I think we can do better
What is it with all these modern hits sharing titles with old, semi-classic pop songs, anyways? It’s bad enough that no one besides American Idol contestants has hits with covers anymore, now pop artists are cruelly teasing us pop nerds like this? I’ll let Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” go for not being a Cure cover–that’s an ambiguous enough title that it could even be purely incidental. And Natasha Bedingfield’s “Love Like This” not being a revival of Faith Evans’s underrated 90s R&B hit, I guess that’s forgivable too. Rihanna calling a song “Take a Bow” when it has nothing to do with the Madonna’s biggest chart hit, though, that I have a little more trouble dealing with. And now new it girl Katy Perry titling her hit “I Kissed a Girl,” without so much as referencing Jill Sobule’s glorious 1995 relic of the same title–that just about deserves an all-purpose shun in my book.
Jill Sobule, for thus of us who don’t remember or were not around for the Buzz Bin era, was a singer/songwriter with a respectable cult and Wiki comparisons to Randy Newman and Warren Zevon. Unlike those two, her albums have not quite endured past her prime decade, but like those two, she managed to eke out a couple hit novelty singles before fading from the limelight. The better remembered of these might be “Supermodel” (“I don’t care what my teachers say / I’m gonna be a supermodel….”), which due to its use in Amy Heckerling’s immortal teen flick Clueless, became an anthem for young girls that likely had little awareness of the song’s satirical bent (much like how Lakers fans and PA operators seem blissfully oblivious to any sarcasm apparent in Newman’s “I Love L.A”).
However, Sobule had only one legitimate chart hit in the 90s, and that was the gentle, almost folky “I Kissed a Girl.” The song is like a much less tragic version of the Julianne Moore plot in The Hours, in which Sobule welcomes a female neighbor into her abode, discusses with her the relationship issues both are having, and ultimately realizes the neighbor might be more her speed after all. Predating If These Walls Could Talk and Ellen coming out of the closet, “I Kissed a Girl” was one of the first examples of explicit, non-exploitative female homosexuality to break into the mainstream, writing large what was frequently implicit in hit songs by artists like Melissa Ethridge, K.D. Lang and the Indigo Girls. Just as memorable as the song was its gleefully cartoonish, VMA-nominated video, which even seemed to recognize what a timestamp of the 90s the song was inevitably going to become by casting decade icon and senior citizen fantasy Fabio in the lead role.
The song was a hit, but not a big one, peaking at #67 and eventually getting lost in the sinews of time. 13 years later, here comes Miss Katy Perry, already a phenom of sorts thanks to her Madonna-approved underground hit “UR So Gay.” Apparently not satisfied with one alternative-sexuality-themed song, Perry follows it up with “I Kissed a Girl,” a song which bears much thematic similarity to Sobule’s hit (same basic conceit–straight girl tries making out with a chick, kinda digs it) but has much less in common with Sobule’s musically or attitudinally. Perry’s version is a smash right out of the gate, thanks to a little help from Gossip Girl and a flirty, Moulin Rouge-looking music video, and has already catapulted to #5 on the pop charts, invariably displacing the Sobule song from public memory for good.
Needless to say, this will not do. I’m not going to say that it’s really at all surprising that Perry’s song is a hit, or even that it’s already a much bigger one than Sobule’s. Perry’s song is a jam, for certain–working a Schaffel stomp (think Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” or almost any Goldfrapp song) to maximal pop-release, the song smacks you in the brain upon first listen and has a nasty habit of getting stuck in your head long afterwardes. And the same thing that made Sobule’s song so memorable–how slightly ahead of its time it seemed–is what may have ultimately damned its commercial fortunes, as it was met with a fair share of controversy, which Perry’s version seems to have avoided thusfar.
To me, however, it’s a much shallower and far less ingratiating song. Sobule’s version, whether satirical or not (and to me it seems more satirical of basic male-female relationships than it does of gay ones), whether legitimately first person or not (and I have no idea what Sobule’s actual sexuality is), seems to me a perfectly innocent story of a girl realizing there might be more to her sexual preference than her garden variety Fabio romances. It’s cute, it’s charming, it’s novel, it’s unassuming, and it’s got a decent 90s-style guitar solo. In other words, it’s absolutely everything that a forgotten one-or-two-hit wonder should be. I hadn’t even heard it all the way through in probably close to a decade before the Perry song brought it back to my attention, but it sure did put a smile on my face once I listened to it again.
The Perry song does not illicit such a reaction from me. I hate to get all feminist critical theory in here, since God knows I hated when my professors did while I was just trying to enjoy Alien, but Perry’s story of her lesbian flirtaiton seems designed only to attract dudes (the male gaze, if you will), as is made abundantly clear by the song’s video. It’s hott, yeah, maybe, sort of (although I maintain that without that weird, Princess Leia-ish bob thing, Sobule would probably have been more attractive than Perry), but much more so, it’s just annoying–in this song, Perry willingly plays the part of the hipster-ish girl you know that constantly mentions the one time she hooked up with a girl because she thinks it makes her look experimental and wild, and knows mentioning it will turn the heads of every guy in the room. Maybe it’s intriguing the first time, but after a while, the tackiness and arrogance just becomes too much.
Sobule’s song could be interpreted to be similarly trend-hopping, I suppose, but in her version it seems more like the experiences detailed are a genuine revelation as opposed to one night’s revelry. Perry even takes great pains in her song to express that this is not what she’s normally about–references to becoming brave after getting drunk, calling her paramour “my experimental game,” and including the qualification “don’t mean I’m in love tonight” in the chorus. And the musical tones of the songs speak volumes, too–the understated way Sobule almost whispers the song’s title, as if embarrassed but gleeful nonetheless, and gets more and more comfortable with it as the song goes on, compared to how Perry shouts pretty much the whole thing, practically boasting, because she knows that once she sobers up, this’ll just be a distant memory, and it’ll be back to a steady diet of dudes.
What will be interesting to me, though, is what the song will come to represent sociologically now that it has become such a gigantic, somehow contoversy-free, megahit. Are drunk girls going to be screaming along to the chorus to this in clubs and in concert, and what, if anything, will that mean? Is this going to inspire an “I Kissed a Boy” response song? Is the long overdue t.A.t.U. revival finally on the horizon? It’s all more thought-provoking (and has far greater possibilties) than say, your average Ray J top ten hit, and that’s always appreciated. I just wish it could’ve hapened with Sobule’s song instead. Or at least a decent cover of it.