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Laurie Pennny: Katy Perry's unusual breasts in new music video, 'Firework'

Mine don't do that!

Anyone who has seen the rash of cosmetic surgery adverts plastering the hoardings of London this year will be familiar with the notion that boobs, particularly expensively remoulded boobs, are the foundation of any modern woman's confidence. I had no idea that this was meant so literally until I saw Katy Perry's new music video, in which her breasts quite literally shoot jets of fiery self-esteem, prompting various young people in a generic eastern European city to make minor changes in their lives.

In the opening scenes of Firework -- a clinically catchy pop excursion released last week to coincide with the height of the season during which Anglo-Saxons burn rockets, papier-mache terrorists and their principles -- Perry wanders alone in an opulent ballgown on a balcony high above the city. The singer watches forlornly as young people face down a smorgasbord of personal difficulties: a young man is afraid to come out of the closet; a girl who is overweight is too shy to wear a swimsuit in front of her friends; a hipster-looking youth is getting mugged in a back-alley.  

But wait! What's this? Suddenly, CGI sparks begin to fizz and crackle in Perry's chest. The celebrity burns with passion to save the poor lost children with the power of song and special effects; fireworks start to explode in her bosom and begin to burst out of her nipples, trailing huge incendiary arcs across the city. A young cancer patient gazes in emaciated wonder out of her hospital window as Perry's exploding tits light up the sky.

Whoever is touched by Perry's extraterrestrial mammary flames becomes suddenly courageous: the hipster dazzles his assailants with card-tricks, the young girl strips to her knickers and dives into the pool and the boy snogs a stranger in front of his friends as the lyrics remind us that, to overcome any obstacle, all we really need to do is "ignite the light, and let it shine". Whatever that's supposed to mean. It is not entirely clear whether Katy Perry's computer-generated boobtacular light-show can actually cure cancer, but the implication is certainly there. "Katy's got a lot of substance and a lot to say, and hopefully this video represents that," said its director, Dave Meyers.

"Firework", which Meyers insists is a solemn attempt to "articulate... what it means to be an underdog", was rather hastily dedicated to the It Gets Better project, set up this autumn to console gay teenagers considering suicide with the knowledge that their lives will improve. It Gets Better is a worthy and necessary initiative in a world where LGBT youth invariably face savage bullying at school, at home and in their communities.

The problem with this approach is that it entirely evades responsibility to change the situation, accepting homophobic hostility as something young people just have to suffer through until they're old enough to move somewhere with a passable scene. The notion that personal resilience is the only possible response to injustice is burnt into the retinas after a single viewing of "Firework". There is something distinctly counter-revolutionary about the exploding tits hypothesis of personal transformation.

The serious message that "Firework" seems to be sending is that you can't actually fight the social structures that put obstacles such as homophobia, body fascism or street crime in your way. All you can do is find the strength to battle against the odds, possibly with the help of a go-getting attitude and a pair of fantastic jugs -- you're not supposed to question why the odds are stacked against you in the first place. "Show 'em what you're worth".

The orthodoxy of consumer self-fashioning is entirely grounded on this notion of desperate individual striving. Outside music-video land, fighting social injustice often involves more meetings, marches and lobbying and fewer synth beats. It doesn't just happen because some pop star in a party frock sprays magical fire from her nipples.

It is reassuring, then, that by the end of the video all the hundreds of young people blessed with Perry's bosom-burning spurts of CGI self-worth seem to have gone into a sort of gleefully pagan trance of self-immolation, converging on the town square in a bacchanalia of contemporary dance. The incendiary rabble appears to turn on Perry in an orgy of flamey vengeance.

Clearly, come the revolution, the boobs-on-fire brigade will be the first against the wall.  

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.