YP Note: I am really excited about this post, mostly because it turned out fascinating and I didn’t have to write it. Here is the second guest blogger on iamyellowperil.com: L.A.-based musician and educator Brendan Deiz. Check out the latest live performance of his band, the Anchor Babies, here.
By the way, thank you to those of you who have expressed concern about the lack of new posts. Yellow Peril will return… with a vengeance. Stay tuned. Now, prepare for a pop cult mindfuck:
In numerous ways, public schools support certain elements of the dominant culture through their practices, as well as their curricula. The hierarchical structure of a classroom, with the teacher’s apparent dominance over the students, exists inside a larger hierarchy of a principal who rules the teachers, which lies within the hierarchy of a school district and its superintendent, all the way up to the politicians who write education law. Well, just as the structure of a school mirrors many elements of the structure of our post-industrial, hyper-capitalistic, plutocratic state, the curriculum a school teaches also promotes certain ideals.
As part of my research for my Master’s in Teaching, I analyzed the California Content Standards in one of many long-ass papers I had to write while simultaneously teaching History to 11th graders in South Los Angeles and playing in a rock band, The Anchor Babies. While writing this paper, I thought, what if we applied the same methodology to modern female-fronted electro-pop? Not a wide leap at all, right?
You see, music is awesome. Let that be the starting point. In fact, that’s how I should have began this post. Music is awesome. Maybe that should the title! Hegemonic discourses, blah, blah, snooze. Music Is Awesome. No one can disagree with that. In fact, if we’re going for full commercial appeal, maybe it should be Free Beer, Sex, and Music Are Awesome (and Jesus, if you swing that way).
The important thing here is that everyone loves music. If anyone says they don’t, it’s pretty much acceptable to punch them in the face. Unless that person is deaf. Then you’re just an asshole. And since everyone loves music, it has a profound influence. Sure, the idea that blasting Bob Marley songs will “change the world,” is supposed to be regarded as cliché, ‘cause like, that’s so 1970, or whatever. But even if one song isn’t going to liberate everyone who is facing injustice in the world, is it possible that it can actually do the opposite? I mean, it’s always most convenient to find your place in the prevailing order than it is to challenge it. And don’t we always opt for what’s more convenient?
Now, there is always the indie vs. major labels debate, and artistic integrity and all that, and there are plenty examples of bands who do things on their own terms, as independent of large corporations as possible, both in their music and their actions. You know, like Fugazi.
But this article is about music people actually listen to. Or, rather, a WHOLE LOT of people. Now, I love my underground early-90’s post-hardcore as much as the next guy, actually probably a little more. But my best friend in LA, who you folks know as Yellow Peril, likes to take me and our other friends clubbing in West Hollywood. (Ironically, it can be a good place to meet girls.) And there I got an overload of Britney. Katy. Rihanna. Gaga. Ke$ha. And you know what? This shit is really catchy! And after a few beers (since it’s WeHo, mostly corporate beers – come on gays, where is the micro-brew love?) it can be damn fun to dance to.
When I was in high school, I respected what Propagandhi and The Clash had to say way more than most of my teachers. (Though I did go to a Catholic high school, where my chemistry teacher led prayer before every class and our religion class textbooks taught about the objective awesomeness of abstinence.) But man, I memorized those lyrics, and I still feel like they guide my personal ideology in profound, meaningful ways.
Well, the current electro-pop queens outsell the pants off of the punk bands I grew up with. So how many kids are their lyrics meaningful for? And even if you don’t read the Katy Perry booklet that comes with the CD and commit every lyric to heart, you still may subconsciously be absorbing certain messages, like that sleeping room in Brave New World, where kids sleep-learn their role as a member of their caste. Of course, this argument might be getting into “Rock and/or Roll will make kids worship Satan with its backwards messages” territory.
But regardless of how powerful pop music is (or isnt’) as a brainwashing tool, it’s not likely producing Manchurian candidates out of our teen girls and gay clubbers. (Although a very good friend of mine has a theory that EDM is the first step in the machines taking over the world: It’s how they will keep us dancing mindlessly as they strike. Oh no, it’s already begun!) At the very least, the music that is selling at the level of that of these cyber-divas serves as an interesting reflection of hegemonic elements in our culture at large. And I posit that if the song not only reflects imbalances of power in society, but seems to support them, it is potentially harmful to society.
That’s right, I am going to argue that Katy Perry is bad for America.
The concept of hegemonic practices, including discourse (or way of speaking), tells us that there are unwritten rules that govern what is okay to converse or write about, and what isn’t. Usually these rules tacitly support a society’s dominant class in certain ways that are not always obvious to the people in that society.
Fortunately for the sake of this post, Katy Perry is really fucking obvious about it. It was Katy Perry who made me first think of writing this thing. I was listening to her lyrics, and thought, “Wow, this is like the definition of hegemonic discourse! If only Gramsci could hear this girl.” (But he couldn’t, because he spent the last chunk or his life in prison, just for being a really good thinker who wrote down the cool shit he thought of and showed it to people. Remember, going with the flow is just so much easier, especially when the flow is fascism.)
In educational literature, there is a lot of analysis of the hidden curriculum behind the apparent curriculum. What messages about what is and isn’t acceptable are embedded within the California Content Standards? How about in the textbooks in our schools? If you think that would be interesting to read about, too bad. We’re going to look at the hidden curriculum in Katy Perry songs. As a kid hums “Teenage Dream” at the back of her Algebra class, what is she actually learning in school that day?
“Ur So Gay”
Seriously. That’s the title and the actual spelling. Now, cultural hegemony can mean the dominance of one economic class over another, as well as other types of social dominance. For example, hetero-normativity, the idea that gay people are bad and straight people are good. Because there are more straight people, and we have a very tiny selection of Bible quotes that might, depending how you translate them, declare homosexuality a sin, we as a group keep gay and lesbian people from having the full rights of straight citizens. This form of dominance takes a number of forms. For example, when you call something “gay,” when you mean “lame,” you are engaging in a hegemonic discourse. And you’re also being a dick.
As Katy delivers the line coyly, she knows it might offend some people. The ironic thing here is that Katy’s supposed “rebellion” is by using the word “gay,” since it’s not “politically correct.” You know, “those ‘PC-fascists’ trying to tell us what we can and can’t say, right? If exercising my free speech causes some fags to get beat up, then all the better I say! Teach ‘em to be real men!” The argument is something like that, right? (Remember when, in Germany, everyone wasn’t just allowed to, but also encouraged to shit-talk Jews? Remember how all that exercising of free speech turned out so lovely and happily? Man, how lame would the Third Reich’s fascism have been if it were countered by “PC-fascism!”)
Throughout the song, Katy Perry describes a hipster guy, who does sound pretty annoying and lame. However, in Katy’s confused, dominated young mind, this somehow translates to him acting “gay.” WTF, mate? She just attributes all of his bad qualities, to being what make him like “those” people, those gays. Whether Katy, raised a born-again Christian, actually had spiteful intent behind the lyrics, or whether she is just an idiot, does not excuse the fact that this song promotes the disparaging of a minority group. Score 1 for Katy’s valiant efforts working towards peace on Earth!
So, gay men aren’t cool by you, Katy. Any other “untouchables” you want to put down through song? How about lesbians?
“I Kissed a Girl”
I might excuse this song if in the video Katy actually kissed a girl. But to my great disappointment, (and I watched it again, just to make sure) she does not. Sadly, instead of Katy getting all Black Swan with one of the lovely females in the room with her in the video, she lies around insulting female homosexuality. She wasn’t willing to stoop as low as to actually kiss one. In fact, Katy Perry has never kissed a girl. She (or her marketing execs) just thought a titillating title would sell the lesbo-bashing a little better. In the songs she tells us that kissing another female is “not what good girls do, not how they should behave.” (Now, if she were satirizing a hegemonic discourse, this could be a clever impersonation of a homophobic authority figure, telling the girls what their place is. Considering the likes of “Ur So Gay,” however, and Katy’s upbringing, I’m inclined to suggest she does believe kissing a girl is “wrong.”) She insists that even though she liked the fictional kiss, it “don’t mean I’m in love!” Again, loving another woman would be a no-no, and Katy reassures us that she wouldn’t do something that society’s more oppressive forces have deemed “wrong.”
Besides just declaring how “bad” a lesbian lifestyle is, Katy touches upon another beloved subject that reappears throughout her repertoire: women are objects. “I don’t even know your name,” Katy sings to her pretend lover. She doesn’t see the other woman as human enough to deserve paying attention to or learning anything about. Women are here to be used, Katy just wanted to experiment hopping in the Man’s shoes for a second to use one herself. Women as objects is central to California Gurls, the video even more so than the lyrics. But that’s pretty obvious: a group of buxom, scantily-clad women serenading one ugly dude. Yes, not only is Katy attacking susceptible members of other groups, she is actively holding herself back as well. (But as someone who is lactose-intolerant, I do think she makes whipped cream look pretty tempting.)
“Your touch so foreign.” “Fill me with your poison.””Wanna be a victim, ready for abduction.” Then add the music video with Kanye West. Suddenly it’s about miscegenation? Black man. White woman. Read those lyrics again. What’s going on here? Is this the 1890’s on a Southern plantation? First she fantasized about a girl, then a black guy. Katy, you do love to revel in those cultural taboos. This time, will she go through with it? And go all the way—with one of “those” people?
Spoiler Alert: At the end of the video, she is with… no, not a white guy, look closer.
Britney is interesting.
She is only a few years older than me, but it feels like she has been famous for so long. Since I was in middle school, she has dominated the pop music world. But you all know that, because you were probably there, too. Considering her age and success level, I have to say, I feel relatively unaccomplished in my own struggling music career.
As far as an artist and a personality, I see Britney as basically being a Fembot. She’s inhumanly perfect, in the symmetry of her face—basically, way fucking hotter than anybody you probably know. But there’s also a profound vacancy in her eyes, as if there might just be circuits and wires back there. My theory that Britney is an android was a recent development after watching a few of her videos.
And the complete lack of involvement in the writing and production process, while not uncommon for a pop star, reasserts her pliability as an artist. Like a good sex robot, Britney contorts into whatever position her marketing team and record producers decide will sell the most units. When she sings “I’m a Slave 4 U,” the irony is so palpable, that even she would see it, if androids could detect irony.
While there are definitely problems with “…Baby One More Time” and its potential suggestion that hitting women is okay – whether in a sado-masochistic or misogynistic sense – “Womanizer” at least stands up for women, in its own way.
But the lack of the cohesion of these messages are stark, which exemplifies Britney’s lack of involvement in the creative process of her brand and image. As a result, I won’t look at her lyrics too closely. What’s more important is the message she sends through her role as our favorite hyper-sexualized perpetually-teenaged android. Her handlers turn her on when they want to make money, program her to do what their focus groups have told them will maximize profits, and then she does it.
Consumerism’s little Fembot: Britney Spears. At the least Femme(bot) Fatale was really good. “I Wanna Go” even celebrates female sexual independence, plus it evokes images of Britney getting reeeally friendly with herself.
Man, all this pop singer bashing. Can I come up with an example of a female electro-Pop singer who subtly challenges the status quo while still selling millions of albums?
I am admitting it in print. I am a fan of Ke$ha now.
I see Ke$ha as being sort of the Stephen Colbert of pop music. She dresses like one, acts like one, and succeeds like one, but she is not just another Britney. The same way Colbert is not another Bill O’Reilly. It’s satire.
I remember when I first figured out Ke$ha was playing a big joke on everyone. Yellow Peril showed me the video for Blow.
It’s a big fucking joke. And it’s funny, too. As YP said to me at the time, it takes Born This Way’s pretentiousness and flips it on its head. And if you look into Ke$ha’s (brief, but catchy) catalog, you see her parodying other artists as well as pop music and its obsession with riches and glamour.
Por ejemplo: “Grow a Pear.”
Basically a much better-written, less-hateful version of “Ur So Gay.” It even parodies the misspelling in the title, although in a more idiosyncratic, and therefore comical, manner. She de-masculinizes the man in the song, while affirming her own sexual confidence. Girls are supposed to want to talk all the time and be sensitive, whereas guys just want to bone. Everyone knows that, right? Don’t sit-coms tell us all we need to know about navigating our romantic relationships? Oh, Ke$ha, you’re saying it can be the other way around? Like, “Sometimes a girl just wants to get some, and that’s that. So fuck you.” She calls the man a “bitch,” making a formerly gendered curse word now applicable to men, too. The extent to which she reprimands his femininity could seem gender normative, but in the context of the song, what she is saying is that her own inability to fit into the gender role assigned to her is what makes his being, in her eyes, a wimp, all that much more frustrating.
While most artists separate themselves from the masses, glamorizing their wealthy, inaccessible lifestyles, Ke$ha celebrates poverty. There is a class consciousness in her lyrics that is almost non-existent in popular music. “I don’t need you and your brand new Benz /Or your bougie friends/I don’t need love looking like diamonds.” She isn’t obsessing over wealth and fame, a la Gaga or any mainstream hip hopper. In fact, she outright rejects it and bids us to “get sleazy!”
“You can’t imagine the immensity of the f*** I’m not giving/About your money and man servant at the mansion you live in” is a nice example of Ke$ha’s lyrical rebellion against the elite and against the cult of celebrity that surrounds the wealthy. The absurd worshipping of wealth that is so prevalent in popular culture supports an increasingly unequal social structure. It’s refreshing to see a pop-tart that actually addresses class stratification within her songs, going so far as to use the term “bougie.”
I particularly like the lines “Me and all my friends, we don’t buy bottles, we bring ‘em/We take the drinks from the tables when you get up and leave ‘em/And I don’t care if you stare and you call us scummy/Cause we ain’t after your affection, and sure as hell not your money, honey.” What a great combination of kinda gross and hella awesome!
One problem with Ke$ha’s over-the-top, satirical shtick is that when she tries to make a serious statement, people are offended by the idea of a cheeky artist like her taking a stance on something. For example, she caught a lot of flak for dedicating We R Who We R to gay teenagers considering suicide. She felt it was important to stand up for something, but people were unable to separate her from the character she normally plays. To draw the Colbert comparison again, it’s a lot like when he testified to Congress on behalf of immigrant laborers.
At this point, you’re probably asking: Does electro-pop really need to be analyzed this deeply? Sure, why not. If millions of people hear it, then it should be critically analyzed, just like a high school textbook or an artsy foreign film. Clearly, as one of millions of underemployed Americans, I had some free time on my hands. Who knows, maybe the music thing will work out. Or the writing thing. This post could go “viral”, and then Pichfork could hire me to over-analyze music that is one rung of popularity lower than Rihanna. I mean “indie.” I’m already planning my opus: “An Annotated History of Why Ska is Way Better than Indie Pop.”
Brendan Deiz has been the frontman of numerous bands, including Casual Indifference, the Self-Interest Collective, Guitars as Guns, and – currently – the Anchor Babies. He graduated with high honors from USC this past spring with a Master’s in Education. Originally from Portland, OR, he now resides in Los Angeles.
If you would like to be a guest blogger on iamyellowperil.com, contact me at email@example.com.