The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1999 album Californication was their first release with guitarist John Frusciante since 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and as their seventh studio album it was the band’s most successful album to date.
Californication featured a number of the band’s most well-known songs, including “Scar Tissue,” “Otherside,” and of course, the thematic title track “Californication”.
The song is a commentary on the problematic culture that comes out of, and breeds within Hollywood. It was a hit at the time of its release, with the song peaking at a highly appropriate number 69 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the iconic video game-style music video in full rotation on MTV.
The word “Californication” itself is a phrase that the band invented to name this cultural disease they’re singing about.
It’s a combination of the state of California with the word “fornication”, which is defined as sex between two non-married persons. The result is a derogatory term for the negative influence that Hollywood and Los Angeles have on the greater American culture, specifically referring to the hyper focus on sex.
The song opens with Frusciante strumming a laid-back melody, and Kiedis comes in with two verses that introduce the theme:
Psychic spies from China try to steal your mind’s elation
And little girls from Sweden dream of silver screen quotation
And if you want these kind of dreams it’s Californication
It’s the edge of the world and all of Western civilizationFirst two verses of “Californication” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
The sun may rise in the East at least it’s settled in a final location
It’s understood that Hollywood sells Californication
In the bridge, Kiedis throws shade at celebrities who get plastic surgery to hide the signs of aging. “Pay your surgeon very well to break the spell of aging,” he sings. “Celebrity skin, is this your chin, or is that war you’re waging?”
When we reach the chorus, the band rocks out a bit and Kiedis sings a few iconic lines that have left a few scratching their heads about the meaning over the years: “First born unicorn / hardcore soft porn.”
The line “first born unicorn” is a subtle hint at the story of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, who was Miss August 1979 and also the 1980 Playmate of the Year. She was murdered by her ex-husband Paul Snider in August 1980.
There was a book written about her life called The Killing of the Unicorn, and being that she was the first-born in her family many assume that this is who Kiedis was referring to in the lyrics.
This is just the first of several pop cultural references made by Anthony Kiedis in “Californication”. The lyrics that follow bring even more to the mix:
Marry me, girl, be my fairy to the world, be my very own constellationThird and fourth verse to “Californication” by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
A teenage bride with a baby inside getting high on information
And buy me a star on the boulevard, it’s Californication
Space may be the final frontier but it’s made in a Hollywood basement
And Cobain can you hear the spheres singing songs off Station To Station?
And Alderaan’s not far away, it’s Californication
Here, Kiedis mentions the moon landings and the conspiracy theories that they were faked with the help of some Hollywood movie magic.
We also see a direct reference to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and another to David Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station.
His mention of the “spheres” is a reference to the Music of the Spheres, an ancient concept that views the motion of the planets and other celestial bodies through a musical lens.
When he sings of Alderaan, he is referring to the planet from Star Wars.
The fifth and final verse includes more California references, including earthquakes and a Beach Boys reference a la “Good Vibrations”:
Destruction leads to a very rough road but it also breeds creationFifth verse to “Californication” by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
And earthquakes are to a girl’s guitar, they’re just another good vibration
And tidal waves couldn’t save the world from Californication
The lyric about destruction seems out of place, but this is Kiedis’ way of placing himself within the song, as well as many other artists who have gone through the gauntlet of the music industry.
He may be talking about the need to destroy oneself to create a better version of themselves. Or perhaps, in keeping with the theme of the song — to create a more plastic version of themselves.
Kiedis discusses “Californication” extensively in his 2004 memoir Scar Tissue, recalling the difficult time that the band had composing this song.
In the book, he remembers a day that John Frusciante came in and said he had figured it out. John simply played his melody for the band, and that was what became the song. Frusciante also famously came up with the melody for “Under The Bridge” from Blood Sugar Sex Magik in this same way.
Watch the famous music video for “Californication” by Red Hot Chili Peppers below.