Vive Californication: The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Ode to the Golden State Turns 25

In celebration of 25 years of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' iconic 1999 album Californication, Peter Holslin dives into how it still holds a grip on the modern Californian psyche.
By    June 11, 2024

Album Cover via Red Hot Chili Peppers/Discogs

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Peter Holslin has treated over 100 slap bass-related thumb injuries.

One day in the spring of 2019, I put on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album Californication and went to take a walk. I’d recently returned from two years of living in Egypt, and now I was back in my hometown of San Diego, crashing at a friend’s apartment in a neighborhood called Normal Heights. I had no money, no job, and no idea what I was going to do next. But it was a balmy 67 degrees out, perfect T-shirt weather. Skinny palm trees towered in silhouette against a pale blue sky, swaying gently in the early evening breeze. A handful of cars on the street cruised by at moderate speed. This seemed like a nice place to cool my heels for a while.

Like any California white-boy who grew up in the ’90s, I remember the Chili Peppers from their peak years back in the day. I’d basically tuned them out since then. But I decided to give them a listen again as I was flirting with the most laid-back aspects of the Southern California lifestyle after some years away. When the album’s title track came on, John Frusciante’s iconic guitar lick washed over me, lapping against my consciousness like a Malibu wave. The mellow rhythm and heady organs matched up perfectly with the lazy pace of the afternoon. My muscles relaxed. My eyes got a little glassy.

Then I snapped out of it.

That’s when I realized that I needed to get the fuck out of here.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers cast a long shadow in cities like San Diego. For years, this shirtless crew of bass-slappin’ funk-rockers has commanded a stately position on the playlists of my hometown’s alt-rock radio stations. Our beach neighborhoods have been overrun by fusion-y, feel-good party bands that may well never have formed if Anthony Kiedis and Flea hadn’t first struck up a friendship in driver’s ed class at LA’s Fairfax High School. “Californication” essentially become California’s very own “Stairway to Heaven”—a decent ballad that’s been shoved down the throat of every rock music listener for far too long, its quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo now permanently lodged in everyone’s brains (ed. note : 2024 TikTok feels differently).

“Californication” is nothing like the blissful odes to California that came before it. The Mamas & the Papas painted an indelible picture of coastal longing on “California Dreamin’,” but Anthony Kiedis gets bogged down with Hollywood tropes, alt-rock references and mind-boggling couplets. (Example lyric: “Marry me girl, be my fairy to the world, be my very own constellation / A teenage bride with a baby inside getting high on information.”)

Yet Californication still holds a grip on the modern Californian psyche, and for better or worse I imagine it still informs other peoples’ ideas of what the Golden State is all about. Since coming out 25 years ago this month, the album has gone multi-platinum, selling over 15 million copies worldwide. It inspired the name of a TV show. It’s been the subject of endless mockery for its California-obsessed themes and Kiedis’ nonsensical rapping style. Whether you love the album, or hate it, or simply wish it didn’t exist, there’s no denying that Californians live in a place shaped somewhat in Californication’s image.

“As corny as it sounds, it was a soundtrack to a pivotal moment in my life,” says Ryan Bradford, a high school teacher, former alt-weekly columnist, and author of the must-read newsletter Awkward San Diego. Bradford fell in love with Californication as a teenager growing up in Park City, Utah. “The album epitomized everything cool in my head—not just the music, but the fashion, the look, the Southern Californian lifestyle. It felt like a roadmap I could use to reinvent myself for high school—this southern California cool guy. I bleached my hair and began wearing tight shirts. I sat by the pool at my dad’s condo complex in order to get a tan!”

Much like the bro-friendly, smoked-out reggae of Long Beach trio Sublime—who have ridden their own wave of positive reappraisal in recent years—Californication is something that practically every California resident I know has listened to and fiercely debated. The album is overstuffed in the way a lot of rock albums were during the dominance of the 80-minute CD format. Uplifting jams like “Get on Top” and “I Like Dirt” come off as kooky and dated by today’s standards. But the album’s mix of freewheeling absurdity and disarming sincerity has aged surprisingly well.

The album also seems relevant today as artists like 100 Gecs, Twenty One Pilots, and the late Lil Peep have reframed rap-rock for a younger audience. But of course, this new generation of fans never had to endure the peak years of Korn and Limp Bizkit—bands that RHCP inadvertently blazed a trail for with their P-Funk-indebted commercial breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik was released the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind, situating RHCP within the alt-rock boom as contemporaries of fellow California iconoclasts like Faith No More and Jane’s Addiction. In retrospect, the early 1990s strike me as a utopian moment: artists had principles back then, and bands could make enough of a living off their work to not feel the need to “sell out.” But the alt-rock renaissance began to buckle under the pressure of mainstream hype. While many white dudes in appropriative rap-rock bands and reggae bands played it chill, taking over beach communities from coast to coast, toxic masculinity and bad drugs took over as the good vibes and political power of rock fusion eventually sprouted into ugly forms of rap-rock and nu-metal—all of which culminated in the generation-defining orgy of violence that was Woodstock ’99. Months after the release of Californication and their subsequent headlining set at the festival, RHCP seemed contrite about this musical current: “There’s all this angry, screaming metal now. It’s part of a thing that we started, in a lot of ways,” Flea sighed in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2000.

Thinking critically all these years later, it’s easy for me to dismiss Californication jams like album opener “Around the World,” but just as easy for me to fall for its spell. As the title suggests, the song offers up a merry-go-round of blistering rock riffs, James Brown-gone-punk funk-rock grooves, and catchy radio-rock choruses. Listening to “Around the World,” I’m immediately taken away by Frusciante and Flea’s cathartic attack in the intro. As the song progresses, I furrow my brow and reflect on the vaguely problematic conceit of a song that celebrates international travel while overlooking deeper questions of American passport privilege and white appropriation. Then the song gets to the part where Kiedis spits the line, “Fox hole love, pie in your face / Living in and out of a big fat suitcase,” and I’m like, “Oh, right, this is the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

RHCP have always paired their raw sex appeal with a sense of humor; they literally appeared as cartoon versions of their cartoonish selves in a cameo on The Simpsons and in the Beavis And Butt-Head-themed video for “Love Rollercoaster” (which also appeared on the Beavis And Butt-Head Do America soundtrack). Obviously—thankfully—Kiedis isn’t trying to present himself as some Shakespearean poet or situate himself as a master of rap expression on Californication. His clownish approach comes across as oblivious and possibly offensive, delivered at a time when real hip-hop artists were fighting to be taken seriously in the mainstream. Still, there’s something fun, maybe even self-aware about the way he embraces the absurdities of the English language, punctuating his goofy couplet with the image of a “big fat suitcase.”

Californication marked a return of form for the band. Frusciante re-joined his fellow Peppers in a Sunset Boulevard studio along with producer Rick Rubin after surviving a years-long haze of heroin use. Founding Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988. Kiedis also struggled with addiction to heroin, a drug that cut a decade-long path of death and destruction across the national alt-rock scene even as filmmakers and fashion designers romanticized it in star-making movies and “heroin chic” aesthetics. The Peppers’ grasp on the murky corners of isolation and depression show through in tender ballads like “Otherside” and the lullaby-like “Porcelain.” It’s a testament to their musicianship that they approach these heavy topics with subtlety when it was something of an industry trend for alt-rock bands to scream their heads off in stylized displays of rage.

The rest of Californication has its ups and downs. “Emit Remmus” doesn’t add up thematically, telling the tale of a romance between “An English girl / American man” (aka Kiedis and Melanie C of the Spice Girls, reportedly) only for the band to go all aggro in the chorus. Back in rapper mode, Kiedis sounds like he’s just stringing random words together over the sliding bass and piccolo snare pops of “Purple Stain.” But then there’s the easygoing charms of album closer “Road Trippin’,” an acoustic strummer about friendship and discovery that underscores how close these veteran musicians had gotten with each other over years of playing together. The track hinges on the image of “smiling eyes” being “just a mirror for the sun,” evoking pure feelings of love and joy with California’s rays imbuing everything with a calming life force.

Aside from my brief six-month stint in San Diego in 2019, I haven’t lived in California properly at this point in a decade: Two months after that fateful April afternoon, when I put on Californication in my sunny Southern California hometown, I packed up my belongings and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. I left because I needed a job, and I haven’t moved back in part out of disgust for the fact that my hometown couldn’t provide a career or even a decent job for me at a time when I needed it most.

But listening to Californication today, I realize that I had to leave California and come back—and then leave again—in order to see how my own jovial attitude, open-mindedness, and sense of wanderlust shows through in some of RHCP’s songs. If I once thought that the Chili Peppers represented a side of California that I never saw in myself, now I know better than to turn my nose up. California is the place I grew up, and Californication is part of my culture, in all its goofy, weird, redemptive beauty.

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