English: Performance by Katy Perry for the song “Firework” in her world tour California Dreams Tour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
And no, I didn’t go with my kids, but instead, with one of my dearest friends, a huge Russell Brand fan.
I find myself conflicted when I think about Katy Perry, as she hits right at the intersection of some cultural currents that resonate with me. Her songs are insanely catchy; I dare you to listen to Hot N Cold and not get it stuck in your head, and Firework is in heavy rotation around these parts. Whether you’re a culture snob or not, she’s a massive pop juggernaut, and anyone with my cultural studies training can’t help but be intrigued by her success. Additionally, anyone with tween-age daughters like mine should be aware of what their kids and their friends are listening to, whether or not we love it ourselves.
The part where things start to get wobbly for me is how she chooses to handle sexuality, both her own and the sexuality of others. Her public persona is sugary, literally, replete with candy, ice cream, cartoons and glitter, which makes her incredibly appealing to younger children, but especially girls. Plus, of course, she’s a very pretty young woman trying her best to look like a fairy tale princess. But then, there’s something disturbingly Lolita-esque about her public sexual persona as well; watching the movie vividly displayed this for me, as we watch her dress up like an ice cream sundae, complete with cherry-on-top headband, to sing songs about menage a trois and wear brightly colored feather costumes to sing a song I don’t think is actually about a peacock. As much as we like “Hot N Cold,” I don’t let my girls watch the video anymore, as it features Katy Perry chasing her prospective groom around as he runs away in fear. I’ve never let my girls see the music video where she shoots whipped cream out of her breasts, either.
Perry grew up in a very conservative Christian household and community, and her parents have alternately portrayed themselves as “cool” and “non-threatening” while also making anti-Semitic remarks and continuing in their evangelical ministry. Perry has portrayed her childhood as non-existent and her family as non-accepting, and in the movie, she makes her sister tell her parents that her first big radio single will be I Kissed a Girl. However, any tensions between Perry and her parents are really glossed over in the movie, as are the accusations of homophobia and stereotyping leveled at Perry herself, after “I Kissed a Girl” and another single from that album, UR So Gay. Both of those songs show a Perry who’s not quite as comfortable or accepting as she portrays herself, both in her publicity and in her movie, and the elision of this issue in regards to her parents is problematic as well. Titillating an audience by teasing at lesbian fantasies while deriding boys who “act gay” is troubling even before the selling of her persona as one that encourages teens and others to let their true selves shine like “fireworks.” Watching her in the film, you get the impression that her “acceptance” of gays and lesbians is motivated by rebelling against her parents and loving her gay makeup artist as much as actually changing her worldview.
So do I like Katy Perry? I like a few of her songs, yes. Do my girls like her? Yes, they like even more of her songs than I do. Am I pleased about them liking her? That’s where it gets murkier. Will I allow them unfettered access to her music and videos, and would I take them to see her in concert? Not until they were teenagers, at the very least, and not without more than a few qualms, and not without several speeches on my issues with the veiled homophobia I see in some of her lyrics. Do I expect to be able to shield them from this kind of stuff forever? No, but that doesn’t mean I need to embrace it either.