Trying to figure out living in Los Angeles and songs about Los Angeles
This week we moved to Los Angeles, which really isn’t any of the internet’s business, but this blog is the closest thing I have to a long-running journal.
What is more in line with this blog is that I still can’t fully figure out what’s going on with the song “I Love LA” by Randy Newman. I’ve spent the last 40 years never being fully sure whether it was sardonic or sincere.
Since I’ve been reminded of the song over the past few weeks, I realized just how different 2022 is from 1983. If there’s anything good to come from the bottom dropping out of the music industry and everything going to streaming — apart from the convenience of having almost every song you can imagine immediately accessible from anywhere all the time — is that it’s near-impossible for a song to be inescapable anymore. And “I Love LA” was inescapable in the early 80s. It played every five minutes on the radio, on music video shows and channels, in department stores, in school announcements before the pledge of allegiance, on police scanners, HAM radios, and loudspeaker broadcasts from the correctional dreadnaughts that hovered over every city center.
Disney did provide an eerily accurate recreation in the early 2000s with the first version of California Adventure, which broadcast a constant loop of “I Love LA” and “California Dreamin'” from speakers in every corner of the park. But it’s different hearing a song that’s supposed to be nostalgic in a theme park, versus hearing it played as a Top 40 hit in your doctor’s waiting room. So the next time you hear a musician complaining about how Spotify only pays pennies per thousands of streams, you can nod sympathetically while thinking, “Yeah, but at least now I can go years without hearing ‘What a Feeling’ from ‘Flashdance’.”
Anyway. Back in the early 80s, when the song was truly inescapable, I was convinced that it was sincere and genuine and genuinely cheesy. All the horny shots of bikinis and palm trees and stereotypical LA landmarks were standard operating procedure back then. People made shit like that with no trace of shame or irony.
But then, I started thinking, Newman was kind of a satirist. I say “kind of” because I don’t actually know. “Short People” is the only song of his that I know of before he started writing on behalf of sentient toys, so I don’t know if it could be classified as “satire” or just a goofy novelty song. He exists in some kind of nebulous zone between Roger Miller and Rick Dees.
Either way, the song’s clearly not supposed to be entirely sincere. “Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, he’s down on his knees” qualifies as sardonic for early 80s pop music. But is that it? None of the streets he calls out are all that remarkable or scenic; is that supposed to be part of the joke? When he says “Everybody’s very happy ’cause the sun is shining all the time,” is that supposed to be an indictment? Is “It’s just another perfect day” supposed to be like La La Land‘s use of the same phrase, by which I mean the gentlest of toothless sarcasm? Why do I feel like I can’t unlock the mysteries of this dumb pop song?
Ultimately I suppose that wondering whether an ode to Los Angeles is sincere is missing the point entirely. Sincerity seems to be anathema to this city. For as long as I’ve been alive and watching TV, I’ve seen LA be the butt of jokes from people who would never, ever think of living anywhere else. I suspect that Gary Owens on Laugh-In talking about “beautiful downtown Burbank” was as genuine as Roman Mars on 99% Invisible talking about “beautiful downtown Oakland, California,” but the difference is that Burbank is universally and perpetually understood to be laughably bland, even though much of it is actually pretty nice.
I was trying to think of a song that talked about Los Angeles in an undeniably positive way, and I couldn’t come up with anything. “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow is another song I’ve never been able to read; at first I thought it was an anthem to carefree southern California living, but as they lyrics sunk in, I realized it was kind of a miserable song about deadbeats day-drinking in a nearly empty bar. I guess maybe there always has to be an undercurrent of sarcasm when you’re talking or singing about Los Angeles. If you drain away all the self-awareness, you just end up with something like “Soak Up the Sun.”
I still haven’t fully adjusted to the idea that I no longer live in the Bay Area after living there for over 25 years (which, coincidentally, is half my life). It’s odd to realize that even after so many years, after I started to think of it as “home,” and after making so many friends there, I never really felt like I 100% belonged there. It is an effortlessly gorgeous place, and I’m genuinely looking forward to getting to see it as a tourist instead of a resident again, but I can’t say that it ever felt welcoming. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I almost always got the feeling that the best I could get from people was begrudging acceptance, a feeling of being tolerated. In the few times I’ve been out in Los Angeles so far, I’ve gotten more friendly and welcoming reactions than not. Is it sincere? Probably not, but again, I suspect that that’s missing the point.
It’s still too early for me to tell how I’m going to adjust to living in a city that I hated until a few years ago, when I stopped seeing it as a traffic-clogged obstacle between me and Disneyland, and started seeing more of the things that made people want to live here. Maybe I’ll finally be discovered and enjoy my second career as a media superstar. Maybe I’ll just end up day-drinking in a nearly empty bar on Santa Monica Boulevard (we love it).