My first reaction to hearing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” on the radio was pure annoyance.
Maybe it was the “look at me, I’m so naughty” gimmick at the core of the song, precisely calculated to stir the hormonal activities of teenage boys everywhere. Maybe it was the fact that the song stole a title and chorus line from Jill Sobule’s coy, cutesy 1995 semi-hit. But I think what grated most was that while Perry flaunted her flirtation with pan-sexuality, she mindlessly accepted bible-belt notions about the wrongness of it all: “It’s not what good girls do/not how they should behave.” Sez who, John Hagee?
By the final chorus, however, I started to rethink my resistance. After all, the power to annoy is, by definition, a power, and possessing it automatically puts Perry on a higher plane than most of her here-today-gone-yesterday Top 40 competitors.
Perry is a preacher’s kid who spent her mid-teens singing gospel music and, in purely physical terms, can best be described as a sexed-up Zooey Deschanel. Needless to say, guys kinda like her.
“I Kissed a Girl” (currently the number-one single on Billboard) is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, but if you’re not careful, it’ll shatter your critical faculties. The thumping electronic beat and giddy chorus suggest a computerized amalgam of every ’80s pop hit that you never knew you liked until you heard it again 20 years later. It helps that Perry belts the track out with supreme think-Pink brassiness. What sold the song for me, though, was Perry’s delight in the smooching details: the taste of her kissing partner’s cherry chapstick, etc. No matter how much marketplace contrivance went into this song, Perry seems to get off on the conceit.
At least partly because her Christian upbringing shielded her from secular music, you get the sense that Perry has no real roots, other than random pop junk she’s picked up accidentally. For her, The Outfield (whose “Use Your Love” she covered last year) might as well be The Clash, and good for her. Ignorance can be liberating, especially in the pop world.
For all her star power and finely-tuned knack for controversy, however, Perry’s debut pop album, One of the Boys, falls flat pretty quickly. Aside from the 2007 viral hit, “Ur So Gay” - an attack on metrosexuality that Madonna recently called her “favorite song” - almost every track here succumbs to, rather than subverts, romantic conventions. The ultra-catchy title song finds her grumbling, “I want to smell like roses/not a baseball team.” Elsewhere, she warns a suitor: “If you want me then stop begging/I don’t put out for charity.”
At the same stage of her career, Madonna was equally manipulative and gimmicky, but she had better songs. When the novelty wears off for Perry, and it will, she might find that a few good tunes come in handy.