While New York City is certainly the most storied town in American lore, no state in the union has captured the American imagination like California. Popular music, in particular, has fixated on the Sunshine State, using it as a stand-in for everything from utopia (the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'”) to purgatory (the Eagles’ “Hotel California”) over the years. The Beach Boys served as the state’s unofficial spokespeople for decades, and in 2010, Katy Perry took over the cheerleading baton.
Now Miley Cyrus enters the foray in full force. After tentatively stepping off the plane at LAX as a teenager, Cyrus is 24 and in full California flag-waving mode on new single “Malibu.” And while there’s a long history of pop stars singing the state’s praises, “Malibu” is far from familiar territory in the California pop canon.
Generally speaking, most California-fetishizing artists hail from the state: The Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, Katy Perry, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, etc. (sure, 2Pac was born in New York City, but he moved to Cali as a teen and spent his adult life there). Other artists who have specifically honed-in on Malibu — Anderson .Paak, Hole — also hail from the Golden State.
Miley Cyrus, as she pointed out while speaking to Billboard for a recent cover story, is Tennessee-born and still primarily identifies as a Southern gal. So when she sings about “Malibu” as a Shangri-La for her and fiancé Liam Hemsworth, it’s a different type of utopia than Brian Wilson, Katy Perry or John & Michelle Phillips paint. For them, California is heaven, and the state’s utopian qualities are presented as self-evident truths. Why are California gurls/girls “unforgettable” and “the cutest in the world”? In the world views of Perry and Wilson, they just are – and if you’re questioning it, you probably just don’t get it.
In Miley’s “Malibu,” however, California is a hard-won Eden. And from her lyrics and her slightly weary delivery, you can tell it’s an unexpected reprieve from the world’s troubles at that. “I never would’ve believed you / If three years ago you told me /I’d be here writing this song,” she sings. “And I wanna thank you with all of my heart / It’s a brand new start / a dream come true / In Malibu.” It might not have the unabashed glee of so many pop songs about the state, but when Miley sings about being next to you while the sky is blue in Malibu, the ache in her voice helps the song transcend the simplistic rhyme scheme and cuts into your soul a little bit. The way Miley delivers her words on “Malibu,” it’s clear she doesn’t take the blue skies and shimmering sunsets for granted — she understands it’s a unique paradise, and a fragile one at that.
With its ever-so-slightly exhausted view of California’s beachy, clear-skied perfection, Miley’s “Malibu” is a bit reminiscent of Lesley Gore’s “California Nights,” another moody pop hit about finding reprieve and romance on the Cali shores. And like Miley, Lesley was also an outsider looking in — a Brooklyn-born pop star for who California was as theoretical and metaphorical as it was physical (equally important: “California Nights” was written by New York-born EGOT winner Marvin Hamlisch).
Like that No. 16 Billboard Hot 100 hit from 1967, “Malibu” sees CA in a way only an outsider can — as a place of romance, rest and even redemption. But unlike so many California pop songs from Californians, America’s man-made desert paradise isn’t taken for granted by Miley — she knows it’s not the real world and that it won’t necessarily last. There’s some distance between her vision of Malibu and what she sees as ‘the real world.’ And that’s what makes “Malibu” a more interesting, nuanced listen than it might seem after one spin.