The so-called "Culture Wars" in the United States are a veritable mine field of contradictory messages and demands that trade upon such twisted leaps of logic that make one wonder how anyone subscribes to the positions of either side. Perhaps the defining arguments of the conflicts for the "soul" of America was best defined on an episode of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (reviewed here!) entitled "Nevada Day, Part 1" wherein the character of Matthew Albie (Matthew Perry) defines the fight as ". . . your side hates my side because you think we think you're stupid and my side hates your side because we think you're stupid." The thing is, the "Culture Wars," like many fights, are fought on many fronts.
Perhaps the clearest front the "Culture Wars" are fought on is popular media: movies, television, books, and - of course - popular music. The culturally conservative elements recently launched an offensive in the conflict for the "soul" of America by attempting a mass crossover of Christian Rock into pop-rock. This was done when bands like Lifehouse released radio-friendly, universally-accepted, pop-rock songs to promote their album No Name Face (reviewed here!), which included "Hanging By A Moment" (their big mainstream hit song) along side more traditional and obvious Christian Rock tracks. The other side of the "Culture Wars" easily exposed this as a somewhat insidious way of operating. The argument held that if Christian Rock truly wanted to be a legitimate mainstream success and dominate pop music airwaves, they needed to be straightforward about it. In other words, if those who support Christian Rock and the dogma usually associated with it, they ought to be trying to break into the mainstream with their songs about god, Jesus and whatever agenda they are promoting as opposed to a thematic bait-and-switch between the radio singles and the content on the albums.
A far less-clear offensive has recently been launched by (former?) Christian Rock artist Katy Perry. Katy Perry's first album, "Katy Hudson" was released on the Christian Rock label, Red Hill Records back in 2001. But for all the apparent controversy about the lead single from her album, One Of The Boys, "I Kissed A Girl" is a shockingly straightforward track for the anti-feminists. In fact, it is somewhat surprising that there are any within the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community who continue to support Perry's career based upon how direct and offensive the lyrics to "I Kissed A Girl" are to anyone who actually pays attention to the lines being sung.
Even more amusing than the lack of outrage among the liberals who need only pay attention to the lyrics to realize that this is not a positive song in terms of message or content, the more conservative elements that might be on the surface offended by the obvious content seem to be missing the rhetorical boat as well. Underneath the thin shell that appears gay friendly is a stronger disregard for responsibility and an argument for a young, dumb experimentalism that is almost antithetical to the conservative agenda that might applaud the subtle mockery of l/g/b culture "I Kissed A Girl" stands for. As mentioned; sometimes the convolutions in these "Culture Wars" leave one wondering just where someone or their art stands.
Like other musical offensives in the "Culture Wars," "I Kissed A Girl" features a fairly infectious pop tune, guided by electric guitars, synthesizers, and a drum beat that makes it easy for the 12 - 21 target demographic to dance to. Score one for the conservatives: they lay down a beat on "I Kissed A Girl" that is legitimate teen pop-rock trash of the most blase and obvious sound.
How is "I Kissed A Girl" negative toward lesbian and gay culture? Let's look at the lyrics. Perhaps most striking in the song is the line "It's not what good girls do, not how they should behave." This resurrects the tired old idea that good girls are heterosexual and that there is a right and wrong way to behave and, implicitly, to think. Good girls, after all, don't even think of kissing other girls. This is pretty much a classical view that the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s strove to do away with. Women who are quiet and demur and make for "the ideal wife" are not necessarily better or more desirable than the women who speak their mind, experiment, and, yes, even kiss a girl or two in their time.
The situation by which the musical protagonist of "I Kissed A Girl" has her supposed lesbian (or bi-curious) encounter is treated as accidental by the opening lines of "This was never the way I planned, not my intention. / I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion." How do good girls "go bad?" They drink! Drinking leads to lesbian kisses! Avoid alcohol or you, too, might kiss a girl! This straightforward premise allows the musical protagonist to be absolved all of her sins henceforth: she didn't mean to kiss a girl, she was just too drunk to know better. This is supported some by the subsequent lines "It's not what I'm used to, just wanna try you on. / I'm curious for you, caught my attention." This young woman is so drunk you could essentially dangle a shiny object in front of her, she has become so curious by what is in front of her. Score another point for the Conservative agenda.
A look at the catchy refrain reveals the serious stumbling block for both sides in the Culture Wars, though. After one of the two decent lines in the song about enjoying the taste of another girl's Chapstick, Perry sings "I kissed a girl just to try it, / I hope my boyfriend don't mind it." Perry's musical protagonist (it ought to be noted that Perry is the co-writer of this song with Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Cathy Dennis) uses this line to make clear: 1. She has a boyfriend, 2. She is accountable to the boyfriend, and 3. This is not something intended to be repeated. First, that the musical protagonist is heterosexual is used to absolve her from the "sin" of kissing a girl. Second, worrying about the boyfriend minding it indicates that the singer both knew it was wrong (or suspect) and she feels some remorse for the action. Good girls repent to their boyfriend and ask forgiveness. Because it is "just something she tried," there is the implication that boyfriend won't mind it, will forgive her and they can both go back to their heterosexual bliss.
What the line more effectively does, however, is promote the ever-growing irresponsible experimentation in youth culture. To be clear: the role of teenagers is to test boundaries. They try to figure out how far they can go and what works for them by pushing everyone and every institution around them. Experimentation is a normal part of growing up, be it heterosexual, homosexual, or multiple partner sexual activities, drug use, etc. The fundamental problem with youth culture in general is when it fails to learn from those experiences and most importantly to take responsibility for them. As the old adage goes: the crime is bad, the cover-up is worse. In the case of "I Kissed A Girl," what makes the musical protagonist so deplorable to a thinking feminist is that she does not own her experience. She feels guilty about cheating on her boyfriend, even as she lauds the experience. The closest she comes to making a worthwhile statement in this is that she does feel some remorse. The problem is, she doesn't take responsibility for the action. After all, she was drunk at the time. Moreover, this experience did not come up as part of her relationship with boyfriend, but rather in defiance of it. She violated the terms of the relationship (if they had spoken about it beforehand and decided as a couple that girlfriend was going to go out, get drunk and kiss girls, one assumes boyfriend wouldn't have rational grounds to "mind it," even if the emotional reality of the situation did not match the plan), after all, it wasn't planned. The lack of responsibility might well be the common ground between conservatives and liberals in denouncing the song.
But the way that "I Kissed A Girl" truly panders to the conservative base comes in the next lines "It felt so wrong, / it felt so right. / Don't mean I'm in love tonight." Right away, the reaction is, it feels wrong. And while true feminists might wish that the reason it feels wrong is that this is a drunk woman cheating on her boyfriend, there is nothing in the lyrics to indicate that. And while part of it feels right, it is important for the musical protagonist to note that there is no love here. There is no "danger," therefore, of the good girl staying bad. She'll be fine when she sobers up in the morning! One supposes it's only sober girls who are at risk of being "turned gay" by the attentions of lesbians and gays.
But what is most offensive is the casual disregard the musical protagonist has for her subject. Instantly remorseful to boyfriend, she tosses aside "the girl" with the lines "I don't even know your name, it doesn't matter. / You're my experimental game, just human nature." "The girl" isn't person, she is a game. As uncouth as it is to cite one's own works, in Within These Walls, this type scenario is explored when the protagonist, Jen, has her first sexual experience with a young woman, who was doing it simply as an experiment. In that work, it becomes clear how much such casual disregard can seriously damage young women. Just like boys who simply set out to "score" with girls - one need only recall that particularly despicable gang that awarded its members points for deflowering virgins - girls who try to make it with the local lesbians just for fun indicate a callousness that is far more destructive than healthy or normal.
A young woman kissing another is not a big deal, especially as part of normal, youthful exploration. Having to couch it in drunken, irresponsible teenage behavior undermines any potential benefit to the liberals of a song like "I Kissed A Girl." The sooner liberals expose this type of insidious argument in the form of pop music, the sooner we might pave the way for a truly progressive one where it's treated as normal and loving for a young woman to kiss a girl, enjoy it, fall in love and grow from it. It sure beats being discarded after a night of a drunken heterosexual experimentation, which is - in the end - all "I Kissed A Girl" is truly advocating.
For other essays or commentary, please be sure to check out:
Anne Hathaway For Wonder Woman!
How To Read The Blackest Night Saga
For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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