Archive for October, 2010

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The Katy Perry Conundrum

October 27, 2010

Image from Wikipedia

Well, Katy Perry and Russell Brand tied the knot this past weekend, so now seems as good a time as ever to ponder the whole thing about the new Mrs. Brand. Her ascendance over the past two years has led to some discussion between Kathy and me.

Katy is one of those pop artists whom I simultaneously really like and can’t freaking stand. I don’t know much about her music other than her big six singles (“I Kissed A Girl,” “UR So Gay,” “Hot N Cold,” “Waking Up In Vegas,” “California Gurls,” and “Teenage Dream”), but for the most part those singles tear the roof thanks to the one-two punch of her autotuned belting and the crisp, catchy productions of Max Martin and Dr. Luke. “Hot N Cold” and “California Gurls” in particular churn forward like dance-rock bullet trains and “I Kissed A Girl” is a bass-heavy shuffle-beat stomper that makes you want to pump your fist like you’re on Jersey Shore.

Still, Perry’s music is the kind of music that I want to divorce from the performer. I won’t change the station when they come on the radio, and I’m still tempted to throw down some cash to pick up her two most recent hits, but I feel a little dirty about it.

I think my big problem with Perry is a lack of authenticity. It’s not like the traditional Spears/Ke$ha paradigm that values love and partying (because I feel this irony when Perry does it), nor does it fit into the Aguilera/Pink/Rihanna practice of grafting more serious themes onto dance beats. Unlike the work of Lady Gaga, I can’t seem to find any larger themes or messages buried in the dance beats and costumes outside of “LOOK AT MEEEEEEEEEE.” When Gaga does it, there’s a little bit of abrasiveness and distance and meat dresses. When Perry does it, it’s all winks and points and dresses/bikinis that look like fruit. Kathy likens it to a nonspoken “Tee hee. Aren’t I cute?” Andrew “Garbage Day” Miller likens her persona to a garden-variety fameseeker who cares not for her actions, only that they garner attention:

This revolution has nothing to do with sexual preference and everything to do with savvy attention whores realizing they can turn their usual tacky behavior (posting half-nude photos of themselves in public forums, initiating calculated same-sex make-out sessions) into a lucrative career. (from Something Awful)

Michaelangelo Matos makes a similar argument, comparing Perry’s rise to that of Sarah Palin and Tea Party pseudofeminism:

“I Kissed a Girl” is infuriatingly ass-backward: cynical adherence to outdated values made into titillation, snide calculation dressed up as the underdog, the same old bullshit disguised as rebellion. (from The Stranger)

Indeed, for further evidence of Perry’s calculated “quirky, quirky, quirkiness,” one needs only to click on the above link to Matos’s article. That embedded picture of Perry has her totally jacking Zooey Deschanel’s look. Yes, Madonna jacked Marilyn Monroe’s look back in the day, but Marilyn Monroe wasn’t rocking it at the exact same time.

Alyx Vessey pretty much sums up the Perry problem in her essay on disliking Katy and Ke$ha.

By the time Perry’s inane ”California Gurls” came out earlier this summer, her image as a superficially edgy pop star with a predictable sense of heterosexually palatable feminine camp did little to challenge what I already thought of her….Perry needs to associate herself with hip, fashion-forward, androgynous young people to bolster her image. (from Feminist Music Geek)

Still though I wish I could quit KP, I can’t stay mad at her, and it isn’t all in her catchiness. For me I think it has to do with her latest single “Teenage Dream.” The popping beats and band dressed as a football team are still there, but for the first time I hear worry and desperation in Perry’s contralto growl. The lines about “dance until we die” and “young forever,” while hardly remarkable even for a dance song, at least show Perry seeing her mortality (or at that of her least her pop career) and flinching. It’s a small sign of growing up (or the fear of it). I gave Jay-Z props for expressing this sentiment, and I’ll give Katy the same credit. It’s just a sentiment that resonates with me at this point in my life.

In the grand scheme of things Perry’s biggest crimes are dressing up conservative heteronormativity as progressive edginess and being a crummy role model for young people (a crime that has been charged to almost every female pop sensation since 1981), so I feel ok splitting who she is and what she makes. There’s lots of great dance pop music on the radio, moreso than during the teen pop boom of the late 90s (since we’re not hearing so much of those crappy ballads that were previously bundled with the dance songs), and it’s my opinion that you should give KP’s music a shot at the very least – and not just listening on your headphones. Rock those beats in the car! Dance to those in the club! Belt those in karaoke!