You KNOW what bothers me about Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" -- now officially the song of the summer, after spending five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100? Not the auto-erotic tease of the lyrics, which keeps Perry inside her head rather than beneath the waistband of some lovely's Victoria's Secret finery. Not her groaning vocal delivery, which is kind of sexy, built around a neo-burlesque bump of a track and the luscious word hook "cherry Chapstick."
I don't think she's a hypocrite, either, despite being a former Christian artist who's already semi-engaged at age 23 (to lead dude Travis McCoy of Gym Class Heroes, who gave her a "Happy Days"-style promise ring in June). There's lots of same-sex kissing in the Bible, and anyone who's attended an all-girl school knows what hanky-panky can transpire in such hothouse environments. A little frisson of guilt, which Perry adds in by worrying about her boyfriend's reaction to her Sapphic lip lock, is ever-potent in pop. (For proof, listen to Ray Parker Jr.'s immortal "Aw, shucks" in "The Other Woman." )
What bothers me about "I Kissed a Girl" is that, in the song's video, Perry never actually kisses a girl. She lounges around in some kind of noirish spa environment, showing off terrific gams in her trademark pinup-girl outfits. She raises her eyebrows and pouts as refugees from a George Michael video flounce and giggle, not kissing each other either but at least rubbing her leg. Her sensual experiments include petting a kitten and fingering some frosting on a pink cake. Then voila -- it's all a dream, and she wakes up next to her buddy DJ Skeet, playing her video boyfriend. (Perry's biracial relationship seems equally "transgressive," if not as useful for male viewers' fantasies, as her lesbian reveries.)
Now, Jill Sobule didn't kiss the girl either in the video for her 1995 song of the same title, which Perry and her top-notch songwriting team -- Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Cathy Dennis, massive hit-makers all, share credit with Perry -- cheerfully ripped off for this season's hit. (There's also a prominent pink cake in Sobule's video -- a sly tribute?) Sobule has said in a blog post that her record label wouldn't allow it. But the singer-songwriter's video self did hug her Jenny and let her touch the hem of her mini-dress, even though the last frames show her impregnated by Fabio.
So what's changed since 1995? I think the shift has to do with what Americans can tolerate right now in terms of risk. Sobule's song came during a time of economic strength and social experimentation fueled by pride movements, especially when it came to feminism and homosexuality. In pop, Alanis Morissette had taken female fury fully into the mainstream, supported by a serious gang of girl greats including Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, Bikini Kill, TLC and Hole.
The activist movement that arose in response to the AIDS epidemic, in league with young women's renewed interest in feminism, linked sexual experimentation to a way of life, not just a drunken night on the town. Sobule's song was considered tame next to stronger statements such as Bikini Kill's often obscene rants, but at least she added the lyric "and I might do it again!" after detailing her exploits.
Plenty of bi-curious sisters (this one included) never went further than a few nights at clubs with names like Meow Mix, but plenty more felt the connection between sexual desire and identity strongly enough to redefine their lives -- and their politics -- on a larger scale.
That's just not happening now. American culture is retracting. People are terrified by the crashing economy and our slipping status in the world. In such times, fantasies go backward too.
Katy Perry, with her potty mouth and her minister parents and her famous boyfriend, is an early 1960s-style bad girl -- Rizzo in "Grease" for a new generation. Her daring statements contain the hint of an assurance that she'll come around in the end. She represents manageable risk: nothing life-changing, but enough to create a memory she can return to after she's settled down. Like Carrie Underwood lamenting a quickie Vegas marriage in "Last Name," or Miley Cyrus raging at her boyfriend only to tell him he's adorable in “7 Things,” Perry is all about mistakes that are reversible, experiments that never go too far.
Perry's taken heat for carelessly appropriating gay culture in her songs, and it's deserved. But it's also par for the course in a conservative moment, when decadent party-circuit role-playing replaces open-minded experiments in sex and love. As far as popular images of bi-curiosity go, I have more hope for Lindsay Lohan. At least she's been seen kissing a girl.