August 8, 2008

Craig Ferguson, The Jonas Brothers, and Katy Perry

This is what 46 year old Scottish late night TV host Craig Ferguson said Tuesday night:

The Jonas Brothers... I'm sure they're fine young kids, and their music's not for me, it's for young people, I understand that, but my point is-- they're kind of too clean. With the purity rings, symbolizing that you're saving yourself for marriage. Now, I'm thinking-- what kind of a rock star is this? What kind of a rock star is this?...

It makes me a little uncomfortable, it's a little sinister to me, when the teenage rebellion is controlled and sanitized by a big corporation. There has to be some rebellion, or else it's not rock and roll.

Ferguson was in a Scottish punk band, was a drug addict, almost suicided and is now clean-- and strong enough to make nightly jokes about using drugs and still not relapse. Rock and roll cred established.

What's he saying?  He defines rock and roll as rebellion; now, and now laments is a genre.

You might say that actually, the Jonas Brothers are rebellion because they are rebelling against the established credo of rock and roll (sex, drugs, etc), but that's a ruse as well, they aren't the ones rebelling; they were selected by an industry that is trying to change it's image.

To illustrate this, take a look at the other promise ring wearer, Katy Perry, whose song, "I Kissed A Girl" has disturbed me for a long time, disturbed me because it is so not disturbing.

In case you don't have kids or contracted rubella as a fetus, here's the chorus:

I kissed the girl and I liked it

The taste of her cherry chapstick

I kissed a girl just to try it

Hope my boyfriend don't mind it

It felt so wrong
It felt so right
Don't mean I'm in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it

That's as raunchy as it gets.  Anyone who lived through the bicurious 90s knows that this kind of "kissing the girl" is about boys.  It's about being sexy for boys, even if the boy doesn't know you did it, you still feel you are even more attractive to them.  But this is by no means cutting edge material.

I will grant you that the song is technically, and artistically, more brilliant than anything by Coldplay.  Ok, you got me there.

Yet the song is everywhere, not just pop song everywhere, but everywhere everywhere.  Here are three news media outlets that have no business writing about music, writing about her.  And always the topic is sexuality, as if she's opening (or closing) doors or something.

I had a huge argument with a friend about that song. My position was that such a benign song-- this is old news-- has a popularity that cannot be explained by the seemingly relevant topic of kissing a girl, there must be something else to it.  Why would the music industry choose to push this specific song, so much?

His position was that it was MTV et al, targeting the older people, the ex-MTV generation-- e.g. me-- trying to entice them back with songs that play on their (unfulfilled) fantasies. "Why else would they be in lingerie? Young guys don't care about lingerie, unless it's a thong.  They're programming to the older crowd."

Maybe, but why this song? Why not a million other more risque songs? 

So here is this not at all provocative video, completely old news to anyone 21-45, yet it is everywhere. Go ahead and watch it, tell me why.   No nudity.  She's pretty, but come on, she's no Taylor Swift.  Song is catchy, but again...

I call your attention to the last five seconds of the video. In the final scene, she wakes up next to her sleeping boyfriend. Ooohh-- is he going to find out how naughty she is? Will he be jealous or turned on? Is it fantasy or real?

Here's the thing. Her boyfriend in the video is black.

If that realization doesn't have any impact on you at all, you are my point.   You may be so progressive that you don't even notice race, but I can assure you race is still a gigantic issue, for both races. 

We have a scenario where two maybe-sort-of taboos are present in a video, but one is highlighted as a real taboo, and the other as completely and utterly ordinary, meriting no comment or explanation. I'm pretty sure depending where you live in America, you'll either agree or disagree with her hierarchy.

In all the Katy Perry discussions, blogs, and articles, no one noticed the race issue, no one thought to mention it, nothing.  What they went all Manchurian Candidate about was that she kissed a girl.

"Well, maybe that's what she believes."  She doesn't have anything to do with it.  She didn't make a video, then go Jet Li the MTV program director's office door, slap him in the face with the reel, and say, "This is f-ing awesome, play this!"  "oh-oh-oh right away Mrs. Perry! Right away!"

The video was directed, manufactured. The guy in her bed isn't random, they selected an actor. It wasn't accidental he was black, they picked him because he was black. Indeed, he's DJ Skeet Skeet,  a friend of her real life black rapper/boyfriend Travis McCoy. Nothing here is random; even her name, Katy Perry, was selected because her real name, Katy Hudson, risked confusing her with Kate Hudson. She changed her name to differentiate herself from someone else.  They are constructing an image, they are telling you a story.

So what's happening here is that MTV isn't saying, "wow, this is so shockingly sexy, she kissed a girl." MTV is actually resetting the culture, it is telling you, telling a generation of kids,  that kissing a girl is shocking and sexy. 

"But it isn't shocking, you can't simply declare that it is. Much more shocking porn is everywhere." Actually, that's the genius of this. Reconstruct adolescent sexuality to the old days of maybe you catch a glimpse of a worn and melted Playboy down by the creek. Online porn saturates, overloads, it stops becoming arousing and starts getting frustrating, "where the hell is the exact pic I need to get off?"

MTV can't compete with that.  Music can't compete with that.  In your face, up yours, all that.  Those vibes are now elsewhere.

So it's recreating a niche by recreating a culture.  Clean, sober, and hip-hop light.

So that when you turn the amp up just a little, it catches everyone's attention. "Holy crap!  She kissed a girl!"

I'm not sure if I should be appalled that sexuality has been commandeered by MTV et al, or I should just be relieved they're pushing popcorn not penetration.

Back to the Craig Ferguson. The music industry has to make good boys cool because there's a glut of bad boys everywhere else, and MTV and the music industry can't compete.  Sex is no longer cool.   What's cool now?  Status.  Narcissism.  Rich is the new porn.

But poor Craig Ferguson.  He makes the point that rock and roll is supposed to be about rebellion-- theoretically getting a big inaudible cheer from the teenagers-- "this guy may be old, but at least he gets it!"  But he doesn't.  That cheer came from his viewers-- who have an average age of 50.  He's talking to a bunch of old guys, people who still think Smoke on The Water meant something. 


In the Dune books Frank Her... (Below threshold)

August 8, 2008 12:51 PM | Posted by Fargo: | Reply

In the Dune books Frank Herbert suggested something to the effect that behaviors, especially extreme ones, generate their opposites, probably just because the human race has a contrarian slant.

That aside, this stuff isn't really new, is it? Just more apparent. All those boy bands, straight edge acts, Christian bands that attempt to not be advertised as such. I think a lot of the popularity, at a commercial level, comes from such things offering enough "risk" in their lyrics to appeal to teens, while being so bland that parents will happily buy them for their kids. Meanwhile, those of us that enjoy the... nuance... of acts like Bad Brains just don't drop that kind of cash, both because as group it's a smaller demographic and tending to be an older audience anyway it's a slower spending one that is also reluctant to buy new material. Thus those acts don't really get any commercial focus, so less of them are signed, and the market narrows further, generating even less interest.

Look at country music. It's been on this cycle a bit longer, having long ago totally devolved into little more than acceptable acts with company logos adorning their jumpsuits. Now we're seeing a resurgence of the popularity of older artists, especially Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and the slow, but steadily growing, popularity of acts like James McMurty. If you aren't familiar with him, I suggest this as your entry point-

It's a pretty honest song.

Anyway, my rambling point is that it all swings around and around. The concern, as with all cycles, is that each cycle picks up more inertia than it had last time, swinging to more violent peaks, until the system blows apart. What that would actually mean, musically, I really have no idea.

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Craig Fergusen DOES actuall... (Below threshold)

August 8, 2008 12:54 PM | Posted by Matt: | Reply

Craig Fergusen DOES actually get it. The Jonas Brothers are not rock and roll, they are the new New Kids on the Block. There's a difference. The reason why artists do drugs is b/c they psychologically damaged. This is also why they're great artists. Stairway to Heaven or Smells Like Teen Spirit couldn't have been written with drugs and trauma.

The Jonas Brothers are a Republican/Conservative marketing creation. Whoever is President, the market panders to their electoral base. It's no coincidence that Grunge exploded during Clinton and died with Bush.

This "kissed a girl" crap is pandering to the same target market du jour, roughly 13 year old girls. It's been the same for about 8 years now (not a coincidence). Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton have one thing in common, their target market.

Rock will come back, when we change administrations. It always does. Until then culture will pander to the Republican base - who they used to get elected.

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tres interesting.thanks for... (Below threshold)

August 8, 2008 7:52 PM | Posted by Diane Abus: | Reply

tres interesting.thanks for your thoughts vis culture.

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I do not think ( in respons... (Below threshold)

August 8, 2008 9:34 PM | Posted by Zeecon: | Reply

I do not think ( in response to Matt) that music reflects the political climate - i.e. politics and music both reflect larger cultural trends. In other words, hemlines didn't get shorter because Kennedy was president - Kennedy became president because hemlines were going up.

And it's not the black boyfriend that has people up in arms - it is the fact that she a Christian girl singing about decidedly un-Christian things. If Madonna, Paris Hilton, etc. sang about this, is would be laughable.

As to Ferguson's comment, I agree with Matt - rock and roll is still about rebellion, and I am guessing from his examples that we are probably in the same age group. The thing is - Katy Perry isn't rock 'n' roll, Jonas Bros aren't either - they are pop music, produced for the masses of young kids who think it is respectable to gain fame via TV.

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great analysis. i think you... (Below threshold)

August 9, 2008 12:56 AM | Posted by randy: | Reply

great analysis. i think you hit the nail on the head.

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This is just catchy music p... (Below threshold)

August 9, 2008 11:11 AM | Posted by Will: | Reply

This is just catchy music packaged to maximize its earning potential based upon a zeitgeist. Elvis starred in something like 200 movies so this is nothing new.

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I'm probably the furthest t... (Below threshold)

August 9, 2008 11:51 AM | Posted by cars: | Reply

I'm probably the furthest thing from a Coldplay fan, but implying that Katy Perry is artistically better in any way is a low blow. Besides, their new stuff doesn't suck (I don't see Ms Perry working with Brian Eno).

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I found your post very inte... (Below threshold)

August 10, 2008 12:34 AM | Posted by aqua: | Reply

I found your post very interesting and thought provoking.

As a girl, whose kissed a girl (or two, or three), and definately a few boys, and almost always really, really liked it...when I heard this song I kept thinking, "Shut the hell up. Who cares". The song is annoying.

The song seems to be saying, "ohhh, look at me, I'm risque and more sexy than anyone knows" So many people I know, kiss, girls, guys, guys and girls...who cares who you kiss. I'm hoping one day people respond beyond gender/race/economic/political barriers and kiss the person they like, regardless.

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Think about the number one ... (Below threshold)

August 10, 2008 12:34 PM | Posted by I: | Reply

Think about the number one complaint of porn-watchers, and the reason why people hunt out amateur porn so much. The hardcore actors don't really look like they're having a good time.

I'm more thrilled by the thought of holding hands with the guy I like than I am by watching porn, even if the actors are enjoying themselves. I doubt that's MTV's fault (it's been a few years since I watched TV, and my radio rarely deviates from the metal station), but it wouldn't surprise me if a lot of people have similar experiences that I do.

So I agree that Katy Perry is selling nostalgia for a time before the audience was born- because the life they were chasing turned out to be emptier than the hucksters selling it promised, and so clearly the alternative is better.

I think it does represent rebellion in a more significant sense than you think it does; in an age of cheap drugs, free sex, and permissive parents, it means more to say "no thank you" than it did when the people Craig Ferguson listened to were young.

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Craig Ferguson is pissed of... (Below threshold)

August 10, 2008 1:37 PM | Posted by vavatch: | Reply

Craig Ferguson is pissed off by the conduct of the youngsters, and then claims they aren't being rebellious?

It's just the young doing what they always do - whatever it is that annoys dad. Doesn't seem any different to previous generations to me.

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Watch this and tell me "Smo... (Below threshold)

August 11, 2008 3:41 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

Watch this and tell me "Smoke on the Water" doesn't mean something.

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I don't think there's so mu... (Below threshold)

August 11, 2008 5:10 PM | Posted by Jim: | Reply

I don't think there's so much mystery to the Katy Perry song. I think sex and controversy have always sold well, but the entertainment industry has long known that actual sex/controversy brings potentially bad PR. The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, sex tapes, etc. probably brought too much attention and public outcry. What works best is manufactured controversy. Of course kissing a girl is far from controversial, but the song is presented in such a way that it generates the expectation of controversy.

"What? She liked it?"

The song implies that liking to kiss a girl is surprising information.

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very true ... (Below threshold)

August 12, 2008 4:28 PM | Posted by Music: | Reply

very true

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First of all I'd like to sa... (Below threshold)

August 22, 2008 2:24 AM | Posted by Sarah: | Reply

First of all I'd like to say that there are more than two races. To say that interracial dating is still an issue with "both races," is a completely uneducated comment, as race goes way deeper than just black/white. Secondly, the fact that her boyfriend is black in the video is completely irrelevant. Her real life boyfriend, as you mention, Travis McCoy, is biracial with black and white. The generation that this video appeals to is over the whole "not dating outside your race" thing. About kissing girls--the song goes "You're my experimental game, just human nature." It's about being curious about one's own sexuality, figuring it out for themselves.

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I think I'm more worried by... (Below threshold)

September 7, 2008 11:38 PM | Posted by lotsololz: | Reply

I think I'm more worried by DJ Skeet Skeet, 'skeet' being hip hop parlance for 'ejaculate' according to the current MTVers.

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AND FIRE IN THE SKY!... (Below threshold)

April 13, 2011 12:02 AM | Posted by A. Nonny Moose: | Reply


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You think Taylor Swift is p... (Below threshold)

February 28, 2012 1:32 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

You think Taylor Swift is prettier than Katy Perry?!
I wish we could go back to 'a glimpse of stocking being something shocking.' Much less work to excite the bf. Have you looked at porn lately? OMG.
And it does not seem to be working for the guys either, oddly enough. The young men who have been raised this way are less fun in bed, not more.
It is refreshing to hear someone criticize Katy Perry, she's so beloved by so many. I don't care for her music at all.

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It's not about Katy Perry. ... (Below threshold)

June 8, 2013 1:43 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

It's not about Katy Perry. It's not about whether or not you like her. Katy Perry and her role as a media cog doesn't matter. The media itself (the government, the internet, the masses of you and I and future us's) - is a branch of the machine that CREATES cultural expectations, social reality. It's not about liking or disliking. It's about the limits you don't even realize are there for what you can decide to "like" or "not like." Music, politics, medicine, morals, society. It's about generations of people who don't know the difference between those limits, the structural facade they construct, and actual reality.

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That's rather lovely. Now w... (Below threshold)

June 8, 2013 5:22 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by me: | Reply

That's rather lovely. Now what are those cultural expectations and how does one exceed them? What are the consequences of thinking, let alone expressing, one's own thoughts?

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Consequences? Only if you i... (Below threshold)

June 8, 2013 5:24 PM | Posted, in reply to me's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Consequences? Only if you include getting ignored except by a few as one. Case in point: TLP

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In response to me: <p... (Below threshold)

June 8, 2013 7:20 PM | Posted by K: | Reply

In response to me:

Cultural expectations are what you perceive them to be. In a greater sense, they "exist," but only in a time and a place that will be superseded by others... This is not a question I should attempt to answer. I don't know.

The consequence of thinking one's thoughts is action, or non-action, which is in itself an action in response to their existence. Thinking thoughts is to express them. What one does after one thinks is to affirm or deny that expression... Which (naive a thought as it may be...) is to identify oneself for one's self alone.

"Me," did you have further thoughts?

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