Last week, a new track by the persistently provocative pop star Katy Perry debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, the 14th song to achieve that feat. "California Gurls" is the lead single from Perry's forthcoming album Teenage Dream, and it's a sun-drenched, Snoop Dogg-assisted track that, Perry says, is as inspired by Prince and a vague idea of what pop music was like in the '90s as much as it was apparently brought about by an East Coast-West Coast radio rivalry that was re-ignited by the chart-topping run of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind."
Lyrically, “Gurls” certainly comes from the point of view a certain type of young woman—she’s perpetually raring to go, dressed in a bikini top and a pair of ass-hugging shorts so as to maximize the display of her “sun-kissed skin [that will] melt your popsicle.”
"You know, it's so great that 'Empire State of Mind' is huge, and everybody has, like, the New York song, but what the fuck," Perry told Rolling Stone in the run-up to "Gurls"' release. "What about L.A.—what about California?"
Perry does have a point; the somewhat bewildering nationwide success of "Empire" last autumn was as much a testament to its anthemic chorus as it was a piece of evidence that the New York Yankees, who took on the song as a rallying cry during their World Series run last year, might not be as despised outside of the Big Apple as conventional wisdom claims.
The thing about "California Gurls" is that, as a pop song, it's not especially good; at the very least, it's a dissatisfying listening experience via computer speaker or earbuds. Which is not to say that it won't achieve the summertime domination that it's clearly been built to accomplish. It sold 294,000 digital copies in its maiden week and barreled into the nation's radio playlists immediately upon release. (Perhaps the listening experience will be more satisfying when the song is echoing out the windows of passing cars.)
"Gurls" might sound vaguely familiar on first listen because of its astonishing resemblance to "Tik Tok," the blippy, catchy ode to the wasted life by the perennially disheveled Ke$ha. "Tik Tok," the end product of a collaboration between Ke$ha and the reigning ASCAP Songwriter of the Year, Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, was a well-engineered piece of pop-rap that transformed Ke$ha into a videogame character who was perpetually in search of a party, and it stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine straight weeks—after knocking off "Empire State of Mind." "Gurls" also has Dr. Luke in its stable of knob-twiddlers. He's assisted by Max Martin, who co-wrote Kelly Clarkson's anthem "Since U Been Gone" with Luke and also penned the indelible boy-band smash "I Want It That Way," and Benny Blanco, who assisted on "Tik Tok."
Perry proudly noted that the track was written from a "girl's perspective," which, she implied, most songs about ladies from the Golden State have lacked. (The song is credited to five writers, two of whom are women.) Lyrically, "Gurls" certainly comes from the point of view of a certain type of young woman—she's perpetually raring to go, dressed in a bikini top and a pair of ass-hugging shorts so as to maximize the display of her "sun-kissed skin [that will] melt your popsicle." In many ways, this is not too much of a shift from the previous, male-fashioned ideal of the "California girl," i.e., a young lady who has situated herself among "the cutest girls in the world" (Beach Boys, 1965) and who likes to "shake it, shake it baby" (Dr. Dre/2Pac, 1995).
There are some updates for the modern age. Perry sings of enjoying sex on the beach while wearing stiletto heels, although one wonders how that choice of shoe would affect one's ability to get from point A to point B on any expanse of sand. There's also talk about sipping on gin and juice, an homage to Snoop's 1994 hit that confuses the matter of whether she's talking about actual coitus or just oceanside drinking in the previously referenced lyric. (One hint: Sex on the Beach, the drink, is traditionally made with vodka.) On the artwork associated with the digital single, Perry is splayed out underneath a beach umbrella that's been laid out to protect her pale, Proactiv-assisted complexion; as the chorus promises, she's in a bikini top that looks like a complex amalgam of fabric paint and uncomfortable molding, and her hair's dyed Marge Simpson blue, with Bettie Page-styled bangs.
There's also a cameo by Snoop Dogg, the Dr. Dre protégé-turned-elder statesman of pop-rap who's been on the West Coast side of coastal music rivalries before. (At the Source Awards in 1995, he famously exclaimed "The East Coast ain't got no love for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and Death Row?"; the New York City audience greeted him with boos before and after that statement.) His is the first voice we hear as the 8-bit beats tentatively kick in, and his verse on the bridge seems to mirror the "girl's perspective" laid out by Perry:
Toned, tan, fit and ready Turn it up cause its gettin' heavy Wild wild west coast These are the girls I love the most I mean the ones, I mean like she's the one Kiss her, touch her, squeeze her... Come on boys, hanging out All that ass hanging out Bikinis, tankinis, martinis, no weenies Just to get in betweeny
The fizziness of the song is squarely opposed to the Alicia Keys-supplied gravity of its East Coast rival, staking a claim in favor of the frothy just in time for summer vacation to kick in. If you put aside Perry's bright blue mop and the song's nods to hip-hop, Perry's view of her fellow Golden State girls is absolutely in line with the ways that visually pleasing women from California have been appreciated since the Brian Wilson era—there's a partying-for-its-own-sake innocence throughout the song, with little concern for the paparazzi (both pro and amateur) that litter so many of Los Angeles' side streets and gatherings. Instead, the target audience is the roving eyes of California guys—and women, who just might be inspired to sing, and shimmy, along with the song.
Maura Johnston is the American Idol columnist for Fancast.com and the pop critic for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. She has written for the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Paste, and Gawker. Follow her on Twitter.