Song: ‘California Gurls’
Artist: Katy Perry feat Snoop Dogg
US chart peak: 1
Release date: May 7, 2010
Writers: Katy Perry, Max Martin, Lukasz Gottwald, Benjamin Levin, Bonnie McKee, Calvin Broadus
Producers: Dr Luke, Benny Blanco, Max Martin
Quintessential Max moment: The way the pre-chorus hangs in suspended animation
Video synopsis: A candy floss-induced fever dream featuring swearing gummy bears
If you’re a regular reader of Maxopedia you might be wondering why, out of all the hits Max Martin’s been involved in, there are so many Katy Perry songs left? Surely, you might think, they could have been spaced out better and perhaps some of those Backstreet Boys ones that seemed to appear really early could have been saved until later to break things up a bit? That way you wouldn’t have songs from around the same time all written about one after the other, right? Let me tell you dear reader, you are totally spot on. I got a bit ahead of myself. I can only apologise. It’s not ideal if you’re not a fan of Katy Perry, I understand that, but also these songs are all amazing so at the same time, ‘shhhhhh’.
Now then. ‘California Gurls’. Can we just start with that title? I always assumed it was either a) a way of differentiating the song from the Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’, or at least showing that it was some sort of modern update, or b) just an annoying modern affectation and something you’d imagine Katy saying to her Valley girls in an Escalade. BUT it was actually quite a sweet tribute to The Big Star’s Alex Chilton who had recently passed away (the band had a song called ‘September Gurls’ you see). Here’s Katy chatting about it all to Entertainment Weekly: “My manager, Bradford, he’s from Mississippi, and he’s a huge Big Star fan. And with the death of one of their members, I had just written that song, and he’s like, ‘Katy, just for me, will you please title it ‘California Gurls,’ with a ‘u’? People won’t even know!’ I don’t know the whole catalog of Big Star, but I did it because Bradford is one of my best friends, and I thought it was cool, and you know, the kids like those variations.”
The kids really did. The song went to Number One for six weeks in America, ‘shifting’ 5.7m downloads along the way. It also helped cement Perry as a proper global popstar contender after the alright-but-not-amazing-let’s-be-honest-here success of ‘One Of The Boys’. As with most singles that turn out to be defining and really quite popular there’s a story about how it almost didn’t make the album. In the case of ‘California Gurls’ that’s because it didn’t exist until the last minute.
As you well know, ‘California Gurls’ was written as a sort of response song to Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind’. “It’s so great that ‘Empire State of Mind’ is huge and that everybody has the New York song, but what the fuck?” she mused to Rolling Stone. “What about LA? What about California? And it’s been a minute since we’ve had a California song and especially from a girl’s perspective. We took the references of Prince, which is always a great reference, and we took a lot of the ’90s…almost that house music, some of those references.” But as I said, the song was a fairly last minute thing, Perry sensing that ‘Teenage Dream’ was missing one more single (which is saying a lot considering that album is basically all singles). Here’s what her A&R, Chris Anokute, said about it all at the time (via Hit Quarters): “I remember the first time she spoke about this idea like it was yesterday! At 3am, on the way back from an Oscar after-party [CLANG], Katy texts me saying, “Chris, I don’t think my record is done – there is one more song I want to write, I feel it in my gut! I want to write a song about California girls.” At the time the Jay-Z song ‘Empire State of Mind’ was huge and everyone in LA is singing, “New York …” and she wanted to have a song for California. She had the whole vision.”
Basically, he then went and heard the demo and was quite the fan. The idea of adding a rapper was floating around at that point (Katy picked Snoop after reading his Wikipedia page – amazing), so Anokute approached Snoop’s people who seemed fairly interested. “Then I’m having dinner with my girlfriend and Ted [Snoop’s manager] calls me and says, “Snoop is in town, if you’re at the studio we’ll come now …” So I say to my girlfriend, “Babe, let me pay for dinner, Snoop is coming to the studio I gotta go …” I get to the studio in a dash and Snoop beats me there. I see Katy Perry, Dr Luke and Max Martin’s faces, and we look at each other like, “Oh my god!””
Apparently Snoop then listened to the song once, “rolled up some magic” (amazing) and half an hour later the song was finished. And it’s quite the song, isn’t it. Once again, it’s the sort of song that will annoy people who found Katy Perry’s shtick at that time a little grating. All that popsicle melting, Daisy Duke-referencing, sexing on the beach etc, is as self-consciously sweet and sugary as the artwork. Also the line “fine, fresh, fierce, we got it on lock” is almost bad enough to make you want to never leave the house let alone venture to California. BUT, it’s also just really great. The glorious sunburst of a chorus is a two-part thing of wonder, as unrelenting as Perry’s work ethos, while the production is full of delicious little touches. For one that synth riff is so perfect I want to marry it (when it flattens out during the pre-chorus *heart emoji*), while that elastic guitar riff adds some Chic-ness to it all. Obviously the vocoder backing vocals towards the end are amazing too. Altogether now, “California, California girls”.
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In case this has gone under your radar, a clip of the Snoop studio drop-in is on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX9ygy-V-8w