Thursday, September 23, 2010

Katy Perry: Kicked off Sesame Street

Katy Perry recorded a segment for Sesame Street, found below:

Maybe you heard about this? If your reaction was anything like mine, your initial response was, "Woah. That seems weird..." But if you're anything like me, you got over that pretty quickly, realizing that Sesame Street has long featured counter-cultural guest stars and musicians whose work is a bit outside the suburban family mainstream. They've done references to Mad Men, and appearances of Danny Devito, Johnny Cash, Kofi Annan, and Queen Latifah. They seem to know how to make all different types of guests work.

But oops! Not everybody got over it as fast as I did. After it aired on YouTube, the network decided not to broadcast Katy Perry's performance on TV. Watching the video, it's clear why this would come about, even if (like me) you don't think it's necessary. Katy Perry is wearing a gold strapless top that shows her shoulders, and some undeniable cleavage. She isn't as fully desexualized as parents in our culture expect celebrities to be. Obviously the wardrobe people at Sesame Street thought this was well within the bounds of reason, but for the YouTube patrol, it was too outrageous.

My own appreciation of Katy Perry is compromised by her homophobic streak and her occasional outbursts of moralization. But I still recognize her as a talented pop act, committed strongly to her aesthetic and capable of delivering catchy-as-hell bubblegum pop, stuff that's smartly directed at my age group (and a little below it, I guess) by combining the energy and charm of teenagehood with the romantic and sexual concerns of the 20-something crowd. Despite the quantity of skin showing, the clip wasn't crass. It wouldn't confront children with inappropriate images of sexual feelings or body parts. It was a perfectly relatable, decent adaptation for kids who constantly hear this song on the radio.

My opinion aside, the clip makes me wonder: how does Katy Perry play for very young children? I don't know my adolescent psychology too well, but she honestly seems right at home. Her energy comes out clearly in her on-screen persona, and she's all about the bright colors and expressive expressions. If there's anybody I could believe has more energy than Elmo, and wants to play even when he gets tired, it's Katy Perry.

It strikes me as weird, sometimes, that one of our most beloved pop princesses seems like she could double as a childrens' performer. Goes to show that infantilization and "cute" have become perfectly valid aesthetic modes, whether via Hello Kitty, or Katy Perry, or Betsy Johnson. People like Jim Windolf of Vanity Fair have expressed concerns that it's drowning out all the other cultural modes, and though I disagree, I see the point there.

I don't think Katy Perry should have to worry about covering up like a Victorian for a musical number on Sesame Street. If anything, I still think we're a little too touchy about the female body in our culture, especially since we're also obsessed with genuinely sexual images. If we stigmatize Katy Perry's innocuous costume design, but can't stop the sexual images from major fashion companies on every urban billboard, we're going to end up with a pretty damn neurotic next-generation.

Yet, there is still something cautionary about this little debate, and we can't throw the other side out completely, either. With a culture that's so immersed in cute, where the aesthetics of childhood seep so deeply into everyday life, we need to be careful not to let sexuality become infantilized and trivialized. That's on the other side of the demilitarized zone of "reasonable tolerance."

My opinion on the Katy Perry video stands, but I know it's a gray area, you know? Let's hope we can find a healthy relationship to sex and maturity somewhere in there.

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