Sex, God, and Katy Perry
It’s the title of a Rolling Stone cover story that I never bothered to read. However, I did discuss it at length. It happened at one of those NYU parties where conversation picks up a near competitive edge to vomit forth (figuratively and literally) the single most calculated and alienating cultural reference there is. For some reason an emerald bottle of Midori was the only drink available. Not in the mood for the circle jerk (only figuratively this time) of deliberate musical obscurity that was quickly turning ugly as it moved toward a heated discussion of new wave Brit electro-acoustic folk, I downed a saccharine shot, turned to my friend, and started to talk about the first thing in my line of hazy vision: “Huh, check out at that story! Couldn’t you think of so many great subtitles for that?” Here is what two desperate aficionados of low culture came up with.
Sex, God, and Katy Perry: Things that have disappointed us.
There’s a reason Katy Perry looks familiar, and it’s not just the freakish Zooey Deschanel doppelganger thing, either. From the time when she engaged in that lingerie-clad pillow fight at Escort Service Barbie’s dream house, or wherever 2008’s “I Kissed a Girl” video is supposed to take place (which does not, incidentally, include any kissing of any girls) to when she staged that heroic reconnaissance mission to save her candy-coated gal pals from evil Snoop Dog in last June’s “California Girlz,” two things are for sure: the Hasbro company loves her more than you ever will, and you’ve seen her somewhere before. And that place, of course, is everywhere.
Sex, God, and Katy Perry: Things tailored to sustain a cult following.
Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson, better known as Katy Perry, traffics exclusively in pop music clichés. That’s why that seemingly unfounded feeling of comfort and familiarity is so pervasive when we see our now sun-scorched darling belting belated adolescent devotion from a top-down convertible in the video for “Teenage Dreams.” The phenomenon borders on kitsch—candy as sexual innuendo, a Nicholas Sparks quality WWII romance via the “Thinking of You” video—and is always delivered with a wink and a smile. But whose wink and smile is it?
There’s no denying that Perry herself has a sense of humor. Her tongue is usually so far in her cheek that it might hemorrhage. But what’s more interesting is that we know she is self-aware because she blatantly tells us so:
“I don’t take myself seriously,” she said on her YouTube Interview special in July, “I mean I know when to be serious, like during a serious moment like in “Thinking of You,” but in “California Girlz” it’s just a fun song with stupid purple wigs.”
Even Katy Perry’s background waxes ironic. The always-suggestive sometimes-sexually ambiguous singer was raised performing gospel music in a Santa Barbara Evangelical Christian household. But this is nothing new for a modern pop star. The difference is that while Britney would stare straight-faced into a camera and tell us that “Hit Me Baby One More Time” was about Jesus, and even a significantly feistier Christina had to fulfill her quota of genie metaphors before she could really get “Dirrty,” Katy Perry does not act oblivious to the subtext of her songs, at least not without a sly glance to let us in on the joke.
Perry doesn’t pretend because she doesn’t have to. In this way she signifies the last dying vestiges of the female pop princess illusion. With massive YouTube and social network exposure—Katy Perry is particularly active on Twitter and has openly admitted to Googling herself on regular basis—it’s almost as if she knows that if she were to pretend to be a virginal songstress, stubbornly adhering to the role as her predecessors have, no one, not even the most gullible, would buy it. So Katy Perry still plays the part with every doe-eyed bat of her unnaturally thick lashes, but manages to break the fourth wall often and with delight. Her existence is homage to the prototypical innocent girl fantasy in and of itself, whether she has constructed it to be or not.
Sex, God, and Katy Perry: Things that start wars.
It is her willing, docile adherence, I think, to following the tradition of these pop clichés that makes Katy Perry simultaneously embraced by the mainstream and reviled by critics. When you think of “branding” in terms of Katy Perry, you might sooner imagine it’s something she does with her fiancé behind closed doors (but please, let’s not). One of the main complaints about her as an artist is that she has no concrete image to set her apart from the crowd. And this is true. Katy Perry avoids extremes like the staff at Pitchfork must avoid her albums. Music enthusiasts could easily argue that her career is of little consequence because she is not different than any other singer in any very significant way. But this sameness is exactly what makes her so important. Here’s what I mean.
Sex, God, and Katy Perry: One of these things is not like the others.
Let’s look at Lady Gaga, just briefly, or this will become a whole different essay. Gaga is extreme not only in the sense of her artistically compiled outfits and avant garde stage theatrics, but in that, unlike Perry, she will never grant us that curt nod that let’s us know it’s all a joke. Gaga would rather be enigmatic than coy. Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum, Ke$ha is so over the top as her occasionally-repulsive, second wave feminist character type that there is hardly any question at all that she must be kidding with us. Ke$ha is that annoying guy who makes the “bu-dum-chhhh” sound after someone tells a joke.
The problem with Katy Perry, then, is that she falls somewhere in the middle. She is nowhere near as serious about her persona as Gaga (as evident in her Alejandro-esque bra of whip cream ammo in the “California Girlz” video) and far more subtle (read: she actually sings) than Ke$ha and her whiskey-saturated slurs. Her outfits are crazy, but not as crazy. Her lyrics are suggestive, but not as suggestive. She is not “Hot ‘N Cold” but pretty much lukewarm, pretty much all the time.
Katy Perry, then, is the perfect amalgamation of all these personality extremes once they have lost their shock value and become streamlined. And this makes her the ideal postmodern pop star. As a cultural artifact, she represents cheeky irony as an artistic component so commonplace and so involuntary that the artist herself might not even know that that’s what she is doing.
Sex, God, and Katy Perry: These are a few of my favorite things.
This is why, I think, it is antithetical to cultural understanding to hate Katy Perry, or at least irrelevant. It’s kind of like hating Stephanie Meyer or Katherine Heigl. Their work itself is unremarkable, sure, but the mass popularity of the work is what tells us something important about our society. If it weren’t them, it would just be someone equally inane in their place. Katy Perry shows us that even post Britney, we are still not ready for realist pop hits. Her brand of escapism is at once indulgent and at the same time conspiratorial. We all—and that ‘all’ probably includes Perry’s producers—know that we are willfully engaging in the nostalgia of coyly suggested sexuality when we listen to Katy Perry or watch her videos. And perhaps this faux-innocence is comforting to people, especially now that sex is commonplace in the mainstream.
Still, Katy Perry’s custom Dr. Luke spun hits are undeniably catchy. Her voice is pleasant to listen to. She’s quite a looker. So why the critical disdain? Lack of substance? She has already told us that she is about fun, not substance. Lack of authenticity? This is the internet age of Facebook constructed self-advertising; we don’t even know what that is. But if sometimes wanting to dance along to “Waking up in Vegas,” instead of discussing the merits of the latest experimental electro-whatever still induces a pang of shame, just take a tip from ole’ KP and pretend it’s all ironic. Top it off with a wink and a smile.