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Wednesday, 8 September 2010

California Gurls: When Big Business Turns Child Catcher

Most children learn to read. First they read their name, then maybe Mummy, Daddy, cat, boy. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, they start to read items in every day life: packets, leaflets, street signs, bitchy texts about the X Factor that you're sending to your workmates. One day, they also start to read newspaper and magazine headlines in the supermarket.

And that's when your desire to shield your little angel from some of life's horrors becomes rather more complicated. I wouldn't describe Katy Perry as one of life's horrors exactly, but her presence on the cover of Glamour magazine did lead to some interesting reading for my 8 year old daughter when it caught her eye. Namely, cover strap lines like "What to Do With a Naked Man" and "I didn't know I'd been raped until I realised I was pregnant."

And this got me thinking about what happens when (in a big deep voice) TWO MARKETS COLLIDE! In this instance, when the music business simultaneously targets children, little girls in particular, and grown ups with grown up tastes.

For it was no accident that my daughter's eye was drawn to that particular magazine. Up until this summer she had never heard of Katy Perry. But all that changed with the release of "California Gurls" (yes, that is how they is spelling it.)

For those of you not familiar, this burst of bubble-gum pop has a chorus which runs;

"California Gurls are unforgettable/ Daisy Dukes bikinis on top/ Sun-kissed skin so hot to melt your popsicles/ Oh, woah, oh! Oh, woah, oh!"

Something about the chirpy tune and the combination of words like "girls" "Daisy" "bikinis" and "popsicles", rendered this tune irresistible to my daughter and her chums. And that was before they saw the video.

In the promo a luscious Katy and assorted popsies are frolicking inside a board game named Candyfornia, a land of sweets with lollipops like palm trees, candy floss clouds, bon-bon pillows and salted caramel tumble dryers. (Okay, I made the last one up).

Looming over them is sugar daddy Snoop Doggy Dog who (horrors!) has the 'gurls' trapped there for his delectation, lustily licking his lips like a pervy Willy Wonka. Katy romps around the Candyfornia board freeing fellow cuties trapped in hubba bubba bubbles with the heel of her stripper shoes. She also lies naked and licking her wrist on a candy floss cloud with her bottom cleavage just obscured by a stray wisp of spun sugar. The 'gurls' then dance on the beach in cut-off shorts with bikini tops designed to look like giant cupcakes iced with glazed cherries on; or rather, enormous breasts.

But the Snoopster is mighty peeved at this and sends an army of gummy bears to CRUSH the little 'gurly' sweeties . Whereupon Candy Queen Katy morphs into a female avenger clad in a glittery red bikini with two canisters of "scooshy" cream strapped to her boobs.

She then proceeds to twist her cream guns in the manner of a porn star fondling her breasts, whereupon enormous spurts of milkiness shoot from her bosom pistols, vanquishing her little jelly foes. (I did not make any of that up.)

You may deduce from this that the video for California Gurls is not really appropriate fare for 8 year old girls. And yet, with its scrumptious set and 'girlpower' subtext, they couldn't have made a video that would appeal more to little girls if they tried. And, basically, that's my point. I rather wonder if they did make it to appeal to little girls. At least in part.

Now, I don't have a beef with Katy Perry, even if there is something of the replicant in that wide eyed stare of hers. She's a grown woman and the cartoon Vargas girl sexiness of her persona is vastly preferable to the dead eyed grindings of many other largely interchangeable pop starlets.

I don't know for certain who buys her records, but I'd be pretty surprised if it's 30 something musos. I imagine a young, very young, female audience is a lucrative market for her. But clearly you would also want to exploit God given talents like those on display in the California Gurls video. Hence a creative marketing strategy which reels in young kids with the most wonderfully realised candy world and which appeals to adults with raunchy, if tongue in cheek, sexual content.

So if it's inappropriate don't let her watch it, I hear you cry. Well, in my defence I didn't. She saw it at someone else's house and came back raving about it. We watched it through together and at various points I thought, should I stop this? Should I say, "I don't want you to watch this"?

But I have no particular problem with my child seeing female nudity and the giant cupcake bosoms were actually pretty funny (we're not beyond the odd booby joke in this household) and basically I didn't want to project my own adult sensibilities onto her experience. For there is no doubt that she just likes the tune and the bright colours and the funky clothes and THE SWEETS!!

But when we reached the cream gun, ahem, climax I determined that this was not a video that she should be allowed to watch again. Why? Because little girls want to be like big girls and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And, sure enough, it was not long before a friend reported that her daughter had been bouncing around in the sitting room miming the cream gun twists while belting out the tune.

Little girls (and that is what 8 year olds are) should not be imitating the simulated sex poses of porn stars and pole dancers. Even if they do so quite innocently. What happens when such little girls, who have been pouting and jiggling their way through childhood, turn 12, 13, 14, and do begin to understand the significance of the imagery in Katy Perry's apparently wholesome visual treat? Would it be surprising if by that time they have developed a kind of sense memory of studiedly provocative behaviour which implies a sexual maturity they do not in fact possess?

Acres of coverage has, quite rightly, been given recently to the impact of "raunch culture" on children, young girls in particular. What were once specifically adult porn and sex industry aesthetics have become increasingly mainstream, creating an environment such that the horrors of pole dancing kits in the toy section could even be contemplated.

But such overt attempts to commercialise sexuality for children have cheeringly so far been met mostly with howls of disapproval. The Mumsnet campaign Let Girls Be Girls for example, which asks retailers not to sell products which "exploit, emphasise or play upon children's sexuality " is having considerable success. Not just in consciousness raising, but also in getting firm commitments from major retailers not to succumb to the temptation of making a fast buck from products which cynically aim to sexualise our childrens' play.

But at least these direct attempts to target children can be easily identified and met head on. It is much, much harder to combat the "dog whistle" marketing of adult products to multiple markets which include young children. It is insidious, feeding into the culture until it begins to become the norm and therefore much harder to challenge.

I am not turning into Mary Whitehouse here (I hope). Sex is a (welcome) fact of life and society needs to cater for the needs of adults as well as children and families. But selling products with sexual content so that they surreptitiously appeal to young children is crossing the line. So forgive me if I see Katy's sweet offering rather more cynically, as big business turning child catcher and refuse to be seduced.


  1. A series of fair points well made - but where lies the fault? Going back some years to when I (and I think you) were young - the Beeb banned Frankie goes to Hollywood's 'Relax' to howls of derision.

    Were the BBC right? Isn't it media outlets who have the power to refuse and reject these images/attempts?

    If Katy didn't get airtime, Katy's people won't waste the money on making such product...

    Mumsnet are succeeding by stopping the distributors of fashion, this is the same thing in my opinion.

  2. Brilliant article, astute and emotionally so articulate. Juliet xxx

  3. I'm still finding my opinion on this, but a well written piece. 'lustily licking his lips like a pervy Willy Wonka' - I laughed, heartily.


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