So, in the interest of not making you read a LOT all at once, I’m breaking this blog post up into two parts – the first considers just the lyrics/acoustics of Katy Perry’s recent single ET and the second turns to the accompanying visuals from her music video.
Usually I come to popular culture with an eye for the queer potential, the cracks in mainstream media that can hold the possibility for resistance and new ways of understanding the world. When I look at Katy Perry, I usually find myself at a loss. I’ve presented before about the ways in which Perry hijacked queerness as a way to present herself as a “bad girl” on her first album. True, as a friend argued on a panel with me, “I Kissed a Girl” need not be written off as merely an anthem to lesbianism for the male gaze, but could also be about the possiblities inherent in experimentation and to dismiss its potential dismisses the complexities of female sexuality in a heteropatriarchy. In general, though, Perry leaves me scratching my head. The colorful outer-space video for Perry’s latest confection “ET” presents the pop singer as an alien fallen to earth whose kiss awakens the last man left standing after an apparent apocalyptic event. Perry’s video and its interplay with the song’s potentially anti-feminist lyrics add an uncomfortable racial valence. While “ET” seems to indulge in the type of revolutionary impulses evinced by cyborg feminism and the exciting metaphors of Afor-Futurism, ultimately Perry’s video reinscribes the totalizing schemes and disempowering histories these theories attempt to push against.
In her continuing drive to distance herself from the bad-girl shenanigans of her first album “ET” comes to us as a simple pop song powered by an electronic beat, introduced and later interrupted with verses by the rapper Kanye West. The song’s central metaphor is that of alien encounter and abduction with sexual intimacy figured as an act of being “taken” by a force/lover that others have labeled as frightening.
They say be afraid
You’re not like the others
They don’t understand you
Theorists like Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud have long understood the sex act as an encounter of self with Other. Sex in psychoanalytic theory is often described as a traumatic event (a different trauma from that of actual sexual trauma/abuse/violence), one that rips you from your surroundings and is unspeakable. Even with the miles of books written on sex and miles of films made of it, sex remains indescribable. Allowing for this understanding of sex as the unknowable and your partner(s) as the Other is not enough, however. Invoking the Other as the place of sexual pleasure is not an innocent move, especially in the racial climate of the United States and Perry’s lyrics suggest by referencing biology in the line about “Different DNA.” Even before considering the video, te single’s use of West as the aural partner to Perry further realizes a racial meaning in the song.
In her classic essay “Eating the Other,” bell hooks reminds us that:
Fucking is the Other. Displacing the notion of Otherness from race, ethnicity, skin-color, the body emerges as the site of contestation where sexuality is the metaphoric Other that threatens to take over, consume, transform via the experience of pleasure.
Perry makes quite clear throughout her song that the pleasure of this encounter stems from his difference, from the fact that he’s “not like the others.” She sings that:
Boy, you’re an alien
Your touch so foreign
These lines cannot be divorced from the racial overtones of a white woman singing it in the United States with the difference of an alien life-form standing for racial difference. Reading the song through this racial lens makes even more unsettling Perry’s further description of the sexual encounter as forced and diseased:
Kiss me, ki-ki-kiss me
Infect me with your love and
Fill me with your poison
Take me, ta-ta-take me
Wanna be a victim
Ready for abduction
Right away the most obvious discomfort here comes from the fact that Perry explicitly requests to be victimized and abducted, but I suspect that reading is a bit too pat, overlooking the fact that she is not merely expressing her sexuality (a la the trope of the raped woman “asking for it” via provocative attire) – she in fact asks to be a victim and thus this could be read as an incitement to sadomasochism.
Sexuality as poison is a common trope in popular music although usually one linked to female singers inhabiting the position of seductress as in the Britney Spears classic “Toxic” or the more recent UK hit “Poison” by Nicole Scherzinger. The trope rehearses the virgin/whore dichotomy and marks sexually aggressive women as “damaged goods” – literally poisoned and ultimately responsible for snagging the attentions of the presumably defenseless man (never mind that this whole scenario operates to prop up heteropatriarchal messages about feminine modesty). When Perry flips this script, her song – as mentioned above – becomes uncomfortable, especially when paired with West as the sexual aggressor who raps:
I’ma disrobe you, than I’mma probe you
See I abducted you, so I tell you what to do
I tell you what to do, what to do, what to do
The metaphor of alien abduction has an eerie twin in the reality of sexual violence. West’s lyrics are entirely about taking physical ownership of the woman’s body with his own force – “I abducted you so I tell you what do” – and the body is merely a medicalized object that is “disrobed” and “probe[d]” for his gaze and pleasure. Unlike Kelis’ single and video “Blindfold Me” which stages abduction as part of a planned sadomasochistic fantasy, “ET” does not clue the listener into how we are to understand the abduction metaphor here. I mentioned above that this could be all about S&M as well, but West’s racial difference (which many listeners will know extra-textually even without the music video) also calls on a troubled history of black men stereotyped as animalistic sexual savages that ravage defenseless white women (that fabled bastion of purity and goodness). West mocks these tropes himself in his recent video for his single “Monster” but one is never entirely sure how to read the rapper given his flair for bombast that often seems to miss his political points (witness his stance against homophobia alongside his use of “no homo” and homophobic imagery). I do not want to suggest that Perry is inevitably the victim (even if she herself identifies as such in a possible longing way, although it’s hard to read emotions onto her Auto-Tuned voice), nor that she should not be allowed the agency to choose to express her sexuality in this way. But I think the song’s use of West as sexual aggressor and the imagery herein requires a critical eye.
Part 2 to follow.