Thursday, July 19, 2012

Smarter than you think

I can't believe that I'm making the time to write this.

Dana Stevens is a film critic for Slate. I like her reviews. But I have a problem with something she said in her review of Katy Perry: Part of Me. And no, I haven't seen the movie and I don't plan to. Anyway, here's what she said, first about the movie, and then about one of Perry's hits:
There’s no mention of Brand’s well-documented struggles as an alcoholic and drug addict—in fact, there are no unwholesome substances anywhere on view in Part of Me, with the exception of the you-go-girl blackout drinking Perry espouses in her mega-hit “Last Friday Night.”

About “Last Friday Night.” Not to sound like a scold, but I agree entirely with the comedian Rob Delaney’s brilliant line-by-line breakdown of this song, in which he takes the unnamed protagonist (and by association, Perry) to task for glamorizing a nightlife that includes unprotected sex with strangers, drinking to the point of amnesia, and possibly sexual assault. Why do I care whether a pop singer I never voluntarily listen to hits it big with a cute ditty about how awesome it is to spend your Friday nights doing stupid, dangerous shit? Maybe because I have a daughter who’s a born ham, someone who, like the younger Katy Perry we see in old home video footage in Part of Me, has dreams of standing on a stage one day doing something—singing, dancing, playing an instrument—in front of a cheering crowd. If and when that time comes, I want her to know she has options besides spraying whipped cream out of her bra.
I am a casual fan of Perry, but it's not because of her above-average looks. I like her music. I don't love it. It's not good enough to love, and her albums are too goddamned loud. I just listened to "Last Friday Night" again, and like too many casualties of the loudness war, it really does sound like dogshit. But I don't think that's Perry's fault. Anyway, I know a little something about this.

Stevens should tell us why we should assume, as she does, that a songwriter who sings about a morally objectionable lifestyle thereby approves of it or espouses it or glorifies it. If Stevens had taken the time to listen to the lyrics of "Last Friday Night," she would have heard the following:
Yeah, I think we broke the law
Always say we're gonna stop
But this Friday night
Do it all again
That doesn't sound like glorification to me. That sounds like an indictment of the meaninglessness and pointlessness of the lifestyle Stevens finds so morally objectionable. And isn't that what one might expect from a songwriter who still considers herself to be a Christian? Stevens writes that she "left the film with a slightly higher opinion of Perry as a singer and songwriter." Then why not give Perry some credit and consider the possibility that the song has more than one layer of meaning? And by the way, why not teach your child to think, creatively and critically, about the music she consumes?

I grew up listening to the Dead Kennedys. On the surface, some of their songs appear to glorify horrible things. But of course their intention was to condemn those things, not glorify them. A perfect example is their song "Riot." Jello Biafra seems to celebrate the joys of rioting in the song as he describes the riot in detail:
Now you can smash all the windows that you want
All you really need are some friends and and a rock
Throwing a brick never felt so damn good
Smash more glass
Scream with a laugh
And wallow with the crowds
Watch them kicking peoples' ass
But a closer look at the lyrics reveals that he actually has contempt for the rioters. Here's the chorus:
Riot - the unbeatable high
Riot - shoots your nerves to the sky
Riot - playing into their hands
Tomorrow you're homeless
Tonight it's a blast 
At the end of the song, we can hear the rioter's high wearing off as he realizes that he's destroyed his own neighborhood, and perhaps it wasn't worth it after all.

So it's not difficult for me to imagine that Perry is ridiculing the lifestyle she describes in "Last Friday Night," and ridiculing those who enjoy that lifestyle and who also believe that Perry has expressed her approval of them in the song. And I suspect that she's a lot smarter than most of us think.

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson