Pac, Perry, and Jacques: California (Love/Gurls) and a bit of Ranciere

Apart from their titular references to California, Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s “California Gurls” and Dre and TuPac’s “California Love” might appear to have little at all in common. However, the compositional genius of the Perry/Snoop track is that it reworks the talk-boxed “Cal-i-for-nia” from the fifteen-year-old Dre and Pac track. The talk-boxed vocal lick can be heard at the beginning of (and throughout) “Love”, and is most audible around 3:37 in the below-linked video to “Gurls”:

Dre and Pac, “California Love”

Perry and Snoop, “California Gurls”

Now, while I think this is a particularly brilliant musical move on the part of “Gurls’” songwriters, and Snoop’s cupcake suit and army of gummi bears is some Funkadelic-level weirdness, the video’s racial politics leaves me a bit uncomfortable. Anyone else notice how Perry rescues a rainbow-coalition of WOC from various candy prisons? And how at the end of the video the white woman uses her sexuality to vanquish the Big Black Man and his army of minions (which, for my taste, too closely parallels the lynching tactics whereby white female sexuality was used to construct and control black men as a threat)?

On a more nerdy-philosophy level, there is a way that the “Cal-i-for-nia” lick works as what Jacques Rancière calls the “collage”. For Rancière, “collage” is no mere PoMo bricolage of interchangeable intertextual elements. Rather, it performs the work of “equality”: by demonstrating the connections among phenomena that are assumed to have nothing in common, collage (like the “part sans part” or the “demos”) challenges the assumptions upon which hegemonic notions of art, genre, social identity, etc. (what Rancière would call “the police order”) rest. As Rancière explains,

collage can be realized as the pure encounter between heterogeneous elements, attesting en bloc to the incompatibility of two worlds…The issue here is no longer to present two heterogeneous worlds and to incite feelings of intolerability, but, on the contrary, to bring to light the causal connection linking them together. But the politics of collage has a balancing-point in that it can combine the two relations and play on the line of indiscernibility between the force of sense’s legibility and the force of non-sense’s strangeness” (Rancière Aesthetics and Its Discontents, 47)

The “Cal-i-for-nia” lick links the post-apocalyptic/post-90s-crack-and-Eastcoast/Westcoast-feuding of Compton and Oakland to the sugar-coated Golden Coast of Palm Springs and San Francisco. It links a murdered son of a Black Panther to a former Christian-music-ingénue-turned-Maxim-babe white pop diva. It links 90s G-Funk to postmillennial pop; indeed, above all it shows that 90s G-Funk (and all the “ONOES, GANGSTA RAP!!!!1!!1”hysteria that surrounded it, and continues to wrongly inform contemporary panics about hip hop) is not just contemporary popular music, it’s the preferred soundtrack for both nostalgic thirtysomething Gen Xers and the “Grown & Sexy” crowd. The G-Funk talkbox hook is perfectly suited to this postmillennial girl-pop confection, even though all our assumptions about the binary opposition between Pac’s “realness” (i.e., his supposedly hyper-authentic ghetto black masculinity, and the wrongheaded view that his rapping is somehow more authentically “hip hop” than three dudes from the Bronx rapping about how bad your mom’s cooking is) and Perry’s superficiality and fakeness/alienation push us to conclude otherwise. This hook posits the equality between “California Love” (and all that it stands for) and “California Gurls” (and all that it stands for); it forces us to reconsider the distributions of sensibility (i.e., hegemonies) that posit hierarchical differences between ghettocentric black masculinity and commercialized white femininity, hip hop and pop, politics and pleasure, etc. In a way, what the video for “Gurls” argues is that what white patriarchy should be worried about isn’t Snoop Dogg, it’s Perry herself: stereotypical ghetto-black masculinity nowadays poses nowhere near the threat to the status quo than women (and I’m being generous here in my reading of the video and including the WOC that Perry makes so sure to demonstrate are California Gurls, too) taking charge of their own agency, pleasure, and power.