I recently flew to San Francisco for a job interview. A friend of mine, who had recently moved to San Francisco herself, was kind enough to pick me up from the airport. As she drove from the airport to my hotel, her phone was plugged in to her car speakers. The volume was so low that I think she didn’t even notice that music from her phone was playing. Whether intentionally or not, the song that played on repeat during the entire trip was “Hotel California” by the Eagles. I didn’t want to complain or distract her from the road, so I just let it play. So during the ride, she discussed her recent move to California, I discussed my potential move to California, and all the while the Eagles whispered faintly about their own move to California several decades ago.
My friend loved her new home, and pointed out its many advantages to me. Among them were the thriving technology industry, the beautiful landscapes, and the many high-quality restaurants. I nodded, agreeing that it sounded like a wonderful place to live. The Eagles, the third party to our conversation, were much less sanguine about the prospect of living in California. I listened to praise in one ear and spooky prophecies in the other, and tried to decide what to think and what to do.
The Eagles’ vision of California is haunting and mysterious. They describe spirits that whisper welcome in the hallways, and an unnamed woman who stands at the door and acts as their hostess. The woman’s “Tiffany-twisted” mind suffering from the “Mercedes bends” seems to be the product of a place warped by empty consumerism. The spirits wake them up in the middle of the night, and they’re not sure whether they’re in heaven or hell.
Above all, the hotel that the Eagles describe is one of spiritual struggle. Tortured spirits dance, sweating, in the courtyard. The hostess admits that they are all prisoners. To me, the most memorable line describes their unconsummated feast: “in the master’s chambers they gather for the feast. They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast.” People go to California, it seems, to partake in a feast of excess, wealth, fame, or something equally desirable. But they remain hungry, unable to defeat the beastly enemy, even with their powerful steely knives. We are left to imagine what this horrible beast could be – St. George’s dragon? Beowulf’s Grendel? the Devil himself? or some inner beast like lust, envy, avarice, or ambition?
One need not be religious to be moved by this poetic description of spiritual struggle. Even a committed atheist can agree that this type of struggle really does exist in some sense, if not one that literally involves spirits. Humans struggle with vices, greed, and excesses that are powerfully attractive but can damage or destroy them. The Eagles saw in California a place where vice and excess were especially powerful temptations. They were uneasy about these temptations even as they were irresistibly drawn to them. The song and its lyrics are not necessarily the greatest artistic achievements of all time, but like so much great art, they are products and expressions of deep and serious human struggles, including the struggles between good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and desire.
These thoughts passed through my mind as the song repeated for the sixth or seventh time in my friend’s car. And then the ride was over and I was at my own San Francisco hotel. There was no creepy hostess there, no voices welcoming me in the hall, and my knife was perfectly sufficient to eat the tiny feast I ordered from room service. The job interview was fine, my trip was pleasant overall, and then I went back home.
It wasn’t until some time later that I thought again about “Hotel California.” The thing that brought it to mind was hearing another enormously popular song (seven times platinum in this case) about moving to California. The song was “Party in the USA,” sung by Miley Cyrus. Both Cyrus and the Eagles express some uneasiness about their first experience in California. Cyrus says she came with a dream, but felt “too much pressure” and “homesick” in the “land of fame, excess.”
Beyond the initial uneasiness of arriving in Los Angeles, there are few similarities between the two songs. Cyrus describes a struggle is primarily physical rather than spiritual: she says that at first “my tummy’s turnin’” but that later “the butterflies fly away.” Rather than a perennial struggle to defeat a symbolic beast, Cyrus’s problems disappear as soon as her favorite songs come on the radio and make her feel at ease.
Feeling at ease is a principal aim for Cyrus. She initially asks herself nervously whether she’s going to fit in. Later in the song, she notices that the women around her are wearing stilettos though she is not, saying that “I guess I never got the memo.” Presumably if she had “gotten the memo,” she would have worn the stilettos to fit in. By contrast, we may ask whether the nervous narrator in the Eagles’ song would have wanted to fit in with the bizarre, tortured spirits around him, or wear what they were wearing. Probably not – he describes near the end of the song his futile attempt to run away from the hotel, back the place he came from. His reaction to the strangeness around him is to recover himself from it, while Cyrus aspires only to immerse herself in it and become a part of it, apparently without a thought as to whether that would be good for her inner self.
The cultural conservative within me has a natural tendency to make these comparisons, and to draw conclusions therefrom about the ongoing decline of culture and the vanishing spiritual life of mankind. Of course, there are several reasons why it seems very silly to make these comparisons between the two songs. The first is that I seem to be taking both songs far too seriously. Both were written for a popular audience and “Party in the USA” in particular doesn’t attempt to be serious in any way, either as a commentary on the human condition or even as an attempt to create something of artistic merit. In addition, I seem to be too hard on Miley Cyrus, who was especially young when her song came out and wasn’t even the main writer or originator of her lyrics. If a young girl goes to Los Angeles nervously, then feels happy when she hears her favorite songs on the radio, then all the better for her and this experience does not reflect poorly on her. Finally, it may seem that I’m fixated on California as a destination or as a unique hotbed of wickedness.
To deal with these objections briefly, I will say that I am using the particular as a road to the universal. California, even by the admission of the writers of “Hotel California,” is meant in the song to stand for something else, either America as a whole or experience after innocence, or hedonism, or some other abstract thing. I am neither a devotee of the Eagles nor a critic of Ms. Cyrus. These artists, their songs, and their subjects, to me are only particular paths to understanding more about being human.
The (probably silly) comparison of these songs, I think, highlights a few truths more serious than either song. The first is the failure of reductionist accounts of human life and experience. In both songs, the traveler feels nervousness upon arrival in California. Cyrus describes this in terms of her physical symptoms (butterflies) and The Eagles describe it in terms of strange spirits and mysterious beasts. A scientist with reductionist instincts would say that the Cyrus account is more correct. Even though the term “butterflies” is itself metaphorical, it refers to physically verifiable symptoms that can be easily measured, understood, and treated. The focus on physical symptoms like “butterflies” indicates a retreat of spiritual concerns, and an aim for distraction from real problems, for fun rather than deep satisfaction.
These songs point to choices about how to go to California – and of course, how to go anywhere else or confront any new experience in life. We should carry with us some of the spiritual seriousness of the Eagles – what is the beast that we have to stab in this new place, we might ask, for example, We should also carry with us some of the bubblegum optimism of Cyrus. How can we have fun and just enjoy what’s going on.
I didn’t get the job that I interviewed for in San Francisco. Instead, I took a job in Phoenix. I recently drove from Philadelphia to Phoenix, listening to both the Eagles and Miley Cyrus on the way. When I pulled into Phoenix, I thought I could see some shimmering lights in the distance, and the excesses of California beckoning to me. For now, I have stopped short for a time to stay at the Hotel Arizona instead. I am sure that there are other strange spirits in my hotel, not the least strange of which is my own. I am sure that there are spiritual beasts to be conquered here, with my best steely knives. And I am sure that I will occasionally just want to nod my head to my favorite songs and forget all about everything.