Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It Gets Bitter: Tolerance Chic, Survival and Katy Perry's Magical Lactate

                                                 I am my own pet virus.  I get to pet and name her. Her 
                                                 milk is my shit.  My shit is her milk.

      To begin, I want to compare two recent videos which feature lactating women, and, no, this has nothing to do with porn. . . at least not in any conventional sense.  In fact, the first video is way more offensive than anything found on any lactation porn site.  It's Katy Perry's "Firework":

The second video is Pink's "Raise Your Glass":

Playing ad nauseam and often back-to-back on MTV, these two videos epitomize a recent craze for tolerance which commenced with Obama's election but which, in the wake of Obama's failure (particularly on LGBTQ issues), has become a veritable pop culture mania for self-affirmation and "acceptance."  As it has become increasingly apparent that the Obama administration plans to continue the repressive policies of George W. Bush, which are anything but tolerant, pop culture has responded with this rash of "feel good" ephemera insisting, with a telling intensity, that we must respect difference.  We are all fireworks; we are all snowflakes or rather dirty little freaks; we are all Lady Gaga's "little monsters"; we are all "beautiful" in the eyes of Christina Aguilera:

Note the parallels here.  The mandatory girl with the eating disorder.  The mandatory scene of dudes kissing.  The mandatory kid getting picked on.  Katy Perry practically pins us down and screams in our faces:  "IT'S OKAY TO BE GAY.  YOU MUST LOVE YOURSELF!  YOU MUST LOVE EVERYONE!  THE MILK OF MY TITS COMPELS YOU!"

     The above videos are inseparable from the whole "It Gets Better" cyber(non)event which demands both tolerance and self-love.  All of these videos, with the exception of Aguilera, dropped at about the same time that the media was concocting a (non)eventual "rash" of homophobic bullying and "gay teen suicides."  You see, not unlike the town in Shelley Jackson's "The Lottery," straight America occasionally celebrates "homosexuality" by hyper-publicizing certain cases of violence perpetrated upon queer bodies.  Remember Brokeback Mountain?  That wasn't really a film as much as it was a self-flagellation ritual whereby straight, liberal America absolved itself from any responsibility for the homophobic structure of society.  The same holds for the media hysteria over these "gay teen suicides."  We can only love, or rather tolerate, the gay body when its enjoyment, suffering and death are made public and then our love is really nothing more than a performance of disavowal and self-exoneration:   

I am not homophobic because I cried during Boys Don't Cry, and by crying I proved my tolerance!  I proved that I want gay people, fat girls, bald kids with cancer, scrawny boys, etc. to all survive (except of course for the ones who are already dead which are the only ones I actually recognize).  Weepy texts like Brokeback, Boys Don't Cry and the sensational stories of "gay teen suicide" then are about the failure of tolerance, or rather, intolerance.  Conversely, the videos of Perry and Pink are about a utopia of tolerance.  Our choices are between offing ourselves or having a 40 with Pink and grinding in the heavenly skatepark of diversity.   

      Which brings us back to the curd of the matter.  What does this "tolerance chic" have to do with Katy Perry's magical mammary glands?  And, more importantly, why is it necessary for our very survival that we suckle from the teat of Perry?  Why is it absolutely imperative for us to "raise our glass" with Pink, over and over again?  What is this sustenance which we require?  Taking a second look at the Perry video, I'm struck by the rather dismal lyrics with which the song commences:

"Do you ever feel like a plastic bag/drifting through the wind/wanting to start again?/Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin/like a house of cards,/one blow from caving in?/Do you ever feel already buried deep?/6 feet under screams but no one seems to hear a thing/Do you know that there's still a chance for you/'Cause there's a spark in you"
Emptiness, despair, alienation, invisibility, premature burial.  We begin in a state of living death, but then Perry, thank god, informs us that there is a "spark in us."  Whatever could this spark be?  We're not sure, but it appears to be ejaculating from Perry's nipples and penetrating certain people who are all stand-ins for "us."  There is the fat girl afraid to jump in the pool, the gay boy afraid to make a move, the wimpy son who doesn't have the courage to stand up to his abusive father, the lone kid being mugged, the kid with cancer and finally the fetus.  We are all united and, indeed, resurrected by Perry's boob sparks which, in turn, implies that, prior to our milky immolation/transubstantiation, we were all equally dead.  Gay people are to cancer patients as fat girls are to fetuses.  Not only does Perry's nipple nectar fill us with life, it enframes us all as a miasmas of either living or dead humanity.

     Riddle me this:  what transforms all difference into sameness or, in other words, makes a fetish of difference?  What articulates, quantifies and manages this mysterious and utterly generalized element known as "life."  I'll give you a hint:

That's right, it's capital, spuds!  If we look more closely at the scenes in Firework, they are predominately bourgeois parties, urban centers, Western hospitals and middle class homes.  To "love oneself" and to "tolerate" each other is to treat oneself and each other precisely as commodities.  That is, tolerance and "coming out" are inseparable from plugging into capitalist society.       

Katy Perry lactating capital
But to take this argument to the limit, this tolerance is the only means of survival.  It is the only way to continue living.  So what is the meaning of life according to Katy Perry?  Coming outAppearing like a firework!  Dancing in the street!  In order to survive, we must make a spectacle of our difference.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the mandatory "two guys kissing" trope, repeated in the Perry, Pink and Aguilera videos alike.  Like Foucault mixed with dated synth pop, we must confess our sexuality upon the dance floors of exclusive nightclubs, and if we can't afford to get into these clubs, we might as well return to our graves.  But don't worry, Perry will feed us the capital we need to be good little producer/consumers.  Boom, boom, boom.

     Which leads me to the other image of lactation here -the calf drinking breast milk in Pink's video.  At first, I wanted to read this as radical vegan propaganda.  But something else is going on here that is more in keeping with Perry.  Basically, Pink is training us in our consumption and our enjoyment.  In occupying various stereotypical roles, Pink ultimately embodies the liberal humanist subject.   She's "just a regular old human being, yo!" and, so are we, as long as we "raise the proper glass."  And, the only other option is to be less than human, to occupy that bizarre scene of lactation where we are punished for our "bad" consumption:

"Bad" consumption

 You see, it's fine if we consume each other (there is even a shot of a baby raising her baba), but the true horror is to be consumed by and consume the inhuman.  The true horror is to be "inhuman" and thus to be dead.  In other words, as much as I have an affinity for Pink, I must admit that she is drinking from Katy Perry's tit as well.  Her cup and her 40 ounce runneth over with Perry's lactating tolerance.   

     Okay.  You know what?  Fuck tolerance.  If one more goddamn pop star tells me I'm okay or tells me to tolerate difference, I'm going to slit my wrist and throw the blood in your face.  Here's why tolerance is fucked, Katy Perry's milk is curdled and no one wins in a dairy challenge.

The first problem with this whole discourse of tolerance is that it directs all attention to either the victims or some demonic representation of the perpetrator (that dastaredly bully!).  It tells queer kids, for example, that they just need to get along and muddle through and, somehow, by the holy grace of Katy Perry's boobs, things will get better.  And, in turn, it relegates homophobia and other forms of xenophobia to some monstrous representation of "the bully" straight out of a cheesy Stephen King short story.  As if no one had ever read Lord of the Flies.  The bully is us.  The bully is me, and the bully is you.  No one gets a pass.  The second fucked up thing about "tolerance chic" is that it validates the authority of the current system.  We must ask not only the asshole bullies, but, more importantly, the entire xenophobic system, for "acceptance."  "Oh please, please tolerate me sir.  I promise I'll be a good little consumer.  Just let me live this shitty fucking life you've set out for me."  And finally, as Alain Badiou points out,  the third asinine thing about this rage for tolerance is that it always presupposes some Other that we needn't tolerate.  Lingering just outside of the frame of Perry's video are the others who don't get invited to the human party, the ones who consume poorly or don't enjoy themselves with the proper intensity -namely, the terrorists.  In fact, the whole discourse of tolerance is set up to identify those who are inhuman and thus not worthy of being tolerated. 

     Thus, it is no coincidence that "tolerance chic" exemplified by "It Gets Better," "Firework," "Raise Your Glass" and finally the cultural fart that was Lady Gaga all converge with the seemingly endless "war on terror":

Let's all get together and recognize how similar we all are and how different we are from those horrible terrorists who refuse lap at Katy's kittie bowl.  So what would be the alternative to "tolerance chic"?  What can cure us of our addiction to Katy's life fluids?

     I call for a return to self-loathing.   For all his failures, Marylin Manson's snide masterpiece "Beautiful People" is far more subversive then Aguilera's celebration of our shared "inner beauty."  The self-destructive nihilism of the so-called grunge aesthetic that reached perfection with Nirvana's last studio album perhaps provides a much more honest and affecting voice for disenfranchised American youth than any "It Gets Better" video: 

It doesn't get better, and you are not "okay."  Oh no, it's going to get so much worse.  Take a gander out your window, my blue-eyed son.  The larger world is even more colossally hateful, selfish and cruel than your high school, and, given that you are a product of this world and your high school, there is a part of you (a large part if we want to be honest) which is also colossally hateful, selfish and cruel.  And, both your survival and your suicide will only grease the gears of the shit factory.

     Now you might be asking how such a dismal message might prove more "helpful" to "kids at risk" or how such nihilism might be politically effectual.  Perhaps kids want to see how the gears are turning.  Perhaps kids don't want to be bullshitted either about themselves or about the world since all they ever get is bullshit:

And remember?  We all knew it was bullshit.  We all knew it wasn't going to get better.  We all knew we were pretty fucking far from okay.  Let's get serious:  Columbine made a lot of sense to most of us, at least those of us who didn't escape from the memories of our youth into a Prozac haze.

     In Theory of the Subject, Badiou outlines two kinds of nihilism:  active nihilism, which can become a springboard for revolution and passive nihilism, which gives way to reactionary conservatism.  My point here is that suckling from Katy Perry's teat and inundating kids with "It Gets Better" douchebubbles fosters a sort of passive nihilism that only conserves the dominant order.  What we need to do instead is cultivate an active nihilism which tells kids that they are correct to feel despair.  They are right to hate themselves and want to die.  They are right to feel that there is no hope in the world as it is.  They are right to feel like they are stuck in a web of absurdities.  But, the world can change and they can be a part of this change if they have the courage to sacrifice something that matters.  No one is certain what this sacrifice will be, but it will almost certainly entail the destruction of pop music and fandom as we know it:

     Goodnight indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVED reading this! Such excellent analysis! When I contemplate tolerance discourse I typically turn to Wendy Brown, but the deployment of Badiou here made for a very interesting and unique reading of pop cultural politics.

    I'm curious if instead of sucking from Katy Perry's tits you think there is a possibility for sucking from Gaga's? It seems like an active nihilist/Nietzschean analysis of the Born This Way video is possible given her drive to deconstruct birth from a finite moment to an infinite process of becoming. Sure, it's still a form of self-affirmation, but given the video is so much about creation, and concludes with Gaga riding off into the burning city on her unicorn with the pink triangle turned upwards as a sign of empowerment, it seems like there is a reading of the video that calls for the death of the world as we know it with the simultaneous creation of new values, and identities. I don't think it denies the power of loathing, but it does not turn that loathing to the self, but rather the beauty of whatever identity you create for yourself and actively promote in resistance to the world, and not just pop culture, as we know it.

    I think this also avoids Badiou's criticism of evoking evil because it does create a definition of Good that is about creation, self-affirmation, and revolution in identity.

    Again, thanks for the read!