Being able to pull off some amazing choreography used to be a requirement for pop stars: Michael, Janet, Justin, Britney, Beyonce, and Madonna, all rose to this challenge. But lately it seems like dancing has been replaced by posing:
In watching Katy Perry's
affront to cake and candy everywhere "California Gurls" video, it becomes somewhat apparent that Perry is attempting to sell what is essentially a dance song by sitting on a cloud, naked, or wandering around an ice cream cone forest dressed like the rebellious daughter that Betty Crocker refuses to talk about. When she does dance, it's awkward and filled with cuts to her sticking her hands in the air the way a frat boy with no rhythm does when "his song" totally comes on the radio. Perry can sing (if you watch this acoustic performance, for example, you might be surprised by how nice her voice actually is when she's not threatening to melt your popsicle) and the song is obnoxiously catchy, but there's something a bit off about the length of time devoted to focusing on Perry's naked body in the clouds: this is her performance, essentially—a come hither stare in a lavender wig.
Of course, sex has always been a selling point in pop music: even the strongest dancers, including Madonna and Janet Jackson, who never shied away from incorporating in-your-face sexuality into their choreography, had their Herb Ritts moments of walking on a black-and-white beach and selling a dreamy love song simply by looking gorgeous and happy on the sand. Yet it seems that the heirs of Madonna and Janet, singers like Perry and Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga and Rihanna have all taken inspiration from these women without actually having the moves to really pull it off. The elaborate costumes, insane sets, and borderline cartoonish sexuality all seem like distractions from the fact that most of these women aren't quite sure of themselves as dancers, and the disconnect, in terms of the confidence (or lack thereof) portrayed in their movements, sometimes makes the messages they attempt to send in their songs seem a bit off. When Janet Jackson danced to "If," she came across as confident and in control. When Christina Aguilera shows up on stage with a Lite-Brite heart strapped to her vagina, she looks, well, kind of stupid, no?
Perhaps the problem is the insistence upon returning to the same moves over and over again: we can blame the rise of the Pussycat Dolls, in part, for pop's way-too-long obsession with modern-day burlesque done on a scale made palpable and accessible to the general public, and this prepackaged notion of what is sexy is holding pop stars back from attempting different ways of expressing themselves physically. It seems like there's a competition going on wherein every major pop star in America is constantly trying to show you which one can be the sexiest, via their light up crotch or cupcake bra or orgy with Nazis or whiskey tooth-brushing escapades. The basic choreography of most pop videos seems to be "writhe, stop, pose, sexyface, repeat."
But the show is getting tired, and the competition is just making everyone seem the same, and all attempts to one-up each other seem to result in more ridiculousness and less attempts to produce something new and exciting and fun. Britney Spears danced around in a see-through bodysuit at the VMAs ten years ago. Maybe everyone should stop trying to be Madonna and consider other sources of inspiration. And they should probably start with Janelle Monae, who knows how to sing, dance, and pay tribute to the past while creating her own unique identity that will hopefully carry us into the future. "It's time to redefine what sexy can be, and what a woman can wear, how she wears her hair, what shoes she chooses," she recently told Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times, "I'm about uniting and helping people become comfortable with who they are. Because there are young girls out there right now going through identity crises." It wouldn't be such a terrible thing if they found themselves drawn to Monae's fresh take on what constitutes sexiness; a light-up crotch has to fade out eventually, and a cupcake bra is simply built to crumble.