Why I like "California Gurls"

And now, for something completely different (you might not want to blare this at work, and yes, I’m assuming an at least passing familiarity with western philosophy):

http://www.youtube.com/v/CwE-SLnLkqY&hl=en_US&fs=1

For those of you who laudably manage to avoid malls, television, and radio (I fail on the third only, damnit) this song may be unknown. I think it’s self-evident that, in the world of pop rankings, it is doing very well.

When I first heard it on the radio (driving to go skiing a few weekends ago), I somewhat guiltily listened to the whole thing, and was punished by having it wedged in my memory for the next 48 hours. It’s a fun, clever song, but not voluntarily memorable. The video, however, is fantastic.

Before I say why, I have to speak briefly about Foucault. In “What is an author?” he argues (among other things) that the intended meaning which an author has for a text (and text can mean a written work, work of art, unit of media, etc) quickly becomes irrelevant for interpretive work. Firstly, the intentions of an author and the way in which they shape a text cannot be fully articulated or even understood by the author, either in the moment or in retrospect. Secondly, because the text only exists in a meaningful way because it is “read” discussed and remembered by people, the meaning of the text is subject to the whimsy of the cultural and historical forces in which it exists at a given moment.

The meaning of texts change over time.

I say this because while some of her comments are revealing, on the whole Perry doesn’t come across as a critical feminist, though I would argue that the effect of this video is exactly that. Perry has said that the song is a response to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” pitting her California (by which she means LA, of course) against his NYC. This is probably the most obvious entry point for a discussion of “California Gurls'” feminism.

Jay-Z is a figure who has slowed whole and regurgitated all the major stereotypes of masculine identity. ESOM touches on most of them, from material-based self-aggrandizement to proximal/cultural prowess (references to Biggie, Bob Marley, etc tying him to their cultural mystique) to structural misogyny (the entire third verse). Jay-Z explicitly ties the possibility of all this, or at least the apotheosis of it that he implicitly embodies, to contemporary urbanism. If NYC is the world pinnacle of this sort of urbanity, then the city is coextensive with Jay-Z’s vision of power and masculinity (which are the same thing).

Katy Perry has made a career of reinventing cultural tropes in a way just parodic enough to break new ground, while being catchy and appealing enough to have wide circulation as pop texts. It’s illustrative to compare Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” from 2008 to Jill Sobule’s song of the same name from 1995. In many ways Sobule’s version, with its detailed discussion of lesbianism as an alternative for heretofore heterosexual women, is more subversive of the dominant culture than Perry’s. This may not be the case for two reasons; in spite of it’s inclusion on the “Clueless” soundtrack the song never achieved much beyond indie-pop status, and that Sobule as an older and stereotypically less attractive woman shapes the interpretation and reception.

As Perry’s video for “California Gurls” makes clear, we’re meant to identify the meaning of the song with her, personally. Just as with Jay-Z (and this has become a ubiquitous pop trope such that doing otherwise is almost nonsensical) we are meant to view Perry as the embodiment of her song and what it means. Physically Sobule is far closer to a culturally understandable lesbian than Perry, making Perry’s flirtation more impactful, given that the popular reflex is to place the singer into the situation illustrated by her song.

So what then does “California Gurls” tell us about Perry’s feminism? Much of my answer can already be found in a NY Times column by philosophy professor Nancy Bauer. Bauer discusses Lady Gaga, and I think that Gaga and Perry fit well together, especially insofar as both have recently used music videos to transform otherwise common pop songs (“Telephone” is an ideal example) into nuanced cultural texts. Both display sexuality prominently in their lyrics, videos, and public personas, and both attempt to do what Bauer calls “…sketch a vision of a just world seductive enough to compete with the allures of the present one.”

What Bauer describes as the end question of Hegel and deBeauvoir is really the end question of Nietzsche, and thus of most late 20th century philosophy (that is not solipsistically obsessed with language, Quine, and a myopic interpretation of Wittgenstein). That is to say, on what grounds can meaning be reinvented in a world that take seriously the all-encompassing role of cultural relativity? Nietzsche believed that “everything is always already interpreted,” that meaning was not a sensical concept apart from doing, and at the same time was the most vociferous critic of nihilism in perhaps the whole history of western thought. (Anyone who says Nietzsche was a nihilist is both correct and deeply ignorant.) Nietzsche wanted to “revalue all values,” which meant create new ways in which meaning if life could be defined, for individuals and cultures, that did not depend on the hackneyed, oppressive dogmas of the past.

This is what feminism has been trying to do since the days of Lucretia Mott, to redefine femininity and womanhood on empowering and liberatory terms when the only terms available are those created by masculine cultural dominance. Bauer states the problem as “But neither are they [Gaga, Perry, et al] living in a world in which their acts of self-expression or self-empowerment are distinguishable, even in theory, from acts of self-objectification.” The “California Gurls” video is without a doubt self-objectifying, the point is of course that no other terms are available to Perry to express and recreate personal power.

The presence of Snoop Dogg in the song and video is vital to this end. Snoop is, perhaps even moreso than Jay-Z, a modern embodiment of oppressive masculine power and cultural norms. And he enacts them in the video, in ways that are comically stereotypical and obvious. Perry crafts a response to this, first by liberating her fellow women, then by negotiating a game rife with phallic symbolism, next by mowing down an army of hostile (male, we presume) gummy bears with whipped cream canisters attached to her breasts (a subversive appropriation of phallic power that is as blatant and hilarious as it is devastatingly clever), and finally by burying Snoop in the sand. The whole operation takes down one of the preeminent symbols of male oppression, does so in a way that embraces the extent to which our culture fetishizes the “sweet” aspects of girlhood across all ages, and valorizes sexual empowerment all the while.

While not unproblematic, it is an ideal example of modern feminism.

So what then to make of “California Gurls” as a response and rebuttal to “Empire York State of Mind”? While Jay-Z paints a darker picture or urbanism, one in which the right male can thrive while women are ensnared and given date-rape drugs, Perry creates a cultural space where feminine sexuality reigns supreme. It can certainly be argued that Perry’s vision (literally) of female sexuality is so narrow and cultural circumscribed that it creates an iatrogenic model of empowerment. And that is surely the case. However, the crux of the matter is that sexuality (or any other cultural entity) does not come into being spontaneously and on its own. Social norms and constructs come into the world tied so tightly to memory and the recreation of history that they cannot be cut free and put to any end. The possibilities for what female sexuality can mean are limited, and Perry is putting hers to work in a way that is both subversive and culturally comprehensible, even culturally appetizing. It thus ensures itself maximum effect. Which is why I like it.

PS:
I went on a short bike-rafting adventure.  Amazing how stable the boat was with a piece of metal five times its weight on the bow.  Still not up for running Rattlesnake with a bike, though.

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