By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
Cleavage and Elmo: That's the Katy Perry story in a nutshell.
Or, for that matter, in a coyly inadequate brassiere.
As 21,319,810 giddy YouTube viewers can tell you, last year Perry the pop star and Elmo the Muppet filmed a skit for Sesame Street. KP wanted to play princess dress-up with the furry li'l guy; Elmo flaked and blew her off, leading the singer into a pouty parody of Hot N Cold, one of seven breezy, bouncy hits she has scored over her first two albums.
The skit was entirely benign, downright adorable, a testament to the saucer-eyed Perry's all-ages likability and her do-gooder background as daughter of Christian pastors. In a time when the pop world is one big booty call and such slimy shows as Skins, Teen Mom and Jersey Shore rule MTV, Perry is a throwback, a retro pinup who finds fun in the flirt of it all.
It makes sense that Sesame Street wanted her. She is Betty Boop in fleshy form. She is Marilyn Monroe in blue hair, which is probably how she landed the role of Smurfette in the new flick.
But alas, American moms and dads freaked out about the Sesame Street footage — which was previewed on YouTube, where it quickly became a sensation — claiming that Perry's decolletage was a little too pronounced for something from the Children's Television Workshop.
Sigh. The skit was pulled from broadcast, also a testament, as it were, to Perry's extreme powers of suggestion and, to be frank, her 32D breasts, to which she frequently, winkingly refers. The 26-year-old SoCal gal wound up spoofing the Elmo hullabaloo on Saturday Night Live, and you had to wonder: Did the playful Perry plan this whole thing?
Unlike such chart-topping pop peers as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Britney — performers who use the raw power of sex to gain significant position — Perry is perfectly fine playing with the PG-rated powers of the flirt. And it is a power: She is the first artist in history, male or female, to spend a whole year, 52 consecutive weeks, in the top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100 charts.
Pop music has produced many flirty females, hubba-hubba stars confident enough to use suggestion and coy glances, instead of bare assets and naughty talk, to pull us into their orbit. In a lot of cases — definitely in Perry's case — they are more alluring, more titillating, more commanding than the performers who leave nothing to the imagination.
When she brings her California Dreams Tour to the St. Pete Times Forum on Friday, Perry will no doubt unveil bras that shoot whipped cream and fireworks. She will sing her very first hit — 2008's I Kissed a Girl — and her very best hit — 2010's Teenage Dream — and both of those songs are not exactly the G-rated joy of Lesley Gore's Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows. And yes, Perry's vavoomish effects-laden stage show will hover between Candy Land and Randy Land.
But rest assured there will be no real scandal, no parental threat, not compared to Gaga's "disco stick" chatter or Rihanna's S&M fetish. There will be no f-bombs, no raised middle fingers. And as for the music, listen closer: Perry's just "kissing" a girl, "just human nature." When she coos "Let's go all the way" in Teenage Dream — her most brazen song, even more than California Gurls and those melted popsicles — she makes sure that "no regrets, just love" is the connection, not backseat lust.
Perry seems to be getting more demure, too. In recent photo shoots, including a Parisian stunner in Vanity Fair, Perry opted for understated: full dresses, expensive jewelry. She's still incredibly alluring, and her chest is still on robust display. (Avert your eyes, Elmo!) But compared to her peers — Rihanna just appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with her rump hanging out — Perry is downright chaste.
Perry may have indeed rebelled against her pastor parents; after all, she did marry British Lothario Russell Brand, who was a walking one-night stand before tying the knot. But she's still God-fearing, still respectful of the innocence in her listeners.
When parents ask me if her show is safe for kids, I say sure, why not. Is it the Wiggles? Not at all. But as a first dangerous sip of rock 'n' roll, Perry is a wine cooler in a world of vodka shots.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife. Follow him on Twitter at @seandalypoplife.