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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.

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad