In The Ones of the ‘10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Katy Perry- “California Gurls” (feat. Snoop Dogg)
HIT #1: June 19, 2010
STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks
If there’s one thing pop music is good at is romanticizing places. Creating idyllic, unrealistic, and appealing images of locations throughout America and the world that make them sound like the greatest place on Earth. It’s especially true about California which in pop music has always been presented as an endless summer paradise. It all goes back to the ‘60s and the surf rock craze with acts like the Beach Boys singing and creating images of California as a place of surfing, the beach, hot cars, and beautiful women. Later during the psychedelic era, California came to represent a magical place where young people can go and be free.
Those depictions have remained in the years since which is how we wind up with “California Gurls,” a catchy summer anthem with its video showing California as a Candy Land fantasy where you can be naked on a cotton candy cloud and shoot whipped cream out of your bra. I mean that’s a pretty fun world to live in.
Katy Perry is a real-life California “gurl.” Born Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson in Santa Barbara, she was raised in a heavily religious household by ex-hippies (her mom once dated Jimi Hendrix which is awesome to think about) turned born again Pentecostal Christians. Her parents were very strict in their Christian beliefs forbidding any secular pop music, TV, and movies. The cereal Lucky Charms was banned because the word lucky reminded them of Lucifer and referred to deviled eggs as “angel” eggs.
As Perry herself put it, everything she did as a child was related to the church. It was in the church where she began her music career, singing at church services and other Christian related gatherings and events. Her church even gave Katy her first guitar for her 13th birthday. In high school, Perry decided to make it big as a Christian artist where a local producer invited her to record demos. The demos caught the attention of Red Hill Records, a Christian music label based in Nashville, and its A&R head Dan Michaels. Michaels invited Perry out to Nashville to work with fellow songwriters and to work on an album believing she could be the next Amy Grant, the Christian artist who could cross over to the secular pop world.
Perry’s debut album Katy Hudson was released in 2001 to little impact selling only 200 copies. Making matters worse, Red Hill Records went bankrupt right after meaning it wasn’t able to distribute the album so it quickly got lost in the shuffle. Back with her parents in Santa Barbara, Perry began contemplating a career in the secular pop market as she had been getting more exposed to secular music from her friends in public high school. She eventually got in contact with Glen Ballard, the songwriter and producer behind hits for Michael Jackson, Wilson Phillips, and Alanis Morissette, after seeing him discuss the making of Jagged Little Pill on a VH1 special. After auditioning for Ballard, he got her a record deal with Def Jam Records. By this point, she changed her name to Katy Perry to avoid being confused for the actress Kate Hudson with Katy coming from her mom’s maiden name.
The deal didn’t last. Def Jam dropped Perry in 2004. A year later she signed with Columbia where she joined a new band project involving The Matrix, the songwriting and production trio behind hits for Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. They made an album and even made a video for the first single before Columbia scrapped it. Perry tried to make a solo album for Columbia but that also failed as the label dropped her in 2006.
Perry was already in her twenties and couldn’t keep a record deal all while she was living in Los Angeles broke. But she would finally get her big break when a publicist executive at Columbia sent her demos to Jason Flom, the then chairman of Virgin Records who was leading its merger with Capitol Records. Flom signed Perry to Capitol in 2007.
Working on her major-label debut album, One of the Boys, Katy used some of the songs from her Columbia sessions as well as writing new songs with various songwriters. To get her name out, the label released a promotional single, the cringeworthy “Ur So Gay” which didn’t make any sales impact but garnered controversy both from her people in the Christian community and gay rights groups. With Perry getting some attention, she started working with master producers Dr. Luke and Max Martin to help right some hits for the album.
Together, they wrote the album’s first two singles, “I Kissed A Girl,” and “Hot n’ Cold.” Released in April 2008, “I Kissed A Girl” immediately became Katy Perry’s star-making song landing Perry her first Hot 100 #1 while the song generated controversy for its lyrics on bi-curiosity that honestly comes across as queerbaiting (It’s a 4.). “Hot N’ Cold” peaked at #3 later in 2008 (It’s a 6.). The fourth single from One of the Boys, “Waking Up In Vegas,” a song Perry wrote while at Columbia, peaked at #9 in 2009 (It’s a 5.).
By 2010, Katy Perry had already established herself as a hit machine but nothing prepared her for the follow-up, Teenage Dream. The album launched six Top 10 singles, five of those singles hitting #1 tying the record for the most #1 singles off an album set by Michael Jackson’s Bad album in 1987-88. This is the type of album success you would have seen in the ‘80s during the peak era of blockbuster albums. And it all began with a summery beach jam Perry wrote in response to JAY-Z and Alicia Keys’ recent hit ode to New York.
Perry has stated she was inspired to write “California Gurls” after seeing people at a party go crazy over JAY-Z and Alicia Keys’ #1 chart-topper “Empire State of Mind” and wondering why California wasn’t getting the same treatment in song form, “Everybody was holding their drinks in the air and dancing, and I thought, “We’re not in New York, we’re in Los Angeles! What about California? What about all the homies, the gin and juice, the swaying palm trees, the sun-kissed skin 24-7.” I decided that we needed to make a response. I want people to want to book a ticket to California the first time they hear it!” Perry further elaborated that she also wanted to write a California tribute song from a female perspective.
Perry wrote “California Gurls” with the producing team of Max Martin, Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco along with songwriter friend Bonnie McKee, who she met at a clothing store and bonded over their style of songwriting. In a 2019 interview with Songfacts, McKee remembers her and Perry initially writing the line, “It feels like summertime’ and something about melting popsicles” before Perry called the next day coming up with the title and wrote more of the lyrics. McKee also remembered writing the chorus lyric, “cut-off shorts, bikinis on top” before Perry suggested using Daisy Dukes instead of cut-off shorts.
The song had originally been called “California Girls” with the I in girls but later changed the spelling in memory of Alex Chilton, the frontman of the ‘70s rock band Big Star, who died in March 2010 during the song’s making. The U is a reference to Big Star’s “September Gurls.” Perry explained her manager requested the change since he was a big fan of Big Star even though she stated she didn’t know much about Big Star.
Big Star is one of those tragic cases of bands. Formed by Alex Chilton in the wake of the breakup of his old band The Box Tops, which hit #1 with “The Letter” in 1967 (It’s a 7.), they released three albums in the ‘70s through the power-pop style popularized by other rock acts of the time such as Badfinger and The Raspberries. Bad marketing from their label, Stax Records, stifled any chance of popularity the band could get. But as Stereogum’s Tom Breihan pointed out in his review of “The Letter,” Big Star has left a bigger impact after their time than during it. Alternative acts like R.E.M. have pointed to Big Star as an influence and Cheap Trick’s cover of Big Star’s “In The Street” was used as the theme song for FOX’s That ‘70s Show.
While the tribute sounds nice, it’s also one that doesn’t make much sense. For their song about California and summer fun, they model their title to a ‘70s power pop song. They don’t have much to do with each other.
To further its appeal, Perry wanted to get a West Coast rapper on the song. She eventually settled on Snoop Dogg after searching West Coast rappers on Wikipedia. By 2010, Snoop Dogg had already placed himself in hip-hop royalty after defining the West Coast g-funk sound of the ‘90s with his appearance on Dr. Dre’s #2 hit “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” (A 10!) and his subsequent two singles “Gin And Juice” and “Who I Am (What’s My Name)” both peaked at #8 (They’re both 10s!). After spending much of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s in the chart wilderness, Snoop came back hard in 2004 with his first #1 “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (Another 10!). It was around this time that Snoop became a regular for guest features scoring his second #1 in 2006 with his feature on Akon’s “I Wanna Love You” (It’s a 1.). You couldn’t have gotten a better West Coast rap legend to be on your California themed song.
Dogg wrote his parts which include the intro, “Greetings loved ones/Let’s take a journey,” his rap verse which includes referencing the Slap Chop commercial, “Bikinis, zucchinis, martinis/No weenies/Just a king/And a queenie,” and the outro line, “I really wish you all could be California girls.” It was that last line which caused the publishing company for The Beach Boys, Rondor Music, threatening to sue for a songwriting credit to Beach Boys members Mike Love and Brian Wilson as it considered it a lift from their 1965 classic “California Girls,” with the line, “I wish they all could be California girls.”
Perry has stated she wanted to do a homage to The Beach Boys. With “California Gurls,” it’s hard not to see the homage with its similar titles, the similar premise of celebrating California and its girls, and both being made by the top-notch musical people of the day. In the Beach Boys’ case, “California Girls” featured The Wrecking Crew, the legendary group of studio musicians based in Los Angeles who played on so many of the big hits during the ‘60s and ‘70s (The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.).
Rondor Music eventually backed off and Mike Love and Brian Wilson were both positive about Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s homage. Today in the post-“Blurred Lines” landscape of musical copyright lawsuits, Wilson and Love could have very well been given songwriting credit to avoid legal drama such as this.
“California Gurls” does its job. Like with a lot of Dr. Luke and Max Martin productions, “California Gurls” is an example of the pop machine at work with its simple four-chord melody, standard pop song structure, and a chorus catchy enough to stick in your brain immediately. It doesn’t waste your time getting to the chorus.
Katy Perry has never been a spectacular singer but you can definitely hear the enthusiasm she brings in singing about her home state. Perry sings about California where the grass is greener, where you have sex on the beach, and where the girls are hot enough to “melt your popsicle”. She even shouts out Snoop Dogg and sipping on gin and juice in a nod to his song. But it also gets annoying with the constant “Ooh oh ooh ooh oh ooh” she sings throughout as well as the way she sings on the pre-chorus straining to hit her notes along with how she enunciates every syllable. There’s a reason for that.
A big aspect of Max Martin productions is what Martin himself calls melodic math. The basic idea of melodic math is that the lyrics are there to serve the melody. To Martin, lyrics aren’t important when it comes to crafting a song. The melody is what comes first. It often means cramming in a bunch of syllables or words just to fit the melody. Speaking to John Seabrook in The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, Bonnie McKee recalls, “A line has to have a certain number of syllables, and they have to be mirror images of each others—it’s very mathematical. The syllables in the first part of the chorus have to repeat in the second part. Like “Cal-i-forn-ia girls un-for-get-ta-ble/Dai-sy Dukes bi-kinis on top”—if you add a syllable, or take it away, it’s a completely different melody to him.”
Musically, it has the synth sounds of electropop with the thump and groove of disco. For me, I like the disco feel of the guitar that pops up throughout as well as the slap bass and the vocoder effects at the end. Even though Snoop Dogg isn’t exactly at his best here, his cool and laidback demeanor that he’s always been known for is still able to bring a lot of fun personality to the track. It’s no surprise it became a big summer hit. Not one of my favorites but perfectly fine for what it sets out to be.
Snoop Dogg would land two more Top 10 hits after “California Gurls,” 2012’s “Young, Wild & Free” with Bruno Mars and Wiz Khalifa which peaked at #8 (It’s a 9. Wiz Khalifa will eventually appear in this column.) and as a featured artist in 2014 on Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle,” which peaked at #5 (It’s a 2.). Musically, he’s continued releasing albums including a reggae themed album Reincarnated under his reggae alias Snoop Lion. But these days, he’s mainly been focused on his celebrity. He currently hosts the cooking variety show Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party with Martha Stewart and a reboot of the game show The Joker’s Wild.
As for Katy Perry, “California Gurls” was only the start of the hit-making machine that would be Teenage Dream. We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of her in this column soon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2012 episode of Family Guy where Stewie Griffin does a dance routine to “California Gurls:”