When it comes to Love-punk-surf-rock-indie-pop, a genre I just made up, there is no bigger name than Best Coast. If you listen to any kind of public, college, or indie radio station you’ve probably heard the title track from their recently dropped sophomore album, “The Only Place.” It’s a sunny, feel-good ode to California, of which there are no shortage, but it’s getting a ton of play. It’s probably the biggest California song since… two years ago, with Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.” While Perry’s song is a couple of years old, it’s still in rotation on Top 40 stations, as it will likely be for the remainder of our days on this earth. This has created a situation where, with a little serendipity, you can hear “California Gurls” on the radio, switch over to a new station, and then hear Best Coast take a stab at the same topic.
We all know by now that the California song is an American music trope so worn out that it’s going past tired, circling around to become a standard tradition, like the open road traveling song or the populist protest song. The choice to gush about the country’s most populous state isn’t the interesting part, but rather the chance to hear two contemporaries tackle the same tradition reveals a lot. It tells us about artistic choices and, more importantly, the genres which they represent: indie rock and mainstream pop.
There are a ton of similarities, but they mostly fall into the category of things you almost have to mention if you’re going to write a pro-Golden State song. California songs are almost always invoking the iconic scenery. Best Coast: “We’ve got the ocean, we’ve got the babes, we’ve got the sun, we’ve got the waves.” Katy Perry: “Sippin’ gin & juice laying underneath the palm trees.” Girls! Beach! Sun! For some reason, no one seems to want to sing about traffic or budget crises or prison overpopulation. Otherwise, both songs also invoke the cred of some California scene icons; Jon Brion, an infamous fixture of The Largo in LA, produces “The Only Place” while Katy Perry brings Snoop Dogg in to phone in a verse.
But for all this overlap, the key differences are in the approach. Best Coast, and indie rock itself, is set firmly on working from an emotional core. Despite the references to sun and sand, the crux of the song is still, “This is the only place for me” – a sense of belonging. It’s not a powerfully moving song, but it’s personally meaningful and sincere, and that’s important to the song’s identity. “California Gurls,” meanwhile, is based on partying and revelry. It’s more escapism than anything else, which is what pop music does best. The best indie makes you wallow in your emotional needs, which is not everyone’s cup of tea. Pop has an inclusive ease of access that is far more generally appealing, but it comes at the expense of intimacy and perceived sincerity, even when they work with sad ballads. Both songs may aim for simplicity, but one is a reflection and the other is a celebration.
There’s also something to be said about the way these genres approach music history. Best Coast, especially on their first album, invoked some of the classic surf rock. There’s still an element of that on “The Only Place” with some subtle harmonies and ever-jangling guitars that would fit right into the music scenes of the 1950s. Maybe it’s the retromania epidemic, but indie strives for purposeful acknowledgment of, and playing off the legacy of, classic sounds and influential artists. Although pop music can often sound like its predecessors and contemporaries, (in this case, “California Gurls” has been accused of venturing a little too close to Ke$ha territory) it’s rarely a conscious move to homage. The motivation here is more about being practical than reverent: if it’s a style that worked before, it will work again.
Not that Katy Perry is exemplary of all pop music, or that Best Coast is an avatar of indie culture. Both worlds have their own breadth and diversity that isn’t so easily summed up in a meandering blog post. They do succeed, though, in saying a lot about what artistic spaces they work in, and it’s a funny little serendipity for them to come up in the same generation.