By the time you pick up today’s paper, millions will have seen Katy Perry: Part of Me.
A big chunk of that audience will be tween girls.
So what, right?
Adults who take daughters, little sisters, young cousins and nieces should think twice about what the pop music star’s Candy Land-style show communicates to an audience that might soak up a very adult message, however unintended that audience might be.
But the way Perry is branded and marketed shows every sign of the tween audience — and younger — is a coveted demographic for retailers who want to start training their buyers early.
Perry earned her first top 40 radio hit in 2008 with “I Kissed a Girl.” (For those who never heard the song, the answer is yes, it’s about a woman remembering her first sapphic dalliance. “I kissed a girl!” Perry cheers, followed by “and I liked it!” She reminisces about the taste of the other girl’s “cherry Chapstick” and admits that “us girls we are so magical, soft skin, red lips so kissable.” Oh, and she mentions she has a boyfriend and doesn’t want him to find out.
So Perry’s first song out of the chute wasn’t a naive ode to childhood innocence.
Then there is the documentary — in 3-D, even — of Perry’s road to Top 40 dominion. Even the trailer for the movie looks like the The Nutcracker’s Land of the Sweets on steroids.
The iced, pink-and-blue palette began in earnest when Perry performed in the music video for her 2010 hit “California Gurls” (featuring the grand marshal of sensual seduction, Snoop Dog) on the album Teenage Dream.
The video looks like something Willy Wonka would make for late-night Cinemax programming.
Perry prances through a candy forest, dressed in a tiny minidress bedazzled with sweets, pink tights, lavender wig and candy necklace. She minces across a Twizzler bridge. She frees wide-eyed women from their sugar prisons — gum bubbles, blocks of green gelatin. They dress in stripper versions of Brownie Girl Scout uniforms and literally eat a grumpy gingerbread man who wears briefs. She lounges nude on a pink cotton candy cloud, batting eyelashes and winking a glittery purple eyelid.
If the nudity and the cloud eating don’t make Perry’s come-hither hint clear enough, the singer gives a long, coquettish lick to an ice cream cone. Later, Perry leads the sugar and spice troupe in a sexy dance. They all wear the “Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top” from the song’s lyrics. Instead of plain bikinis, though, the dancers wear edibles — Perry wears cupcakes, another wears peppermint discs
The lyrics are straight-up seduction: Cali girls are “so hot we melt your popsicle,” promising “sex on the beach/We don’t like sand in our stilettos/We freak in the jeep … Once you party with us, you’ll be fallin’ in love.” Snoop Dog spins a rapid-fire verse about his favorite Cali lasses — dressed in “teeny bikinis.” And the lone man in this scenario insists the party won’t be over without touching, kissing and bun-squeezing.
It’s not the sexualized lyrics that make Perry a problematic performer for children. Rock ’n’ roll is itself a euphemism for sex. Lyrics got more brazen after the sexual revolution, and popular music has always communicated the values of young people. Elvis with his jerking pelvis and all that. Madonna’s entire persona is one of fearless, uncompromising female sexuality. (Listen — really listen — to the lyrics of Madonna’s “Borderline” and you’ll find the entire song alludes to sexual pleasure.)
Children have listened to music about sex and love for a long time, and until puberty, many children don’t pick up on the suggestions of raw sexuality.
What makes Perry a conundrum for parents, feminists and cultural conservatives is her packaging. Never before has a sexy siren been aimed so blatantly at prepubescent audience.
It’s true that the flirty gestures, sparkling costumes and pastel wigs attract gay audiences and drag queens, but the Rainbow Brite aesthetic is clearly a banner hung out to catch the eyes of little girls. The next time you go to a big-box retail store, look for the aisles of pink and purple. Get closer and notice the cheap plastic gemstones. The glitter. The Disney Princess merchandise.
Katy Perry is a junior version of the Pussycat Dolls, an all-female bump-and-grind Vegas act and recording group. The short shorts, the push-up bras, braids and high heels are vintage burlesque.
Even the video for Perry’s “Last Friday Night” suggests a girl young enough to wear orthodontic headgear gets drunk, poses for racy pictures and wakes up in her middle school bedroom with a strange man in her bed.
The pop star was recruited to record a version of her 2008 song “Hot n Cold” with Elmo on Sesame Street. The clip never aired, even though it was tame.
Katy Perry won’t corrupt innocent girls, to be sure. But her brand doesn’t help the mixed messages young people are already getting about sex. And for girls in particular, Perry is carrying on the message that for them to be accepted or normal, they should perform as if their sexuality is fully developed instead of vulnerable.
Perry seems to have passed up any opportunity to advise her biggest fans about how to be positive about sex while also being spiritually whole and emotionally healthy (Perry grew up in a strict Pentecostal home before she shot whipped cream out of her bra on MTV and the Internet). She could speak to the huge differences between sexual performance and sexual relationships.
For the time being, Perry’s pushing ear candy in a color scheme to match while wearing garter belts and stockings.
It tastes sweet on the tongue, but sour in the soul.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.