Katy Perry sounds sort of like Björk, looks sort of like Zooey Deschanel, has neither of their particular charms and somehow still managed to become one of the most successful pop stars of all time. Plenty of artists have built their career on amorphous images – Madonna, David Bowie, Christina Aguilera, Michael Jackson (sort of); few have done it as poorly, and to as great financial effect, as Katy Perry. Her six-year career is defined by almost nothing: is she a world-weary vamp, a juvenile sex kitten, an emotional singer-songwriter, a motivational speaker, or just really into candy? Bowie changed his image album to album – Katy changes hers song to song, back and forth, with almost no consideration about what came before or what comes next. You’d think fans of her club hits would be turned off by her pseudo-Christian power ballads, just as you’d think her “pro-gay” “anthem” “Firework” would be undercut by a song called “UR So Gay.” But that’s not how it works in Katy World, and somehow her droves of preteen fans are able to live 100% in the moment 100% of the time, even when “E.T.” comes on right after “The One That Got Away.” What does it mean to be a Katy Perry fan? Is there anything close to ontological consistency in her career? Is it possible to build a “Katy Perry toolkit?” These are the questions everyone is asking, and in light of the release of her stupid new video for “Dark Horse” I think it’s about time they got answered.
1. THE GLEN BALLARD ERA (2005). Once upon a time Katy Perry was a sort of lame power-ballad singer with no hopes of fame. She was “real,” never did her hair, and dressed like a slob. She didn’t released a real album during this era, but she did film a string of music videos directed for super-producer Glen Ballard. They’re 100& forgettable, but, if nothing else, they’re consistent. Katy is pretty boring and not exactly likeable, but she’s definitely a real person; you get the sense that the grubby kid sitting on the floor of the Tokyo underground in the video for the remarkably forgettable ballad “Simple” is as big a loser as you think she is.
2. “THINKING OF YOU” – WALTER MAY (2008). For a hot minute, before anyone but Travie McCoy was paying attention, Katy looked like she was about to become some type of art star. Walter May takes a white-dressed performance of a standard “cheating on you but I love you” ballad and adds an obvious but sort of confusing bloody hands/murder metaphor. It’s dumb but sort of affecting – the clinically white sheets and the very sticky-looking blood make Katy look like a mediocre organ harvester, and her accompanying soon-to-be-trademark vacant smile makes that very, very creepy.
3. “UR SO GAY” – WALTER MAY (2007). Forget about the hideously offensive song – which trivializes gay sexuality, straight masculinity, clinical depression, and Mozart, all in the first line – and focus on the unremarkable video. Katy plays the fake cute, “this is kind of tongue-in-cheek, but kind of like not” commercially appealing hipster girl thing that twin sister Zooey was simultaneously “She & Him”-ing into an art form. It’s regrettably bad and embarrassing to watch. Notable, however, for it’s introduction of the cocked head with plastic eyes and confused smile accompanied by robot-ballerina arms that will soon become the Katy Perry look. In this context, it matches the harsh saccharine of the song and serves as an agent of cruel, ironic mockery.
4. “I KISSED A GIRL” – KINGA BURZA (2008). This song and video have reached such a level of ubiquity that it’s hard to remember the shock and confusion that accompanied their release. Back in quaint 2008 no one had ever heard of either Katy Perry or girls kissing girls. There were rumors, sure, but no one had ever seen such a thing actually happen. Katy brought it into the foreground, and the world’s never been the same since. Looking back now, the song sounds cheap and the video looks cheaper. Even surrounded by the alt-pop version of Video Hos, Katy doesn’t look like a star. Because she isn’t yet – she has no real image, no real persona, and no real fame. She plays things come-hither and serious and does everything she can to avoid any contact with any of the “experimental games” surrounding her. It’s crazy, even five years later, how offensive this song is – “Ain’t no big deal/it’s innocent”? How are you about to be that reductive and then come out as an advocate for gay rights? Who ever got behind this? Anyway, though – Team Katy discovered with “I Kissed A Girl” that Katy has a “bangin’ bod” and that she sells best as a sex symbol. Kinga Burza’s video reveals that she hasn’t figured out quite how to be that.
5. “HOT N COLD” – ALAN FERGUSON (2008). Alan Ferguson’s video could serve as a microcosm for Perry’s career. Five distinct ontological phases – Katy Getting Married, Katy as retro-future pop star, Katy leading zombie bride attack, Katy in early ’90s hip hop video shoot, Katy with zebra – that have absolutely no relation to one another and culminate in nothing. “Hot n Cold”‘s most significant contribution to the Katy cannon, though, is its thematic focus on fantasy: everything thing that happens in “Hot n Cold” turns out to be a daydream in poor Groom-of-Katy’s head. This will become a thing, maybe even The Thing, that unites Perry’s music, persona, and, especially, her videos. Time after time You, Viewer are presented with an IRL scenario that veers into escapist absurdity, sometimes slipping back (as in the case of “Hot n Cold”) to reality, but more often than not getting lost in ontological bananas-land. Each ontology is completely unrelated, totally contradictory, to the one that came before it (just like a “Warriors” gang of raccoon-eyed bridesmaids has nothing to do with a neon-urban Fresh Prince video), but, in the realm of daydreams and fantasies, that doesn’t matter. WTF the zebra has to do with anything though, I have no idea.
6. “THINKING OF YOU” – MELINA MATSOUKAS (2009). “Thinking Of You,” take two. Melina Matsoukas tries her hand this time and puts Katy into the world of a heartsick-but-still-cheating WWII widow. Matsoukas is lovely and the set direction, costumes, and ’40s romance scenes are delightful in a Nicholas Sparks sort of way. It would be fine if this is what Katy was, but “Thinking Of You” is such a far-cry from the power-pop of her past two singles that it’s impossible to accept any of it. The mismatched Protestant plain cross and Catholic rosary reflect both Katy’s Christian roots and her ontological confusion.
7. “WAKING UP IN VEGAS” – JOSEPH KAHN (2009). Musically and lyrically aligned with “Hot n Cold,” and if we can ignore “Thinking Of You” as the obligatory ballad and “I Kissed A Girl” as the attention-grabbing lead single we could almost imagine Katy settling into some sort of image. Katy expands her catalog of facial expressions and even uses some of them in emotionally-appropriate situations; the confused disgusted look is among her best.
8. “STARSTRUKK” – MARC KLASFELD, STEVE JOCZ (2009). Maybe the coolest Katy Perry ever looks in a music video. She’s not cartoony, she’s not uncomfortable – she looks relatively at-ease being “One Of The Boys” with a couple douchebags from Boulder. Like Perry, 3Oh!3’s music revolves around fantasy, and by the end of the video it becomes apparent that even Katy is a product of Motte and Foreman’s horny imagination. Her overt sexuality goes against the grain of the past three singles and plays ofd the continued success of “I Kissed A Girl.” Her appearance here then, as insignificant as it is, solidifies her primary status as a sex symbol. When you’re the hot-girl feature for a sleezy electro-hop two-hit wonder – that’s when you know you’ve made it.
9. “IF WE EVER MEET AGAIN” – PAUL “COY” ALLEN (2010). An unremarkable up-tempo pop ballad that makes me nostalgic for high school graduation but is otherwise forgettable (as in whoa, I totally forgot about this song until just this second). Timberland knows it and makes Timberland faces all through the video. Katy makes Katy faces – what do they mean? Who are you, Katy?
9. “CALIFORNIA GURLS” – MATTHEW CULLEN (2010). The peak of Katy Perry’s career. Probably her most lasting song and arguably her smartest video. Katy embraces her role as sex object and proves to be remarkably good at it. Pop stars weren’t naked that often back then, and this was quite a thing at the time. But “California Gurls” is more than just eye candy – there’s crazy subtextual stuff running all the way through it. First, most obviously: this is a song about California, set in the icy world of “Candyland.” Weird call, Katy! “Candyland” isn’t a happy, fun-tasting place, but an anti-feminist horror show run by a very evil (if charming) Snoop Dogg. Katy’s role in this world is to wander around with the Katy Perry Look, freeing her sexy-candy-themed friends and slaughtering as many gummy bears as possible in order to end Snoop Dogg’s reign. She does this admirably, ultimately invoking the whipped-cream-shooting power of her breasts; but, even after Snoop Dogg shrugs defeat, very little seems to have changed. The final scene shows Katy and friends lying on the beach beneath Snoop Dogg’s wolfish gaze, smiling moronically. Despite their external efforts to overcome subjection, they ultimately give into the oppressive hegemony of Candyland sexuality and waste away as a vapid beach-bound harum. I can’t imagine a better way to metaphorize phony L.A. County political feminism and the overwhelming capacity of the entertainment industry to commodify all aspects of Southern Californian humanity. Katy’s forced idiotic smile comes through like an attack, and Cullen’s focus on the naked-on-a-cotton-candy-cloud centerpiece turns that attack onto You, Viewer. It might be brilliant, and even if it’s not brilliant it’s still a lot of fun. At the very least Katy playfully kicking sand into Snoop Dogg’s face in the closing shot is a refreshing return to pre-feminist sex-kitten-ism in an era of post-feminist slutwave. Fantastic stuff.
10. “TEENAGE DREAM” – YOANN LEMOINE (2010). And then you get this. Yoann Lemoine goes washed-out and makes a perfect video that hits on all the right images to summon a sense of woozy nostalgia for early ’90s SoCal high school dreams – ripped jeans, coy smiles at lockers, Mustangs, swimming in undergarments, motel sex. Katy looks like the older brother’s girlfriend in a ’90s movie and plays it well. It’s great, it’s romantic, it makes me feel things that I have no business feeling (why does “we drove to Cali, got drunk on the beach” make me feel nostalgic? I was militantly straight-edge in high school and hated swimming). But it’s the complete antithesis of its album’s lead single. “California Gurls” made California either vapid and horrifying or vapid and fun. “Teenage Dream” makes it into a deeply emotional place full of hopes and dreams and being in love with hella-ripped bare-knuckle boxers. Unless this is about the brokenness and ultimate failure of teenage dreams due to the hideous vapidity of PR-driven California life – which who am I kidding, that’s definitely not what this is about. This is about one person creating two different worlds out of one state. Because she has mixed feelings about it, as people tend to do about states. Or because she wants to double her appeal and double someone’s income. They’re both wonderful videos for pretty good songs, but the two together is an ontological mess.
11. “FIREWORK” – DAVE MEYERS (2010). This song and video will forever be remembered as a “gay anthem” that came out just in time to lend support/capitalize off of the tragic rash of LGBT suicides in late 2010. If I were involved in the gay rights movement I don’t think I’d want a song with the line, “boom boom boom/brighter than the moon moon moon” as one of my anthems, but I guess that’s why I stay out of politics. More than that, though, it’s ridiculous that anyone bought into this: it was written long before gay rights was musically trendy, it has nothing to do with gay people lyrically, and, in case anyone forgot, this lady put out “UR So Gay” and “I Kissed A Girl” which are both crazy offensive, kind of explicitly anti-gay songs. Not like I’m holding anyone to a standard of consistency or anything. People change and stuff. I get it. But this is such a lazy attempt to earn political brownie points that it makes me want to die every time I hear it. Actually, I want to die because it’s the stupidest song ever. What’s most problematic here, though, is the very confusing firework imagery that pervades the video. Much has been written about the peculiarity of Katy shooting sparks out of her breasts. I think this was disturbing to so many Americans because they had not yet had the chance to clear from their minds the image of Katy’s breasts shooting whipped cream. But the most frightening scene to me is when the cancer-patient kid walks in and watches his mother’s stomach explode as she goes into labor. I don’t know what Dave Meyers is trying to say here, but it’s horrifying.
12. “E.T.” – FLORIA SIGISMONDI (2011). The first major misfire in Katy’s career. I kind of like this song, actually, but it has so little to do with her sound, her image, and her fan base – I don’t understand why Dr. Luke didn’t sell it to someone else. So many questions: why is Martian Katy sexier on Earth than she is in space? Are deer legs a commentary on the media’s presentation of the ideal female form? Was Shaun Ross thinking about this when he ascended into outer space with Lana Del Rey at the end of “Tropico?” What’s next, alien sex?
13. “LAST FRIDAY NIGHT (T.G.I.F.) – MARC KLASFELD, DANNY LOCKWOOD (2011). Katy’s cinematic epic, featuring stars from across decades and accompanied by a long string of viral bonus clips. The inclusion of Rebecca Black as the popular girl is brilliant, as are the cameos by Hanson and Kenny G. But Katy’s performance as the loser teenage girl with a speech impediment seems cruel. Katy hasn’t pretended to be a loser since before “I Kissed A Girl,” and to do it now, right after she’s made herself into an interstellar beauty and a teenage dream girl, is unbelievable and mean. Rebecca Black’s ability to make fun of herself (not easy to do when you’re a 14-year-old Youtube meme) is admirable, but Katy’s self-deprecation comes across almost as full of shit as Taylor-wearing-t-shirts. It wouldn’t be so bad if the pro-loser “Firework” hadn’t come first. But it did, and in its socially conscious light 1980s high-school-movie immorality comes across as nihilistic and deeply problematic. The final shots in particular – black-out drunk sex is date rape, and it’s not particularly funny even when it happens to nerds with headgear.
14. “THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY” – FLORIA SIGISMONDI (2011). One of Katy’s most awesome videos, if only for the shots of old-lady Katy driving around in a vintage black Mustang. I hope that the girl I marry is someday an old lady who drives a black Mustang around L.A. while mourning my death. The plot is cliched, but the tattoos/love forever theme predates “Mirrors” by a good two years. Now look back at the celebration of date rape over true romance in “Last Friday Night,” where the nerd/heroic knight who really loves Katy gets ignored after a momentary kiss and gets replaced by “some Lost Boy.” It doesn’t work.
15. “PART OF ME” – BEN MOR (2012). Let’s “unpack” this: “the part of me” that “you’re never gonna ever take away from me” is the part that joins the Marine Corps, an organization whose main objective is to destroy one’s individuality and comport one’s body to the operation of the nationalist war machine? What does this mean, Katy? You dance under an American flag at one point – is the “part of me” America? Does Butch Military Katy know Alien Katy? How do they feel about one another? What happens when Butch Military Katy is order to blow up a house full of innocent Afghani children? All this because her boyfriend might have been cheating on her? But I guess it’s just a break-up fantasy born out of a moment of emotionalism. It’s not an all-inclusive reality; it doesn’t have to make sense.
16. “WIDE AWAKE” – TONY T. DATIS (2012). “Wide Awake,” I’m going to argue, is the crucial turning point in Katy Perry’s career. It accompanies the release of “Part Of Me,” her feature length documentary film about what it means to be Katy. That film’s poster reveals everything: Katy the loser, hanging out in her bedroom, singing into a hairbrush, with a technicolor fantasy pop star Katy reflection in the mirror. In words, then – to be in Katy World is to be in a universe of ever-changing, impulsive fantasy. Tony T. Datis’s video for “Wide Awake” makes that all the more clear: Katy steps out of the “California Gurls” video shoot, makes sad-eyed niceties with her managers, and slumps back, tired and gloomy, in her dressing room. Suddenly she spins into a “Sleeping Beauty”-esque maze world full of fantasy video game dangers. After a moment of terror she meets her savior – Little Girl Katy, conservatively dressed, all innocent and wide-eyed. Together they proceed through the maze, traveling past ontologically dissimilar rooms with no apparent connection, fighting off an inconsistent host of enemies with an indefinite set of powers. At one point Katy shoots flames out of breasts for no apparent reason à la “Firework.” At another she meets Prince Charming, who shows no signs of outward maleficence, and punches him in the face. Finally Little Girl Katy leads her out of the exit and rides off on her Little Girl Katy bicycle, leaving behind a butterfly in Grown-Up Katy’s hand. Katy returns to her dressing room and finds herself in an over-the-top sexy-candy costume, ascending on an elevator to a stadium stage just in time for “Teenage Dream.” The self-awareness of this video is incredible – all of the maddening inconsistencies of Katy’s career are suddenly thrown into light. Even the “California Gurls” costume (which, after all, has nothing to do with California) for a performance of the antithetical “Teenage Dream” adds to the bricolage. The effect is incredible – Katy ceases to an inattentive money-grabber and starts to look like a starlet forced by her management into various inconsistent roles that she has no interest in living out. The most poignant shot in the video is Little Girl Katy’s disappointed face as she looks back at Grown-Up Katy while biking into the distance. The second is the resigned face that Katy has just before she steps onto the stage for the thousandth time, taking on an image that has nothing to do with her true self, an image that she hasn’t chosen, that she’s been forced into by someone who’s primary interest in life is making some money off her public existence. “Wide Awake” is the one moment of meta-Katy clarity in Katy Perry’s career – and it’s called “Wide Awake.” WTF, Katy? Are you actually like a genius or something? Have we all just been had?
17. “ROAR” – GRADY HALL, MARK KUDSI (2013). Back in action after a period of contemplation, ready for a third album. Dumb song, dumb video, dumb but extensive use of Katy Perry Look. The critical shot comes at the end when Katy wakes up and looks out the window of a plane. For a second you think it’s all just another fantasy. But then she steps outside into the “Junglescope” world of the video. The fantasy has become real life. Katy World, in all its inconsistency, is the Real World. Little Girl Katy is gone and the dream is here to stay.
18. “UNCONDITIONALLY” – BRENT BONACORSO (2013). Bonacorso strings together a series of striking scenes and Dolce and Gabbana ad rip-offs that have nothing to do with unconditional love or Katy Perry’s image. I guess this is fitting, because unconditional love seems to have nothing to do with Katy’s romantic life.
19. “WHO YOU LOVE” – SOPHIE MULLER (2013). Or maybe it does. Katy hasn’t looked this real since the early pre-fame days. Have she and John Mayer finally found true love? I think they’d be good for each other. Sophie Muller makes them look genuinely cute. Oh wait, just kidding, they broke up (2/25/14) yesterday.
20. “DARK HORSE” – MATTHEW CULLEN (2014). And then here we are, back to square whatever, completely out of line with anything. If any sort of career arc has been established, this one shakes its progression. Dr. Luke’s evil interpretation of a Memphis beat should have gone to Miley or Rihanna or basically anyone else, but Katy snatched it up and then ruined it with this idiotic, cartoon-y video. The Memphis, TE/Memphis, Egypt connection could have been so cool. The A$AP Mob-style dance moves performed by Egyptian Gods could have been so good. Juicy J could have been so vile. I’ll even get behind the hot cheetos and the Twinkie pyramid. But the lap dogs, and the kittens, and the neon pink, and the Katy Perry Looks – all of them, all in one place, all used annoyingly for no apparent reason – make this into the mess that one should by this point expect it to be.
* * *
If “Wide Awake” is really what it seems to be – Katy Perry’s one honest window into her image – then videos like “Dark Horse” are what we can expect for the next few years. The inconsistencies are never going to end. The fantasies will go on forever. Katy will remain a tool of corporate marketing, her fan base will remain unweighted and flighty, her songs will continue to be an endless progression toward nowhere. Katy herself won’t be remembered, because there will be nothing to remember her by. She’s the voice of our generation, maybe because she’s no voice at all.
This seems a bit extreme. Our generation has plenty of wonderful, consistent, grounded voices. But Katy Perry isn’t one of them. Despite her clear awareness of the continuity of critical perception of her public image (as evinced by “Wide Awake”), she has no interest in maintaining any sort of consistency. She makes music for people who don’t care about personal narratives or the effects of one’s past – or, for people who firmly believe in the power of dreams and immediate desires, even when those dreams and desires undercut the desires of a moment before. It’s not surprising that such a major component of her fan base is little girls – children are better than anyone at living in the moment, and living in the moment is absolutely essential to cutting it in Katy World. If you can get behind that loss of groundedness, then Katy Perry is a crucial part of 21st century cultural experience. And if you can’t, then you can at least find reassurance in the fact that she might be a little bit sad about it.