I took an interesting class a few semesters ago that was devoted to the idea of cultural geography. This differed from a typical geography class in that the focus was on people that make up a region, rather than the physical land formations. We spent weeks reflecting on possible definitions for “place” and “landscape” and how important they are for people.

The class was different than my norm, with a philosophical standpoint as opposed to a physical one, but it was nice to have a new perspective on something that felt so worn.

Several articles we read for the course came from various countries, and the author’s tone and focus would represent the external worldview of the region from which they wrote (As an example, pick up some work by Charles Dickens. The words he uses and the patterns in his stories are deep in their description of the archetypal “British” landscape).

During an interesting discussion among our class, there was a blankness that came to our discussion of California and the Los Angeles region in general. Many of the students in the class had come from other states or even other countries, but no one had a specific story that seperated the identity of California apart from everywhere else. I found this very interesting.

At one point in the semester, I stumbled on a song that stuck with me, and I believe this song describes the identity that we were looking for. I wrote an email to my professor explaining my case, and here is a copy of it:

Professor Davidson,

This letter is in regards to a subject we went over a few weeks ago in your Geog. 301 class, about Los Angeles its lack of landscape. Recently, I’ve been listening to a song called “California” by Semisonic, and I believe that it adequetly describes that landscape described.

Here’s a link to the song: California
This song has a very mellow rythm to it, something that can be enjoyed in all of the finer Los Angeles pastimes, such as sitting in traffic in the morning, or driving up the coast in the sunset, or sitting at a backyard barbeque with some friends. It’s easy listening that is enjoyable without a deep rootedness in any culture.

The lyrics themselves are bittersweet, detailing what I believe to be the band’s experience of moving out to California to become famous, only to be swept in a sea upon arrival. It describes the driving experience throughout Southern California’s landscape (“Driven through the canyons/ I was dazzled by the mountains and we didn’t go very far”), and the global view of fame and stardom in Los Angeles (“Close enough to Heaven/ If you climb upon a mansion you too can swing like a star”)

Once the band reached California, instead of being greated with a red carpet they met a struggle to become a part of the city (“I tried to get inside I bought a ticket with my pride/ And I was gone right out of my head”). Feeling lost, they took off into the city, and came to realize that it was, in an abstract sense, their personal refuge (“I went out for a ride to go across a great divide/ And I ended up at home instead”).

From here, the experience drew back from the initial excitement to a form of survival by the band keeping their head down and just getting by (“A visitor, a stranger, thought I might pass/ For a regular if I just kept out of the lights”). In order to keep a sense of self, the songwriter put his experiences and feelings into the art that he had been familiar with all his life, much like the majority of the artistic population of the area (“I tore my heart out from my chest/ Mixed it up in my mind with the best freshest pieces of my soul”).

All the while, the chorus echos (“California/ I thought I should see/ Now I’m back home yeah/ With twelve little pieces of me/ California/ I dreamed I would find/ Some kinda sorta pick-me-up/ I got twelve little pieces of my mind”). California is sung with a reverence to the idea of a laid back atmosphere where dreams are possible, similar to [Kevin] Starr’s consistent naming scheme involving “dreams” for his papers on California. Also in the chorus, the writer reflects on the thoughts and dreams of coming to Los Angeles, hinting that things aren’t as he expected. I believe, however, that there is also hope in his voice about the making of Los Angeles into a home, as mentioned prior in the song, in a more abstract way than the author ever thought possible. As a side note, I believe that the “twelve little pieces of my mind” refers to the 12 songs on the band’s first album, which brought them the confidence necessary to make such a lifetime trip.

Overall, the difference between driving to California and living here is vast, and very scary for most people when things don’t turn up the way they expect in the first place. However, California, especially the Southern region, is filled with people in a similar situation, all at different stages of the process of home building. While each of us takes a different path to making a home out of the chaos, the unification is in the struggle and the joy of one day making it.

Let me know what you think by email me at I enjoyed writing this piece, and I wanted to share it on my blog to promote your thinking on the identity of where you come from, and to look for clues in the writing you come across.

~ by MichaelStaudenmeir on February 24, 2011.

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