“California Gurls;” Or, Class it Up, Katy

Update (2:53PM, June 16th): Can’t seem to keep an embedded video live, so am now referring readers to MTV’s stream of “California Gurls.”

If I’m honest, most of my music listening life has been spent as a snob in one form or another. In high school, it was an incredibly specific set of punk and hardcore bands, with the occasional self-righteous nod to Led Zeppelin, that defined my taste. In college, indie rock largely displaced punk and, any elitism aside, hearing Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity and Karate’s Unsolved really did change my life. Well, and there was that pesky Elliott Smith character. 

Since then, perhaps due to aging but more likely due to becoming an event DJ, my tastes have become more liberal. I mean this in the sense that I listen to some truly weird artists (by mainstream standards), but more importantly that I’ve drastically softened my view towards popular music, and I can honestly say I’m a happier person for it.

It’s true. When I’m assembling a wedding DJ set, for instance, and I come across Ace of Base, Bryan Adams, Mariah Carey (the younger version) or even current songstress’ like Kelly Clarkson or, yes, Katy Perry (and hundreds more), I can honestly sit with their hits on repeat and be amazed at the talent it takes to write a hook. I would’ve balked at such a mindset ten years ago because I assumed back then that if it was faster, longer or, simply, had more parts, it was better written. Now, I often have no qualms with staring blankly at the wall feeling metaphorically sugar-coated and communal, as I’m in on the same high millions of others experience in Pop’s wake worldwide.

But, like all new hobbies or passions, flaws eventually reveal themselves, forcing us to face realities, or in the case of my love of popular music, to re-face them (yes, I’m a Millennial who danced just as hard as you did to “Hangin’ Tough” in 1989). So, what bothered me in high school and college about the big tent that is Pop has come home to roost in my older days: The pointlessness of it all. Or, more specifically with regards to “California Gurls,” how great the divide is becoming between a song’s content and its irreverent video treatment.

I’m not interested in ranting against Pop outright — I wouldn’t have watched “California Gurls” if I wasn’t interested in the concept — I just can’t help but notice how base, and perhaps how dangerous, videos like this can be for our culture. Before you stone me, though, follow my logic:

The crux of the song is relatively timeless: Just like The Beach Boys and Van Halen before her, Ms. Perry relishes in the playful superiority of California women. The song, like Perry’s other hits, is undeniably catchy and features a solid vocal performance, which she recently pulled off live (so far as I can tell) during the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. The song refers to sex and drinking, but not in a way that would offend anyone outside the Pat Robertson crowd. Indeed, all things considered, “California Gurls” is a relatively harmless song that most people could sing along to without feeling guilty (yes, I understand the “popsicle” line is a metaphor).

So, why a video with a practically naked Perry that ends with her shooting whipped cream out of her breasts (wouldn’t “gin and juice” been at least more relevant)? Are Perry or her marketers at Capitol so insecure about the product that the only way they feel they can sustain the song’s success is to blind us in campy, nostalgic psychedelia and sex? Even Britney didn’t go this low until her career careened off-course during the middle of the last decade. Do tanking album sales have anything to do with this? The question’s not rhetorical.

Look, I’m male, so, yeah. But, when we finally lift our heads above the feverish immediacy of these profiteering, hollow pleas for our money and dignity, the world will be a better place for a few reasons:

1. Pop art marketers will have to come up with classier ways to get our attention, or, will revert back to the more innocent campaigns of the mid-to-late twentieth century. If you ask me, less is more anyhow. Consider: Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, or even today, Norah Jones and Amy Adams.

2. Female Pop singers, in particular, might be forced to reconsider their role as easily exploited starlets who make money for the suits off of an indoctrinated mainstream audience (including myself), giving them an opportunity to showcase their real talent (viz. Ms. Perry) and reclaim their place as actual artists. As an aside, no, I don’t buy the popular claim that Lady Gaga is actually contributing to our culture in a positive way. In fact, she’s done far more damage than Perry in the last two years to the concept of the music video; I mean, does the treatment of “Bad Romance” have anything to do with the song?

3. We, as music fans, can stop pretending we get why these artists, or label marketing ploys, matter, and can go back to appreciating the best kind of art: Those works that move and elevate us. This is totally possible within the confines of popular music. See: Tom Petty, Woody Guthrie, The Clash, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and Kanye West for just a few examples.

Before I open myself up to the most obvious criticism, I’ll wrap-up by sharing that I adore tons of music that was made for the simple purpose of instilling a sense of carelessness and fun in the listener. I’m not moved to any action other than wretched sing-alongs and awkward dance moves when I listen to “The Sign” by Ace of Base … but, I’m also not anchored down mentally by the red hot image and false promise of sex.

Is making music about this most basic, primordial function of human existence a bad thing? Hardly; just class it up, Katy. 

(Video via New York Magazine).