Pub date January 2, 2008
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Does post-postirony still really translate as … irony? Or does any freaking thing matter at all, because the smirking, snarky ’80s are so very back that we’re backpedaling madly in our kooky plastic-and-who-really-cares-about-that-legendary-flotilla-of-plastic-in-the-Pacific-Ocean kiddie pool with what-the-hell carelessness, basking in apathy and gloss? Does that mean we’re ready to embrace our inner bigot? The jerkiest, knee-jerk reactionary responses from back in Grandpappy’s day, namely the Ronald Reagan era? Can our dingiest backward notions give us edge cred, convince us that we’re getting down as hard as those bad boys and girls of Vice et al., and provide fodder for schoolyard taunts, barroom brawls, dirty limericks, and — sweet — even songs? Aw, you’re so cute when you’re smug as a bug.

It’s hard to know what to think or feel or which cheek to plunge one’s tongue into while listening to Katy Perry’s "UR So Gay," off her self-titled digital EP and 12-inch (Capitol). Amazement or repulsion? Gay bashing in song can get as overt and stomach turning as Jamaica’s so-called murder music: see Buju Banton’s entreaties, on "Boom Bye Bye," to shoot gay men in the head and burn them alive. But it’s hard to parse the goofy novelty of "UR So Gay": it rides the new wave deca-dance rail between mild offense — for metrosexuals, gay straight men, gay men who want to own the word gay, and folks in favor of good music — and milky outrage. Has there been such a borderline-bashing Cali pop case since Josie Cotton’s 1980 "Johnny Are You Queer"? The Rizzo look-alike spun ’50s girl group tearjerker motifs — from the True Romance–style single cover art to her nyah-nyah-wah-wah plaintive bad-girl character’s delivery. "Why are you so weird, boy? / Johnny, are you queer boy? / When I make a play / You’re pushing me away," Cotton pouts. Oh, the perils of falling for someone who doesn’t flog for you — and never will. The conflicted "Johnny" hinged on tweaking the highly codified conventions of ’60s pop and doing the dirty by speaking the unspoken, even as an undercurrent of rage from a straight woman scorned surged beneath the number’s carefree contours.

In contrast, the blogged ‘n’ buzzed "UR So Gay" — riding on word of mouth for the woman who told me, "My mouth never shuts up, unfortunately" — references pop history, filtered somewhat through the ’80s, in Perry’s Cyndi Lauper–esque prom-queen styling. Apart from displaying a thick vein of social conservatism that disapproves of a metrosexual muddying of waters, songwriter Perry purveys all-’90s pop, swamped with an over-the-top arrangement, as the track’s heroine slags her ex: "I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf / While jacking off listening to Mozart / You bitch and moan about LA / Wishing you were in the rain reading Hemingway / You don’t eat meat / And drive electric cars / You’re so indie rock it’s almost an art / You need SPF 45 just to stay alive. You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys…. I can’t believe I fell in love with someone that wears more makeup than …"

Perry’s litany of insults, backed by a loping, going-nowhere beat, isn’t stereotypically gay — doit, what self-respecting stylish homosexual swain would get stuck on Mozart, Hemingway, and H&M? If anything, the list reveals the general throwaway nature of the tune and the cluelessness of the singer. Nonetheless, the "you’re so gay" chorus rankles, ever so softly, ever so wispily homophobically, in the way it detaches gayness from sexuality and attaches it firmly to notions of pretension, aloofness, and inaccessibility — under the guise of harmless good fun and quasi truth telling. It’s dumb and juvenile, and it makes straight women who watch their homophobia emerge when they lash out at men look bad. And much like Howard Stern and his ilk’s supposedly playful trash talking, that doesn’t mean it’s not hateful.

Of course, that’s not how Perry, a 23-year-old Santa Barbara native and star of Gym Class Heroes’ "Cupid’s Chokehold" video, whose music has appeared on MTV’s The Hills and Oxygen’s Fight Girls, sees it. The song, she said in a phone interview, is "provocative, and my mouth is a loose cannon. I speak my mind. I get into trouble." She sees herself in line with Lauper, Joan Jett, and "girls who aren’t afraid to take chances" — though you can’t ever imagine Lauper or Jett warbling "UR So Gay"<0x2009>‘s lines.

Perry wrote the song, she said, after "I was finally dumped by my ex shortly after a breakup that lasted twice as long as the relationship — you know how that goes." Stymied for a chorus, she said, she just blurted in frustration, "Oh, he’s so gay!" and at the urging of her roommate she made that the hook. "If you listen to the song, it’s not associated with sexuality," Perry said. "It’s about guys who use flatirons and gayliner. The general feeling when I play that song is that everyone’s laughing and singing along, and I’ve had girls come up to me and say, ‘I’ve had that boyfriend — thank you, homegirl, for writing that song!’ The positivity of the song means it’s not a negative thing."

It’s all positivity when you’re not gay, of course, and Perry isn’t suffering negatively on any level: this spring the song will usher in a full-length, which the songwriter worked on with Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, No Doubt), Dave Stewart (the Eurythmics), and Dr. Luke (Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne), among others. "Having a record release is a phenomenon these days because the music industry is a crumbling Babylon," Perry explained. Whatever it takes to rise above The Hills.