April 11, 2011


Men Are From Beyond Mars

At the beginning of Katy Perry's video for the Kanye West-enhanced version of "E.T.," there's a voice that isn't Perry's—a distant voice, sounding like it's coming through an old radio, singing a forgotten song in the kind of style that largely vanished after the advent of rock. It's not a new pastiche, but a genuine vintage recording by Midge Williams & Her Jazz Jesters from 1937 or 1938, "Where in the World (Can My Lover Be?)."

If you listen to the original version, it's a much more intimate performance than the echoed-out snippet in the "E.T." video suggests: a someday-my-prince-will-come number, winsome and graceful if not particularly exceptional. Its theme, though, is appropriate for Williams—an American-born singer who toured Japan and China, and made her earliest recordings in Japanese.

She was a solidly successful act, if not quite a star of the first rank, and like Perry, she started performing very young: her earliest group, the Williams Quartette (with three of her brothers), started touring when she was 12 or 13 years old. The Jazz Jesters were Williams' own group; the pianist who played with her on "Where in the World" might (or might not) be Raymond Scott, later famous for his own futuristic compositions and electronic experiments.

What both Perry's song and, in another way, Williams' song are calling for is a lover so far removed from their own experience that he might as well be an alien—somebody whose difference can expand the singer's consciousness, an Other it's okay to objectify. (Beyond "E.T."'s "abduction"/"probe" jokes, its central line—and the one line of the song where Perry unclenches her voice—is "you open my eyes.")

That's a theme that was a lot more popular in music in the 1970s, when the possibilities opened up by the moon landing, the sexual revolution and popular science fiction made aliens seem hotter than they've been before or since. David Bowie's "Starman" was one of the first great rock songs to imagine a man from outer space as the ultimate object of desire—although Bowie took the extra step of framing himself as the erotically irresistible alien in the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. (Bowie's intermittently checked in with that theme ever since: see, for instance, "Loving the Alien.")

By the late '70s, there were a handful of disco novelties about sexy, sexy aliens. Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip's hilariously campy 1978 video "I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper" is goofy as anything—its line about Flash Gordon and Darth Vader dates it—but it actually alludes musically to a bunch of sci-fi movies. (The arrangement opens with a snippet of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra," by that point permanently associated with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and after the line "what my body needs is close encounter three," it quotes the five-note motif of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There's a paraphrase or two of John Williams' Star Wars music in there, too.)

Sylvia Love's "Extraterrestrial Lover," from 1979, is even closer to the concerns of "E.T."—lines like "As you scan me with your photon beam/it's just like a dream" could be straight out of Perry's song. Two decades later, Luscious Jackson's "Alien Lover" adopted similar rhetoric to call down the "lightship lover/interplanetary other."

What all of those songs have in common, though, is that the hot alien is always a man, or at least male. When there's a desirable alien woman in a pop song, it's almost always played as a joke. (See, for instance, Allan Sherman's "Eight Foot Two, Solid Blue"—his sendup of "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?," in which he's searching for "the cutest Martian gal.") Men get to be from Mars, or beyond; for some reason, in songs about space, women have to hope to be a victim, ready for abduction.