I'll open with a disclaimer: until now, I had no beef with Katy Perry. I think she has a good voice buried under all the cloying production value (I’ll admit to kind of liking “E.T.”), and at the end of the day, whether or not she shoots whipped cream out of her bra is entirely irrelevant to my existence. But since she debuted the breakup- and military-themed video for “Part of Me” in the past couple weeks, I have genuinely felt disturbed.
“Part of Me” starts off with Katy catching her boyfriend cheating on her with a blonde. This betrayal prompts Katy to pull a Mulan and cut off her hair, bandage her breasts and join the military. She then proceeds to kick ass, or so we are to believe, all the while getting over her former boo and teaching him a thing or two about female empowerment.
There are about a billion things wrong with this narrative, but let’s start with some rookie mistakes she makes regarding her superficially feminist message. Yes, it’s good to see women accessing their inner and outer strength, excelling in areas traditionally dominated by men, focusing on their own identities rather than defining themselves in relation to partners, and so forth. But in this case, ALL OF IT IS TO PROVE A POINT TO HER EX-BOYFRIEND. She can cut off her hair and wield scary weapons all she wants; her existence still revolves around some shady dude. She’s only challenged herself to join the military because she’s, you know, way bummed about being cheated on. Talk about trivializing the inspirational role played by actual women who kick ass.
And speaking of trivializing serious matters, I don’t buy the idea that this video shines a positive spotlight on the sacrifices being made by individuals in uniform. Viewing enlistment as a viable response to a breakup belittles both the military and the violence of war as much as it does notions of female independence. This video intersperses images of the pop star staring lovingly at her ex from a bathtub with shots of active military duty; it also places her, arms spread defiantly open, against the backdrop of an American flag. In other words, it invokes patriotism and situations relating to real-world losses of life, all to send the message, “Hey boy, u can’t crush my spiritzzz!”
If this video has a legitimate purpose, it’s to remind us that twisting military themes to incorporate them into music videos is probably a dumb idea. While music can obviously be a powerful political tool, recreating images of people using guns and risking their lives for the sake of pop music messages — such as “screw you, ex-boyfriend!” — just does not seem OK. Which is why I had to watch Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” twice to (metaphorically) cleanse myself of “Part of Me.” Janet’s messages? Justice, togetherness, the power of dance. Those ideas are simple and almost by definition inoffensive. Her use of military themes? Only to inspire her wardrobe and some incredibly synchronized dance routines with bangin’ choreography. She seems to understand that as a pop star, her expertise is in the world of the aesthetic. Any pop reference to the military should stay within that realm (or else go the extra mile to produce a truly thoughtful message).
Just to score one more point for Janet — even if this can’t be said for all of her videos, “Rhythm Nation” makes a far superior statement on the fluidity of gender. In this video, men and women dress and dance identically and no one’s really sexualized. Everyone just knows how to move. In other words, sometimes the best way to send a positive message is not to try so damn hard. The clunky attempts in "Part of Me" to be "meaningful" not only fall flat, but edge into offensive. Irrespective of your general views on the military, or your ideological flavor when it comes to feminism, I challenge any “Part of Me” fan to give me one good reason why this video might be appropriate.