Katy Perry overstates her own rebellion, undermines her strongest selling points.
Katy Perry’s first two singles, “Ur So Gay” and the monster hit “I Kissed a Girl”, display an alarming preoccupation with gayness, interpreting its more socially acceptable forms (emosculinity, girl-on-girl liplocks) as some exotic Other, fitting for a pastor’s daughter who fancies herself a bigger rebel than she is. Unlike the Jill Sobule classic of the same name, Katy’s “Kissed” is bound to soundtrack more Girls Gone Wild DVD’s than gay bars. It’s the obnoxious victory thump of a drunken sorority girl congratulating herself for something that’s transgressive only in the most backward-thinking red states. The “cherry chapstick” detail pretty much eliminates all ambiguity: Perry is not celebrating kissing a girl anywhere but the mouth. It’s a highly catchy much ado about nothing.
“Ur So Gay”, on the other hand, is actually somewhat perceptive about new millennium shifts in teenage masculinity, perceptions undermined by the unfortunate use of “gay” as pejorative. The problem with the general trends Perry disdains is not that these skinny-jeaned, guyliner-clad men are effeminate; it’s that they’re insufferable and phony. Take the second verse: “You’re so sad maybe you should buy a happy meal / You’re so skinny you should really Super Size the deal / Secretly you’re so amused that nobody understands you." Sure, there are some logistical slip-ups (do emo-indie guys actually read Hemingway and listen to Mozart? And why buy a Happy Meal for someone who doesn’t eat meat?), but overall, her criticisms are amusingly cogent, all the more so considering she's poised to reiterate them on the Warped Tour this summer, gathering spot for chief offenders. Too bad she confuses gayness with pretension, and thus negates the song’s humor and appeal. The giggly utterance of the word “penis” that closes the track, as though speaking such a naughty, naughty word required a three-minute build-up, also doesn't help.
Opening title track "One of the Boys” takes a similar stance against going against gender roles, this time reflecting back on Perry herself. She used to belch the alphabet and tape down her tits, but one summer, the tomboy lifestyle just didn’t hold her interest, so she started “studying Lolita religiously” and noticing guys noticing her. Of course, like any good bi-curious reformed Christian rocker, she won’t put out until she gets a diamond ring. When it comes to challenging gender stereotypes, Stephin Merritt she ain’t.
Both Madonna and Ryan Seacrest have voiced fandom for Katy Perry, and with producers like Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Butch Walker, the album is brimming with fun pop thrills. It’s just that Perry can be a bit much to take. Her voice too often substitutes conviction and passion with whiny nasality: she lacks the soul of Kelly Clarkson or the giddy exuberance of Avril Lavigne. The otherwise touching ballad “I’m Still Breathing” is sullied with a weak Regina Spektor imitation, and the hookless misfire “Mannequin” strains for the middle ground between Pat Benatar and Tegan Quin. For someone who revels in taking the piss out of emo boys, she often emotes like a female Patrick Stump. And her lyrics are regularly shallow and irresponsible: “Fingerprints” is by-the-numbers generational pseudo-defiance, “If You Can Afford Me” cops a mixed message about female materialism, and “Self-Inflicted” is a bit too nonchalant about its domestic abuse imagery. She’s prone to awkward turns of phrase (“a love bi-polar,” “crème de la crop”), and seems like someone who’ll say or do anything for attention. Or a hit. (Understandable, since Perry’s debut has been subject to music industry shenanigans for five years now, supposedly because Capitol Records didn’t know how to market a tart-tongued brunette with a huge rack.)
Perry’s finest song is “Hot N Cold”, a jumpy synth-pop sugar rush that has nothing to say, and is all the better for it -- statements are not this girl’s forte. So what if it cribs a couple cadences from Pink’s “U + UR Hand” and begins with the far from encouraging lines “You change your mind like a girl changes clothes / Yeah you PMS like a bitch”. By the chorus, she’s reciting opposites (“You’re hot then you’re cold / You’re yes then you’re no / You’re in then you’re out / You’re up then you’re down”) in a delightfully danceable fashion. The conclusion: Perry is most enjoyable when her songs are simple and senseless. Profundity is just way too problematic.