Katy Perry Does Critical Theory

e7fbb6d2d0661b843397264775eab685-1000x1000x1

Illuminati realness, or reference to Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’? You decide.

There is little doubt now that we are living in a strange time, a time where Teen Vogue talks Black Lives Matter, Elle Magazine quotes Russian revolutionaries, and the dictionary trolls the President of the United States. Activist politics is filtering into mainstream spaces in strange and uneven ways. This week one such event was the release of Katy Perry’s video for her new song ‘Chained to the Rhythm‘, which is, in fact, a hilariously direct engagement with Critical Theory.

Critical Theory emerged in the mid twentieth century, and involved theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer taking up strands of Marxist and Psychoanalytic thought, to provide a critique of society and mass culture. In particular, Adorno was very concerned with what he called the “culture industry“, that is, entertainment consumed by the masses that works to keep people controlled and complicit under capitalism. Adorno believed that popular culture numbs people so that they are not able to fully realise the conditions of their own oppression.

This is exactly the critique of society that Perry presents in her new video.

With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Perry’s video is set in an amusement park called “Oblivia”, where everyone is either viewing the world through their iPads or shuffling behind others toward mundane rides such as a literal hampster wheel. The setting notably connects up with Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous claim that “amusement has become an extension of labor under late capitalism”.

one

Gosh KP, what on earth does it mean?!

But with increasing nuance throughout the clip, Perry manages to address some of the most pressing political issues of our time. These include:

1. The financial crisis and the American dream

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-9-28-46-pm

The first ride Perry visits is a reference to the financial crisis of 2008 that saw the mortgage market in the USA bottom-out. It’s not a fun ride—you sit in a tiny house and get jolted in the air once you’re locked in the house. It’s almost like Perry read Lauren Berlant’s book ‘Cruel Optimism‘ which talks about how people invest in dreams of a better future (i.e. the American dream) but that this belief is actually a cruel and toxic attachment.

2. Heteronormativity

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-32-15-pm

The dream drop ride shows heterosexual couples enter, surrounded by a white picket fence. Perry comes along and smells the roses on the fence, only to prick her finger, realising that the roses have stems of barbed wire. In a reverse-Sleeping-Beauty move, this finger prick helps to wake Perry up, and we realise that the deep sleep represented in fairytales is in fact about succumbing to a heteronormative life. Here, Perry functions as a queer character who can’t quite meet the normative standards that allow her to fully enjoy the park. As Perry is also the star of the piece, we are called to rethink the “barbed” reality of heterosexually “normal” life.

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-32-29-pm

On this note, we should pause here to consider how Perry’s partner on the love-rollercoaster is an incredibly camp man in a glitter shirt.

3. Racism and the Trump Travel Ban 

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-34-14-pm

One of the next rides that Perry stumbles across involves black couples and single people getting flung over a fence/wall. Here Perry is offering a direct critique of the Trump administration’s white heterosexist rulings.

4. War and nuclear holocaust

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-32-01-pm

Park-goers walk around carrying fairyfloss that looks like broccoli, that we later realise are actually mushroom clouds. Also this ride:

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-34-00-pm

Bleak.

5. Climate change and environmental degradation 

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-34-33-pm

“Fire Water” is Perry’s most obscure reference—or, perhaps her most literal. Perry visits a gas station where the petrol is actually water but that water is on fire. There are also sailors. It’s pretty great. It appears to be a reference to climate change (the world is heating up) but also fracking (which can cause river fires!), and on that note, it is also clearly about Standing Rock.

6. The nuclear family and false appearances

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-34-48-pm

Toward the end of the song Perry sits in a crowd wearing 3D glasses, watching a family perform in front of a TV screen. Here Perry challenges the charade of the perfect nuclear family, and the societal focus on the heterosexual couple. The retro styling of the entire clip also gains greater meaning here, as we see that this world is also one where women are cast back into the stereotype of the 1950s housewife. But in Perry also adopting this dress (reminiscent of the Jetsons) she is entertaining a form of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag“. That is, a way of embodying the past in order to displace the “present”, to help us question our own progress narratives.

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-35-04-pm-1

The imagery of this scene also, remarkably, directly references Guy Debord’s 1967 work ‘Society of the Spectacle‘, which laments the way everything in society has become about consumption and appearances. One of Debord’s proposed tactics for interrupting such a society is called “detournement“—basically hijacking cultural products and subverting their meaning, also known as culture jamming. That Perry would reference (or perhaps recuperate) Debord would, I imagine, have him rolling in his grave.

society_of_the_spectacle-01-480x787

The cover of Debord’s classic

During the same scene, Skip Marley emerges out of the television screen, and in a direct critique of imperialism, the ruling class and capitalist society, sings: “Time is ticking for the empire/The truth they feed is feeble/As so many times before/They greed over the people/They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot”.

After this Perry dances around confusedly for a bit, before running and then stopping on a treadmill, giving us a completely alarmed stare down the camera.

When I first heard the song—which includes lyrics such as “So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble” and “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”—I was annoyed that Perry would take a swipe at ordinary people, as if everyone is just stupid and thoughtless. This seemed perfectly in line with the desperately elitist condemnation by Clinton of Trump supporters as “deplorables” in 2016, which only served to alienate rather than mobilise people. The original critical theory work from Adorno and others is similarly irksome in its extreme disdain for “low culture” enjoyed by the many, versus more intellectual “high culture”. As I see it, to condemn mass culture and in turn the “cultural dupes” who consume it, is to be radically ungenerous to the circumstances and experiences of the people involved.

But here’s where Perry manages to one-up Adorno. What makes Perry’s engagement more dynamic, is the way she places herself in the world of Oblivia. Rather than being a snobby outsider, she constantly refers to herself in the lyrics (through the use of “we”), and depicts herself in the video, as being caught up in oblivion similarly to everyone else. While she gradually becomes more “woke” than the other inhabitants of the theme park, she is consistently shown in a state of ignorant bliss just as unaware as everyone else. Here Perry manages to resolve the philosophical problem posed by Slavoj Zizek who suggests that it is false to think one can be authentically “outside” of a relation to culture. Perry doesn’t pretend to be outside of popular culture in an elitist way because she just physically can’t be…because this is a pop music video! That Marley emerges out of the television at the end also perhaps hints that Perry thinks critical ideas can come out of popular culture as much as you can also be “chained to the rhythm”. Presumably she’s hoping her work will woke you too.

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-36-15-pm

Marley climbs out of the TV

While the irony of all of this should give you a lot of LOLs it does also beg the question as to whether this is really culture-jamming or merely the selling-back to us of critiques of culture. My sense is that it is almost certainly both (Perry is making money out of this after all), and that it certainly won’t be a Katy Perry video that starts the revolution (unless she keeps up her Brit Awards antics of course).

But I also don’t think it’s bad—in fact, it should be taken as an overwhelmingly positive sign that there is a current mood in daily life that is about being wildly vocal and “about to riot”. As Perry and Marley suggest, “they woke up the lions”. Sure, some of those lions are totally bizarre pop stars, but it also means it’s a jungle out there…

Advertisements

Christmas traditions: the “modern” family model

I recently read a great piece in by Benjamin Law on the trials and tribulations of Christmas in a post-nuclear (family) world of divorce, sex before marriage and gay partners (you can read Law’s article from the Griffith Review here). It got me thinking about my own experiences of Christmas and the emphasis placed on family for this particular holiday.

From memory I have only experienced  one “proper” family Christmas on my mum’s side, when I was still in primary school. My very limited memories of this involve trifle (good) and fighting (bad), and I’m pretty certain the family gave up after this one rather unpleasant attempt. Growing up solo with my mother, a self described “pagan/wiccan“, meant that Christmas was pretty understated (that is, when we finally started to celebrate it- when I started school I heard that I was missing out on a lot of capitalist present-receiving shenanigans). So Christmas time in our family was more about celebrating the solstice, getting out into the sunshine, onto the beach and hanging out with all of the other coastal orphans and odd bods. Christmas was a blip on the radar in our house, and overlooking the delights of the anti-capitalist traditions my mum was trying to indoctrinate me with, I longed for beliefs in santa and waking up to pillow cases full of presents.

When I started dating in high school however, I realised that I could be adopted into other people’s families and finally revel in traditional Christmas festivities. I’ve done this for many years, and have always been so pleasantly surprised at how welcoming people are to the strangers that happen to be sleeping with a member of their family. Viewing other people’s Christmases finally allowed me to realise that no family really fits the “nuclear” set up after all- while I had wanted to go back to some 1950s family portrait at Christmas time, it turns out that everyone’s households are always a bit more complicated than that.

Soon the whole world will be able to celebrate the joy of Christmas in summer time- happy climate change!

I look forward to the day when extended ideas of family exceed current TV representations, such as seen on Modern Familywhich can’t help but stay in the model of family as meaning parents + children. Whether those parents be “traditional”, divorced or a gay- it’s still a model based on child rearing and stable marriage-like relationships. What I found out from my Christmas-crashing is that families are diverse groupings, often a patchwork of extended kin and partners: ex-es, in-laws, step-persons, friend-lings and orphan-nomads.

So I hope that you all have a safe and merry solstice- I’ll be at the beach with some adopted family if anyone needs me.