Mr. Bungle’s California: A postmodern remark on an idealised society

by Michael Pearson

“To be sure, this is Western music, chockfull of backbeats, strings, and vocal harmonies. But like the original 49ers, the listener is headed into a desert land of draught and famine – The dark side of the California dream”[1]


In essence, I will propose that California is a comment on the cynical and vain nature of technological progress; the cyclical trends of culture industry; and a deluded American dream; with this view directly referencing and influenced by the band’s home state, and name of the album, California. 

In its compositions and production, this album is a clear remark on postmodernism.  In the light of Jonathan Krammer’s ‘characteristics of postmodern music’[2], the music: is in some way ironic; does not respect boundaries between sonorities and procedures of the past and of the present; includes references to music of many traditions and cultures; considers technology as deeply implicated in the production and essence of music; encompasses pluralism and eclecticism; and presents multiple meanings and multiple temporalities.  I will even go as far to say that Mr. Bungle have achieved these characteristics with a certain comic irony.  Though at its heart, the album presents a bleak outlook on the problems and suffering we face in such a technologically and monetary driven world.  Mr. Bungle expose the ugly truth beneath the aesthetic facade of California: a world of standardisation, disillusionment and depression.

In terms of production, California includes various traditional and contemporary techniques.  The whole album was recording onto analogue tape, utilising over fifty tracks on several multitrack recorders.[3]  This method of production can in itself be seen as a statement on postmodern society.  Recording an album quite so complex in arrangements onto tape (considering this was the turn of the 21st Century; a point at which digital software was booming and America was looking towards a cheaper and faster future) was by no means the obvious option.

“Across the spectrum of 1990s pop music there were digital machines constructing and deconstructing the sounds… Many musicians feared being replaced by synthesisers and samplers and predicted the end of creativity.  At the same the great majority of all commercial pop music was recorded by computer software.” [4]

Incorporated into the complex layers of multitracks are a large number of samples and – contrary to the method of sampling on many modern records – each is originally recorded by the musicians involved in the band.  This means of production could be seen as a reaction to the bricolage art forms of the postmodern era in which context is arbitrary and samples are quite literally cut and pasted with almost no thought or skill necessary.  “We must also recognize that post- modernist theory, poststructuralism and deconstruction have strongly challenged notions of organic unity and the composer’s expressive presence within his or her music.”[5]

Each of the many genres covered throughout the album is imitated with a high level of musicianship and authentic sense of composition, though I will argue that the desired effect is ironic, as opposed to nostalgic.  This use of irony is the fundamental theme of the album, applicable to even its title.  Unlike the modernist culture that once celebrated California, Mr. Bungle have observed The Golden State from a harsh postmodern perspective.

“The California Dream is a love affair with an idea, a marriage to a myth”[6]

The California Dream[7] is a term that describes the aspiration for prosperity, deriving from the success of the 1849 Gold Rush.  This wealth objective attracted generations of immigrants from overseas as well as migrants from across America, predominantly Oklahoma and Arkansas, whom were driven out of the Dust Bowl.  Many migrants did not find the redemption they sought, as Walter Stein noted, “the Okies found their California dream transformed into a nightmare”.[8]  Despite this dreadful shortcoming for millions of people, California has been continually idealised to this day.  Though the dream has since been manifested in the form of superficial vanities and material goods by mass media.

|People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair colour (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce marked improvements in their happiness. Some of these changes may work for some people (there is evidence that the benefits of some types of cosmetic surgery are long lasting), but there are probably many more cases in which the messages merely induce and exploit a focusing illusion.”[9]

With the opening song on the album, ‘Sweet Charity’, the listener is greeted by the sounds of seagulls and the sea, accompanied by a warm and comforting arrangement of Hawaiian pedal steel, exotic percussion and a melodic whistling.  This paints the listener an image akin to the album cover; a young couple frolicking by a palm tree in a silhouette of the setting Sun.  Though the dream is short lived, as the music changes into a minor key for the first verse presenting the first implication of irony.  The song moves subtly between varying appeasing styles, namely pop and lounge, so as to offer a sense of wellbeing even in its darker moments.

Vocalist and lyricist, Mike Patton, is modest with his choice of delivery in comparison with his often-diverse use of styles.  As opposed his usual avant-garde approach to melody and phrasing, Patton’s vocal is more akin to a pop top-line.  As with the lyric, the desired effect seems to be ironic; the listener is being crooned to, whilst simultaneously being mocked.

Save me
The heavens have opened

The storm is over
So let’s start the parade…
Will turn to laughter
Forever after

Patton seems to be drawing a comparison between the ‘sweet charity’ promised in death by God and in happiness by California.  Both God and American society have been idealised by modern man and media as perfected forms of redemption, with a “Technicolor heartbeat” and “sunset eyes”.  The lyrics suggest a focusing illusion on these ideals that are based on exploiting nostalgia:

Perfect photographs
Of Everest days
And postcard nights
Tearing through the paper walls of time

“It is precisely the electronic and mechanical reproduction of images of the past that plays such an important role in the structuring of the nostalgic imagination today, furnishing with the possibility of ‘compelling vitality’.”[10]

The second song on the album, ‘None Of Them Knew They Were Robots’, contains the album’s most involved lyrics.  Cultural references, in particular to science and religion, are abundant in practically every line.  On first hearing, it would be excusable for the listener to struggle to interpret a rational message or meaning, but rather a who’s who of historical figures and apocalyptic mythologies.  However at the heart of this song lays a surprisingly coherent narrative.

Automatons gather all the pieces
So the world may be increased
In simulation jubilation
For the deceased.

Lyricist, Trey Spruance, is writing of an apocalyptic scenario in which self-replicating nanorobots, “Mendel’s machines” (a reference to the ‘father of modern genetics’, Gregor Mendel), are feeding off the bodies of the deceased “burnt offerings”.  The narrator is aware of this oncoming apocalypse, “I feel the gray goo boiling my blood”.  This line is a direct reference to an idea proposed by California-born engineer K. Eric Drexler, in his 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.

 “Memetic evolution will bring life-like machines based on nanocomputers and assemblers… Assembler-based replicators will therefore be able to do all that life can, and more… Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the ‘gray goo problem.'”[11]

In this imagined world, reality has been twice removed by simulation.  Not only have humans created automatons – imitation of life by mechanical means – but also they are capable of reproducing themselves.  This discussion of simulated life is an idea that lends itself heavily towards the cultural theories of Jean Baudrillard.

“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself – such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance.”[12]

The theme of simulated life, or simulacra, works literally and metaphorically to analogise with the hyperreality of California.  Even the use of instrumentation and genre suggest a sense of hyperreality.  The majority of the song takes the form of high tempo rockabilly coupled with Big Band arrangements and accompanied by sound effects better suited to an 80s American cop show.

Spruance goes on to reference a foretold event in Nordic mythology, Ragnarök – ‘the final destiny of the gods’[13] – signified “as the Fenris wolf slowly bites through his chain”.  According to mythology, this results in an apocalypse in which the world is submerged by water, before resurfacing anew.  This sense of an imminent end becomes a reoccurring theme throughout the album.

Continuing with theme of religion and mythology, the narrator considers himself worthy of religious sacrifice, “try to save the world by immolating myself”.  This delusion of being Christ is possibly the result of a world in which mankind have become Gods by rendering recombinant life.  Even in a world doomed by an apocalypse, mass media and technology are still offered as distractions from reality.

Wrinkles smoothed by nanoclaws…

Content-shifting shopping malls…

Phased array diffraction nets

From full-wall paint-on TV sets

Furthermore, the narrator accuses the media of “lindy hop[ping] around the truth” with headlines, such as “jump back wolf pack attack”, that serve as false oppositions to reality.  Spruance seems to be commenting on his distrust for American media.

The final stanza of the song draws a comparison between the simulation of life and the creation of Religion, ‘so the world may be increased in simulation jubilation for the builders of the body of the beast’.  Though Spruance assures that ‘the beast’ is not solely referring to religion,

“I hope people will at least see that the song doesn’t consider science or religion to be particularly opposed in this regard. Sure, with the Inquisition we all have historical precedent for the severity of ‘religious’ atrocities – but it might make you wonder which cloak the Beast will don to the next be-heading party.”[14]

Lyrically, Spruance is also confronting mankind’s vain attempts to explore and explain life in reductionist terms.  This criticism of reductionism – both scientific and religious – adheres to an idea intrinsic to postmodernism: the end of meta-narratives.

From history

The flood of counterfeits released.

The black cloud,

Reductionism and the beast

In context of “NOTKTWR”, reductionism applies to a number of scientific and religious concepts.  The most direct reference being Omega Point, which is a theory popularised by cosmologist Frank Tipler “that allows for connecting the idea of creation as well as the eschatological hope for the resurrection of the dead with the properties of point Omega as final future of the universe.”[15]  Spruance discusses the remark on this pseudoscience as dealing with “the timeless tendency to overly-literalistic reductionism – how we render the universe to ourselves prematurely, and round out the edges to make it consistent with our beliefs.”[16]

“The loss of a sense of history as a continuous, linear narrative, a clear sequence of events, is indicative of the argument that meta-narratives are in decline in the postmodern world… Postmodernism has been particularly critical of the metanarrative of… any theory which tries to read a pattern of progress into history”.[17]

Most poignantly, Spruance is challenging the two greatest metanarratives of them all; a Universe created by God; and a Universe created by The Big Bang.  “The reference to St. Augustine is not there to bash religion, but to help chart the linear history of where science and religion converge in their satanic pact (in the beginning was a Bang!).”[18]

The Big Bang is questioned further in the song “The Holy Filament”, in which the lyrics “reflect the musings of Trevor Dunn on the controversial theory put forth in the book The Big Bang Never Happened by plasma physicist Eric J. Lerner.”[19]

“At the time I was living in San Francisco where swing dancing was making a comeback, Silicon Valley was exploding, vintage clothes were expensive, and the notion that anything could be bought or sold – a soul, a tragedy, the end of the world – seemed viable.”[20]

“Retrovertigo”, written by bassist Trevor Dunn, is structurally the album’s most simple song.  In contrast to the experimental use of the genre, key and time signatures changes that flow through most of the album, this piece is a mid tempo 4/4 rock ballad in the key of C major.  The song is very melancholic in feel, highlighting the serious undertone to the album.  I have interpreted the lyrics to be, in part, an Adornian critique on the cynical and cyclical nature of the culture industry.

“It is alleged that because millions participate in [the culture industry], certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods… The result is the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger.”[21]

Before you advertise

All the fame is implied

With no fortune unseen.

Dunn is suggesting that the successes of cultural trends are recycled and pre-empted by mass media.

“Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable.”[22]

This lyric is remarking on a postmodern culture in which a recurrence of retro trends inhibits growth.  The song also suggests distress on the narrator’s behalf in coming to terms with a world in which the culture industry exploits retro-fashions for monetary purposes, distracting its consumers whilst much of the human race is living with a daily struggle for survival.

There’s a vintage thirst returning
But I’m sheltered by my channel-surfing
Every famine virtual

Cheap imitation
Is it fashion or disease?

Remains a mouth to feed

 Dunn presents a metaphor that draws a comparison between disease and fads in a strikingly similar manner to Theodor Adorno: “fashions which appear like epidemics”[23].  And while the world is full of millions dying from starvation, vast amounts of money are spent on spoon-feeding a society with recycled nostalgia.  This juxtaposition of illusion and reality lends itself back to the disillusionment of the California Dream.

I would argue it reasonable to suggest that the narrator’s view is influenced by Dunn’s personal experience with such a culture.  I do not come to this conclusion based purely on the fact that Dunn wrote the lyrics, but from a series on statements he released on his website answering fans’ questions.

“I have no doubt that Bungle pioneered some ideas that were only acknowledged by other musicians who subsequently got rich and famous. One reason Bungle never got rich and famous has to do with marketing and promotion neither of which we had any help with or were willing to dish out wads of our own cash for.   Trying to figure out the fickle nature of the makings of success is a waste of time.”[24]

“You can check-out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”[25]

The fourth track on the album, ‘The Air-Conditioned Nightmare”, is a comment on alienation caused in part by urbanisation and social confinement.  This is expressed from the viewpoint of a manic-depressive narrator who I have interpreted to be subject to psychiatric rehabilitation.

Inside of me today
There is no one
Only asteroids and empty space

A waste

The narrator draws a parallel between different means of social control, suggesting confinement to a social structure such as rehab – and the use of prescription drugs – has the same ‘brain-rotting’ effect as the exposure to mass-produced popular culture.

Get me out of this air-conditioned nightmare

Rots your brain just like a catchy tune

Ironically, the majority of the music takes the form of a Beach Boys-style surf rock song, packed with major chords and catchy vocal harmonies.

The track shares the same title to a collection of written works by Henry Miller, and is almost certainly a direct reference.  Aside from the name, one can make connections between the two pieces based on the theme of alienation from American society.  Henry Miller was famously an expatriate, who left New York for Paris in 1930.

“The most difficult adjustment an expatriate has to make, on returning to his native land, is in this realm of conversation. The impression one has, at first, is that there is no conversation. We do not talk—we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines, and digests.”[26]

In more literal terms, the song seems to be expressing the anguish of the narrator in his search for redemption in suicide as a form of escapism.

Walking on air
Up from the wheelchair
I’ll find the suicide
That I deserve

“Now that the bandages are gone” – i.e. post-rehab – the narrator is envisioning the natural world:

Walking on sand
Forgotten where I am
But it’s so comfortable
Here in the sun…
I only see rainbows

However, this is the view ‘through my window’, suggesting he is still confined to the institution and that this natural world is a delusion.  Associating the Sun, sand and rainbows with delusion is another reference to the misguided California dream.  I would deduce further that Patton is criticising a world in which one is considered insane in becoming alienated by a society dominated by urbanisation.

Stylistically, the track “Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy”, epitomises postmodernity in music.  The song covers a range of styles and contains a large number of samples, as well as synthesised instrumentation and electronically manipulated vocals – to the extent of lyrics becoming incomprehensible.  “Golem II” is the postmodern re-telling of a Jewish folklore that depicts a nonhuman being created from imamate matter: “a Muppet Movie style treatment of the subject of Artificial Intelligence and the ‘old’ Golem’s counterpart in the modern world – a growing mythic reality coming ever closer to the surface.”[27]  In a similar fashion to “NOTKTWR”, the song is addressing the potential dangers of technology that simulates intelligence.  In this case, the technology is being used by the military and therefore Golem has been created for means of control.  The simple and repetitive tetrameter phrasing mimics the robotic nature of the song.

Our instructions
His induction
Big production

The album’s penultimate song, “Vanity Fair”, addresses a society succumbed to the superficiality of cosmetic surgery.  The song’s title could be a reference to the 1846 novel by William Thackeray, a satire on 19th Century English middle and upper class society.  “The reality Vanity Fair reveals is the ugliness in a capitalist society. Thackeray said describing the reality must expose much unpleasant facts”.[28]  Patton reveals the ‘ugliness’ of plastic surgery in the first line:

You’re not human

You’re a miracle

A preacher with an animal’s face

‘Animal’s face’ is a reference to collagen, a group of proteins found in animal tissue that is widely used in Botox and plastic surgery.  However, the ugliness of the lyrically matter is juxtaposed by what is perhaps the most appeaseable musical matter there is: Doo-Wop.  This displays the album’s essence of irony over nostalgia.

Patton paradoxically compares the culture of plastic surgery to that of the Skoptsi – a sect in imperial Russia – whom were known for practising castration and mastectomy as part of their religious views on sexuality and sexual lust.

Bless the eunuch

And the Skoptsi

Will you hurt me now and make a million?

‘Goodbye Blue Monday!’[29]

The final song on the album, “Goodbye Sober Day”, is suggestive of an event of personal discovery on behalf of the narrator.  The experience seems to be a moment of enlightenment, perhaps the final phase of transcendence out of an idealised world.  In this case sobriety is used as a metaphor for innocence.

Mend my shipwrecked spirit
Lift the veil from my eyes

The song could simultaneously be interpreted as a moment of final judgement preceding the aforementioned apocalypse.  This would be a fitting end to an album obsessed with the wrongs of society.  Following the third chorus, the music is consumed by a chant, mimicking an Islamic call to prayer.  The lyrics suggest an end is imminent:

May your sun be blown out like a candle
May your sea burn like tar
May your sky be rolled up like a scroll
May your blue moon drip with blood

Spontaneously, yet seamlessly, the song moves into a highly rhythmic and energetic Balinese chant known as ‘kecak’ or ‘ketjak’.  This form of music has its roots in sanghyang, a “sacred dance ritual held in seeking safety from natural disasters or outbreaks of disease”[30].  Despite its apparent authenticity, modern kecak singers perform predominantly for Western tourists.  I would argue that Mr. Bungle’s use of this form of music is intentionally illustrating the irony of postmodernism, as Trey Spruance explains: “[Kecak] is a newly constructed operatic drama based on the Ramayana. It’s a pretty touristy affair. It was conceived by a German – how exotic! But amazingly enough, it’s incredible.”  The musical bed beneath this chant is a heavy metal riff, possibly the album’s most bold display of juxtaposed genres.

The song is resolved by a chaotic noise of distressed screams, explosive sounds effects and the ringing of a gong; marking the arrival of the foreseen apocalypse; a fitting way to end an album with “an end-of-the-world mentality that extends through the whole of American popular music”.[31]

California’s cultural significance is apparent in its use of social commentary that criticises a society that has been continually celebrated and idealised for centuries.  With influences from a wide range of musical styles and references to a scope of cultural, scientific and religious theories, this album epitomises a postmodern music that is laden with irony, which most poignantly expresses the paradox that is The California Dream.

“…Like Hollywood, the underbelly is glossed over with major chords, sparkling glockenspiels, exotic percussion, fuzz guitars, tears of joy, and plastic smiles.  And it’s all in Technicolor, breath-taking Cinemascope, and stereophonic sound! Music to be listened to under the warmth of the cancer-inducing sun. It’s danceable, it’s singable. Grab an umbrella and join the slaughter!” [32]

[1] Mr Bungle (1999) Media Information [California Press Release]

[2] Kramer, J. “The nature and origins of musical postmodernism”, In Lochhead. J & Auner, J. (2002) Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, Routledge

[3] “Mike Patton: A Singer With Energy”, Associated Press (CNN)

[4] Millard, A. (2005) America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, p.386

[5] Sim, S (2001) Postmodern and music (Scott, D.) In The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Routledge

[6] Jurmain, C. (1986) California: a place, a people, a dream, Chronicle Books Llc, p.141

[7] Starr, K. (1973) Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915, Oxford University Press

[8] Stein, W. (1974) California and the Dust Bowl Migration, Greenwood Press, p.26

[9] Does Living In California Make People Happy? A Focusing Illusion in Judgments of Life Satisfaction. American Psychological Society, Vol. 9, No. 5, September 1998.

[10] Hutcheon, L. (1998) Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern, University of Toronto, English Language Main Collection.

[11] Drexler, E. (1986) Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, p.146

[12] Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, p.2

[13] Andren, A. (2006) Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspective, Nordic Academic Press, p.186

[15] Pannenberg, W. (1997) Modern Cosmology: God and the Resurrection of the Dead. Presented at Innsbruck Conference on Frank Tipler’s book The Physics of Immortality.

[17] Strinati, D. (2004) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, 2nd Edition, Routledge, p. 215

[19] Ibid.

[21] Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M. (1944) The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[25] The Eagles, “Hotel California”. Hotel California, 1978, Asylum

[26] Miller, H. (1945) The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, New Directions, p.109

[28] (1995) The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, p.93

[29] Vonnegut, K. (1973) Breakfast of Champions. Delacorte Press

[31] Janssen, D. (2009) Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music, Counterpoint LLC [outside back cover]

[32] Mr Bungle (1999) Media Information [California Press Release]