There’s no publicity cheaper nor more effective than censure. When Jean-Luc Godard’s, Hail, Mary, a modern re-telling of the Virgin Birth was condemned by the Archdiocese of Boston in 1985, the pious outrage only sent more people to see the film. The Catholic condemnation centered not on the updating of the story to modern times, with Mary a gas-station attendant and Joseph a cab driver, but on the way Godard’s camera lovingly explored the full-frontal contours, the peaks and valleys, of Myriem Roussel’s exquisite form. Theologically speaking, the Virginal body, in any representation, should not be so zealously inspected: the Conception, it seems, was not only immaculate, but fully-clothed.
Alerted to the high point of the movie by John Paul II and the Boston Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law — who, as history would show us, should have had his mind on the lecherous intentions of some of his priests, rather than the visual proclivities of cinema-goers — e hastened in late-adolescent droves to the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts to see the film.
Sadly, the film was a snoozer, and the fact that Mary’s body was for a few tender moments the object of Godard’s gaze, did not add much to the torpor I felt in that sold-out darkness. Law must never have seen the film, for there was nothing in the offending scene of the eroticism that marked Godard’s previous attentions to the naked bodies of Jean Seberg in Breathless and Brigitte Bardot in Contempt: it turned out that the director had treated Mary with true and chaste devotion.
Still, retribution was forthcoming. The Orson Welles theatre was destroyed by fire a few months later. I have not ruled out foul play, be it divine or human …
Less dazzling than the pontifical white and cardinal red of Wojtyla and Law’s cassocks and are the vestments of displeasure donned by pop commentators during the recent rise of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and its more provocative companion “UR So Gay” to the top of the single charts both in the US and the UK. If not for the shouts of disapproval over the cleverly irreverent lyrics and magnificently superficial music, the likes of this Bach-loving, Proms-listening, clavichord-playing, Musical Patriot would never have pulled his nose from this musty manuscript of Renaissance polyphony.
The main charge against Perry is insensitivity to gay people. The song opens with the hackle-raising: “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf/While jacking off listening to Mozart.” First, I’ll allow myself a fusty chortle over the contorted semi-rhyme of “scarf” with “Mozart,” predicated as it is on the incorrect pronunciation of the Austrian Wunderkind’s name. Asphyxo-auto-eroticism gone awry with the aid of the finale of the Jupiter Symphony and a tastefully chosen accessory—Mozart will never be the same after this tableau has impressed itself on the classical connoisseur’s imagination. Still, Mozarteans might take comfort that their man has gotten his biggest boost ever through this undreamt-of gift of product placement. Mozart may be “gay” but at least he’s out of the closet and onto the center stage — or better still the iPod — of global pop culture.
The song uses “gay” in its pejorative, colloquial sense, and that is a bad thing. That the text is funny is a major inconvenience. The fair-minded will surely turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to this trash. But not before one more look and listen.
I could go on with a disquisition on the hypnotic melancholy of the song’s unlikely hook — a lengthy (by the standards of pop) minor rumination with echoes of Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” whistling across the Perry video’s mock-happy blue sky backdrop. I might also comment at great length on the counterpoint between this wistful instrumental undergirding and the coldly delivered insults of the song’s text. But I won’t. Rather I’ll simply say that the video, which stars the dolls Ken and Barbie, with Perry as the dyspeptic, guitar-strumming narrator, confronts a question that has haunted generations of children: the dubious status of Ken’s gender. Why is there nothing down there?
Does the song say that gay men are, like Ken, emasculated? Certainly not. Rather, I see “UR So Gay” as a brave confrontation, cloaked in acerbic humor, with the primal moment of millions of American childhoods. Relive if you dare, all you boys and girls, that morning when you pulled open the drawers of the arch-suburban male effigy and got that first shocking look …
f anyone should be offended by all this it is the real butt of Perry’s sly diatribe—the sensitive, so-called “heterosexual,” male, who, as the lyrics would have it, acts “so gay, and doesn’t even like boys.” He must endure all the raised eyebrows and murmuring questions about his sexual orientation, simply because, according to Perry, he likes Mozart, nice scarves, electric cars, and must have sun screen of “SPF 45, just to stay alive”—ouch! another slashing bit of doggerel that cuts me to the quick. I’m going to put down that Palestrina manuscript right now, and go rotate the tires on my Hummer in full view of all the neighbors.
But not before I have my way with Perry’s international mega-hit “I Kissed a Girl.” This over-produced, electro-shock dance number also conjures the specter of same-sex eros. It’s guilty of offense mainly by association with “UR So Gay,” but also because the meeting of lips is, as it were, glossed as mindless fun, done “just to try it.” The kiss is merely Perry’s “experimental game” and its lingering “taste” of the kissee’s “cherry chapstick” bears no promise of lasting love, not to mention, same-sex marriage.
The video begins with tracking shots of Perry recumbent on a king leisure bed, wearing the smallest of possible tutus and stroking a kitty. This cinematic version of erotic massage is intercut with jerky images from a girls-only dance party featuring red-leather gloves, diverse bustiers, and fishnet stockings.
Though throbbing with excitement over the girl-girl kiss, the video never actually shows us that supposedly transgressive act. Instead, Perry stares saucily into the camera while the camera caresses her in a manner reminiscent of Godard, though the great auteur would doubtless be disgusted by the comparison. It is as if she is admiring herself in a two-way mirror, with the greedy consumers of her image lurking on the other side, as mesmerized with her bod as she herself is.
Perry’s publicity machine has cleverly amped up the titillation factor by prompting commentators to recall that both the popstar’s parents are Methodist missionaries still circling the globe to spread the Word. The full-leather rig means so much more when it is worn by the naughty preacher’s daughter. But when the world—including mom and dad—is watching, little Katy turns out to be a good girl after all. She’ll tell, but she won’t kiss.
At its close, the video informs us that it was all only a fantasy. Perry wakes up next to her slumbering male bedmate with a mischievous grin on her face. The video and the dream are over. But what really must anger those offended by all this is that the tune and the words that cling to it so greedily are still in our mind and on our lips. And on theirs, too.
The links for the videos:
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org