She Kissed Me And It Felt Like A Hit
Posted by Clem Bastow on October 10, 2008
For some time now I’ve been meaning to discuss Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl, but find the song (and its reprehensible predecessor, Ur So Gay – I hope Hilary Duff pays Perry a visit) but I find her songs so odious I haven’t been able to bring myself to get into the zone, so to speak. To listen to UR So Gay – and this is speaking as a long-term defender of pop music – is to experience the joy drain from your life like Mosquitor sucking the life-force out of He-Man, only less entertaining. (On that note, you can have a schadenfreudetastic read of this interview with Perry, conducted by TheNewGay, in which she attempts to argue that lyrics like “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf” are, like, not meant to be insulting to gay men.)
Back to the topic of I Kissed A Girl, though – and fortunately, SameSame founder Tim Duggan has spurred me on with his opinion piece, “The dangers of fauxmosexuality“, in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:
In interviews, Perry implies it’s just all a bit of fun. But when up to 30 per cent of teen suicides in the US are by lesbian or gay teens, it’s very a dangerous game for celebrities to play.
The gay equality movement has gradually, thankfully, started to take hold across the world. And then along comes a simple, straight singer with dollars in her eyes who takes us back to a fantasyland created by video-clip directors.
It’s time for Perry to stop kissing girls and start taking responsibility for the knock-on effect of her thoughtless lyrics.
Duggan’s piece is not the first on the topic of the apparent boom in “celesbianism”, though not many have discussed how shrewdly Perry is pitching her material not at lesbians, or even confused teens, but at men. As Jude Rogers said in the Guardian (on the topic of I Kissed A Girl and its video clip):
[...] When she says “it felt so wrong”, she’s pandering to your thoughts. And when she adds that she hopes that her “boyfriend don’t mind it”, she’s not exactly laying the groundwork for a radical lesbian revolution.
This last boy-friendly detail says everything about pop’s greasy machine. Under the racy cover of female emancipation and fighting against the system, Perry is yet another girl acting up for the guys. The video only proves this further. In the first 20 seconds, there are two clips of a scantily clad bottom, a camera panning up Perry’s legs on a bed, a sneaky peek at her cleavage, and a shot of her lily-white hand covering her crotch. If Perry’s song’s message was different, the promo might be properly anarchic. As it stands, it’s blandly predictable.
We all know how much the media likes to carry on as though “lesbian” action is done purely to be “sexy” or as a turn-on for blokes; witness the Daily Telegraph‘s ongoing coverage of every move made by genuinely gay MTV VJ Ruby Rose.
What strikes me, as has also been noted widely, is the gaping chasm of difference between Perry’s song and Jill Sobule’s 1995 single of the same name (I’m sure it’s not lost on Sobule herself, either). Where Perry’s song is tittilating and purring, Sobule’s – while, yes, still forming part of the great pop machinery – always struck me as tapping someway into the potential joy in uncovering one’s true sexuality (this in itself is problematic, since coming out isn’t always shot in Technicolor). As PopMatters‘ Annie Holub wrote last month:
By contrast, Sobule’s song wants to make the first kiss meaningful. [...]
Rather than point out all of the stereotypically female aspects of the girl she kisses, Sobule says only that “her lips were sweet, she was just like kissing me”. This is a little strange from a psychological standpoint, but at least Sobule isn’t objectifying her kisser, as Perry does, reducing her to “soft skin, red lips… so touchable”, as if she was a plush blow-up doll. When Sobule sings, “We laughed at the world—they can have their diamonds and we’ll have our pearls,” it feels like an embrace of something different, a metaphor for breaking free from heteronormative boundaries and living a lifestyle unlike the one in Perry’s song, in which only bad girls kiss other girls, and it’s only to please boys.
Sobule’s song depicts the dawning of healthy self-awareness. It ends with the recognition that her act “won’t change the world, but I’m so glad I kissed a girl”. This straightforward realization is far more empowering than Perry’s proclamations that “It doesn’t matter, you’re my experimental game” and “Ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent”, which suggest more how out of touch she is with the true power dynamics of her situation. Perry’s denials seem designed to reinforce homosexuality’s supposed scariness and otherness.
Essentially, Perry’s song goes beyond “…not that there’s anything wrong with that” and straight into “I’m not homophobic, but…” territory. It’s perhaps worth noting that Perry was previously a Contemporary Christian Music artist before turning her mind to the pop realm, recording under her family name, Katy Hudson. And while the alleged comments made by Perry’s mother, decrying Perry’s tune as “disgusting”, turned out to be fabricated, there’s a pretty good chance that neither Perry’s parents (both pastors) nor the Christian community is all that fond of her new steez.
Here’s a review of her self-titled debut; one notable couplet from her lead single at the time, Trust In Me, sounds considerably less badass than her current incarnation might have you believe:
How could I be clean when I was so dirty?/How could I be made whole when I was torn apart?
Hudson/Perry wrote most of the songs on her debut. Skip forward to 2008 and the bulk of Perry’s songs are co-writes with pop monsters like Cathy Dennis and Max “Britney/*Nsync” Martin – or, in the case of of Girl, both at once. Martin, who wrote …Baby One More Time for Britney Spears in a thinly veiled aping of The Crystals uneasy Wall Of Sound single, He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) (which, incidentally, was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin as a protest song from the perspective of an abused woman before Phil Spector turned it into a pop epic), is hardly a storied feminist icon.
There’s so much to dislike about the Katy Perry juggernaut it’s hard to know what to strike at first: the homophobia? The rampant objectification of Perry on the part of her marketing team, and her part in that? The playing with lesbianism for “edgy” effect? The dreadful music?? However, I think the most worrying thing is something summed up by PopMatters’ Holub in her parting lines regarding I Kissed A Girl:
The song is even more dangerous because it seems to be empowering while actually being powerfully oppressive: young girls these days who hear Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” are being sent a much different message than the young girls who heard Sobule’s “I Kissed a Girl”. If Perry’s song is what comes through after 13 years of progress, it’s terrifying to think of what the next “I Kissed a Girl” we’ll hear 13 years from now will sound like.
I dread to think – so to cleanse your palate, here are AfterEllen’s 16 Songs Better Than Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl.