Color scheme: Deep greens, ribbony. Her voice is red. His voice does not feature visually.
The first thing I’d like to say about this song is that Kanye’s preening, explicit self-congratulation doesn’t fit into the overall vibe, which is saying a great deal for a Katy Perry song. Where Perry (or her producers) somehow manages to convey a feeling of mystery and wonder about the pairing implied by the lyrics, Kanye is this side of outright saying, “And then I get to touch her with my penis!” Stay classy, Kanye.
Now to the overall content. The song itself is deeply problematic, particularly after the inclusion of Kanye, because it perpetuates the fetishization of the “other” in interracial relationships, and in particular in relationships between black men and white women. For Perry, the experience of being with a black man is so strange as to warrant comparison to the most fantastic pairings her mind can conjure. “Could you be the devil? Could you be an angel?” While there is, perhaps, a certain element of societal censure that still accompanies pairings between white women and men of color, this song takes that cultural othering and raises it to a point of primary importance within the couple, and the censure itself makes the contact all the more erotic. “They say be afraid; you’re not like the others…you open my eyes and I’m ready to go; lead me into the light.”
The troubling nature of her characterization of this pairing is further reinforced by the language she uses in the chorus. “Kiss me; infect me with your loving; fill me with your poison. Take me, wanna be your victim, ready for abduction.” These lyrics are deeply unsettling when placed within the context of an interracial relationship; while we have perhaps moved past the spectre of mass lynchings, the shadow of Emmett Till has not entirely receded, and there is still a very real fear within society that white women are corrupted by the touch of men of color. This fear of pollution serves only to further fetishize the man within the song, as Perry’s lyrics presume that it is possible and desirable for the touch of this man to corrupt her; indeed, the only attribute she describes as desirable is his otherness. The lyrics about abduction are similarly worrisome because they imply that she has to surrender agency in order to fully submit to the corrosive influence of the other. Claims of seduction and rape were used frequently in order to absolve white women of culpability when they chose to engage in relationships with black men not a century ago, and the fact that Perry cannot enter into this relationship entirely of her own free will presents a very real problem in the framing of this song within society. Not only is she fascinated by this other, but he has to force her to submit to what she has outright stated she wants. While this sort of play is not problematic in a consensual relationship between equals, there is something rather unsettling about this request in the context of a society which, as she states, has told her to “be afraid” because he is “not like the others.”
Two different lyrics engines listed the lyrics to the climax of the chorus as “Boy, you’re an alien.” I really hope I don’t have to explain why there is a problem with implying that you are calling a black man “boy.” It wouldn’t fit with the tone of the song if she was saying, “Oh, boy! You’re an alien!” Perhaps she is, but if so then she really needs to work on the context of her lyrics. (Which would be shocking, of course.)
I would also like to ask why, given the interracial implications of the song, he comes from, “A whole ‘nother world, a different dimension?” Why? I understand that there are cultural differences, but the implication that this man is that far separated from her (so far separated, in fact, as to have “different DNA”: what.) does nothing more than contribute to the idea that there is something fundamentally different about people of different “races.” For all you know he might live down the street from you, Katy; why are you so weirdly obsessed with his “other”ness? I’m sure the sex is great, but why does that make him both “supernatural” and “extraterrestrial?” Why can’t he be just a person, just from Earth, with whom you enjoy some outstandingly hot sex?
Kanye’s verses vacillate between being offensively stupid (“They’re calling me a alien, a big-headed astronaut; maybe it’s because your boy Yeezy get ass a lot”) and further cementing the bizarre fetishization of Perry’s lyrics (“I’ma disrobe you, then I’ma probe you; See, I abducted you, so I tell you what to do”).
I don’t know that the song would be as problematic if it wasn’t for the presence of Kanye, who serves both to make the song less intelligent (and this is possibly, in my opinion, Perry’s smartest song, which I’ll grant doesn’t say a great deal) and to create a character to whom Katy sings. It may very well be chance that she is singing all of these things to a black man, but hope that we have the cultural awareness to understand why these lyrics are extremely troubling in the context of an interracial relationship, and why these ideas should really, really be discouraged, seeing as we’re in the twenty-first century and all.
Lyrics obtained here.