Girl in the Orange Dress, a fantastic memoir on adoption, divorce, and God as Father) and Under the Influence, a look at the culture of California and its influence on broader American culture.