|It's not what good girls do|
This week saw the coronation of a new head-bopper hitting Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart: a catchy song entitled “I Kissed a Girl,” made even more interesting because the singer is 23-year-old brunette bombshell Katy Perry.
Critical reaction to this upstart single has been decidedly mixed, as much for its social context as its musical construction. TheStar.com called it "a lesbian-friendly tune that's sure to cut a swath through...Pride events,” and a UGO.com review of Perry's album One of the Boys, which features “I Kissed a Girl,” says the singer is “appealing as skinny-dipping in August - I guess we can't resist a tease.”
At first listen, the song is bouncy, amusing, and even a little arousing. Once it has played several times (and it has, since half of the determinant for Hot 100 placement is airplay) the song is more obviously a tease: sample lyrics include “I kissed a girl, just to try it/ I hope my boyfriend don't mind it.” And really, what boyfriend would, in this time where girl-girl action brings in scores of viewers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the film Wild Things, or even Woody Allen's upcoming flick Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which features a heavy love scene between Scarlett Johannson and Penelope Cruz?
Perry, the daughter of pastors with a musical history in Christian rock, admitted to The New Gay blog that she has not, in fact, kissed a girl, although “if Scarlett Johansson wanted to kiss me, I'm not sure I would say no.” The young singer has claimed in multiple interviews (and in the lyrics of the song) that she finds nothing “perverted” about the idea of female homosexual liplocking and that it's “no big deal/ It's innocent.”
Still, many bloggers and critics are up in arms about Perry's success, particularly gay ones. It doesn't help, in their mind, that Perry's first single, entitled “UR So Gay,” was a diatribe against an ex-boyfriend in the style of Alanis Morissette's “You Oughta Know” with the twist that she bemoaned the man's preference to his own vanity over paying attention to her and concluded that “You're so gay/ And you don't even like boys.”
What mainly perturbs her detractors about “UR So Gay” is the way it lists negative gay stereotypes (many of them at least bizarre or inaccurate: she opens the song opining that the boy in question should hang himself with a designer scarf after masturbating to Mozart) and seems to conclude that being gay is, in a word, bad. Following that single (which Madonna famously declared one of her favorite songs in an interview with an Arizona Top 40 radio station) with “I Kissed a Girl” appears to her critics to be something of a slap in the face, suggesting that gay boys are worth ridiculing in song but girls who kiss girls are acceptable and, as seen in her ultimate tease of a music video for the song, hot.
Perry is not the first popular artist accused of homophobia in her music or sending the gay community into a tailspin because the messages of her songs are arguably disconcerting but the songs themselves are just so addictive. Rap artist Eminem encountered scores of critics protesting his apparent homophobia, leading to a dramatic semi-conciliatory live appearance with gay icon Elton John. Even back in 1989 the New York Times wrote about a resurgence of homophobia as a response to the AIDS epidemic in its discussion of rock band Guns N' Roses.
It can seem discouraging for the gay community to simultaneously feel so much love and so much hate or fear from the entertainment industry: on the one hand, artists like Perry, Eminem or 50 Cent, who appeal mainly to the younger demographic, seem to perpetuate negative gay stereotypes and incorporate homophobia into their music either overtly or subtly. On the hit CW television series “Gossip Girl,” two teenage characters came out, but not only was it a big scandal, they weren't necessarily the most sympathetic characters. Even in Tina Fey's brilliant high school comedy Mean Girls the gay character was (as almost all characters in the film were, but not all the film's viewers are as observant or clever as Fey) a total stereotype of an overweight, roaring queen.
On the other hand, older artists like Madonna, Bette Midler or Jill Sobule, whose 1995 single also titled “I Kissed a Girl” has stood up well in inevitable comparisons to Perry's as more emotionally mature and accepting, have for decades been openly friendly to and accepting of the gay community and its so-called “lifestyle” without being exploitative. The television series "Will and Grace," "Queer as Folk" and "The L Word" featured successful and relatable gay adult characters and became popular in the process without marginalizing homosexuality.
The age gap apparent in the entertainment media's portrayal of homosexuality and adoption or rejection of homophobia seems to run contrary to current trends of American views on same-sex relations. Polls such as a recent National Annenberg Election Survey suggest that younger Americans are less likely to oppose same-sex marriage; the notion garners higher rates of opposition with each increasing decades of age.
The success of Perry's music has led gay bloggers to ask, “What do you have against gay people, Katy Perry?” and, in an interview, The New Gay told Perry that “you should know that 'UR So Gay' pissed off a lot of our readers.” Are Perry's two hit singles an indication that homophobia is still alive, well and accepted in mainstream entertainment, particularly among young people like Perry and her fans?
The truth is, at least according to her statements, Perry herself is not so much intrinsically homophobic as she is the product of an ultra-conservative upbringing and is undergoing a very public transformation to acceptance and even assimilation into the gay scene. While she herself is not gay, she says she has “been in LA for seven years and [realizes] there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing wrong with anybody. If you love someone and you’re a good person thats what counts.”
“I Kissed a Girl” is an ode to the exhibitionist thrill of doing something “so wrong” or, as she often refers to the concept, “taboo,” in reaction to what she was taught to believe. For that matter, the subject of “UR So Gay” is reminiscent of the anonymous target of Carly Simon's “You're So Vain,” a person too involved in himself and his own issues to give the singer the attention or love she needs.
It is easy to see the title and hear the concept of “UR So Gay” and lump it with the common way in which the term “gay” is used as a synonym for “lame” or “stupid.” However, upon listening to the song it becomes clear that in the song Perry is using the more literal definition of “gay,” even saying “I wish you would just be real with me;” she is more upset that the guy seems to be into something else entirely than her, and who hasn't wanted to launch into a diatribe exposing someone's unfair lack of interest in oneself as a response and defense to being rejected?
To single out Perry as a homophobe is not only inaccurate, it is counterproductive for those who wish homosexuality would be presented more positively in mainstream entertainment. She may be taking the long road to full acceptance, either because of her own upbringing and learned prejudices but also and especially those of her fans and consumers of entertainment media. But whether one enjoys her music or not, Perry is starting a dialogue and regardless of her reasons or methods she is helping to popularize curiosity and experimentation, rejection of iron-clad sexual boundaries, and acceptance for different sexualities, something that many people still see as “taboo.”