Katy Perry wiggles into a skirt shaped like a multi-tier cake, surrounded by sequin-sewing costume designers. It’s the opening scene of the 2012 documentary Katy Perry: Part Of Me, and Perry’s team is preparing for her California Dreams tour, scrambling around a pink Project Runway-style workroom. As if wielding a magic wand, she tries on spinning peppermint pasties and peacock feathers, remarking, “How could you ever be too cartoony?” Her fairytale is finally coming together.
Perry has continually reinvented her image over the course of 10 years and four studio albums. The pop star has somehow managed to fit quirky pinup girl, candy-coated teenage dream, stripped-down gospel singer, #ImWithHer neoliberal avatar, goofy aunt, and human meme into her repertoire. Through it all, a penchant for spectacle and cartoonish optimism have remained at her core. But as fun for fun’s sake loses its place in pop music, her shtick grows stale.
Perry was arguably the biggest pop star in the world not so long ago, but she has struggled to retain relevance in recent years. She joined past-their-prime pop stars such as J-Lo, Christina Aguilera, and Gwen Stefani as a judge on a televised singing competition, fought a nun in a legal battle, and ate a bunch of chicken nuggets on a Japanese talk show. She seemed to hope these goofs would be received as “classic Katy moments.” Instead, they repositioned her spectacle as a hard-to-watch variety show and broke down her carefree demeanor into a calculation. With mass appeal as her end and trending internet content as her means, she rebranded herself as the Ellen DeGeneres of the music industry.
One Of The Boys, Perry’s debut album, turned 10 years old this past weekend. I can still remember the exact moment a decade ago when I heard her first smash hit “I Kissed A Girl.” Her voice beamed over crunchy guitars and echoed throughout the mall food court. It sounded like it was specifically engineered for my 12-year-old taste, the perfect mix of radio rock and hyper-feminine teen pop. Much like the breakout singles of her pop-star predecessors — Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle,” for example — Perry’s infectious ode to sexual experimentation was too catchy to avoid controversy. (Prior single “Ur So Gay,” also controversial at the time, would be enough to destroy Perry’s career if she released it today.) But she brought something new to the formula. Unlike Spears and Aguilera, who were destined for fame from their childhood years on The Mickey Mouse Club, Perry carved her own path, and you could hear it in the music. She introduced a sense of wonder and cheerful angst into the pop landscape, embodying a West Coast Alice In Wonderland.
Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson was born in 1984 to Pentecostal pastor parents who prevented her from consuming pop-culture, mainstream music, or anything resonant of sacrilege. She performed and listened to gospel music through her teen years until one day, when she heard a friend play Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” Coming off of her sheltered tomboy adolescence, Perry felt inspired by Morissette’s raw femininity. Initially, Perry tried to filter the influence of Morissette and other alt-rockers into Christian rock on her obscure self-titled album as Katy Hudson in 2001. But eventually she began embracing sexuality and growing pains in her songwriting, determined to create something spectacular out of her female experience.
Glen Ballard, the producer behind Jagged Little Pill, helped produce One Of The Boys, along with Dr. Luke, Greg Wells, Dave Stewart, Butch Walker, and the emo-pop production duo S*A*M and Sluggo. The breakout album merged bubblegum with pop-rock, showing distinct flashes of Morissette with hints of Gwen Stefani and Paramore. If One Of The Boys is Jagged Little Pill’s offspring, it’s Riot!’s peppy sister and Love. Angel. Music. Baby.’s cousin. But despite its chart-topping singles, the album was met with mixed reviews. Poptimism had not yet reached its peak, and emo-pop’s mainstream moment was fading. Perry didn’t fit into a ready-made niche, so she made one for herself.
One Of The Boys’ tongue-in-cheek grit came to life onstage and through personal vlogs. Perry’s Hello Katy tour paraded an unabashed girliness with fantastical stage design complete with a white picket fence, inflatable plastic fruit, and a cat named Kitty Purry. Daily video blogs continued her self-made spectacle offstage and gave fans a window into Perry’s everyday antics: cracking jokes on set, playing with her cat, asking questions to a Magic 8-Ball. Social media was in its infancy and tabloids were our main connection to celebrities’ personal lives, so Perry’s transparent public persona was unusual and exciting. She inspired a “normal,” “quirky” breed of celebrity (later seen in Jennifer Lawrence and, occasionally, Ariana Grande) and was one of the first icons to champion the mid-2000s “manic pixie dream girl” aesthetic (further instilled by Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days Of Summer). She was, at once, magical and undoubtedly authentic.
By the time she released Teenage Dream in 2010, she had fully committed to her cotton candy dreamworld. The fantasy, her vision, was crystallized in the music video for its lead single “California Gurls,” in which she traverses a sugar-coated kingdom, sprays whipped cream from her bra, and lays atop pink clouds wearing only a purple wig. This was Perry’s sweet spot. Comprising sentimental ballads and sugary club songs, the album fit perfectly with the stream of uplifting anthems being released, what the New Yorker’s Matthew Trammell referred to as “Obama Pop.”
Teenage Dream went platinum in the US, sold 6 million copies worldwide, and became the first album since Michael Jackson’s Bad to spawn five Hot 100 #1 singles — six if you count “Part Of Me” from the deluxe edition. (Two more tracks fell just short of the top spot.) It was one of the most successful albums in history. But the silly, sexy guardian angel bit lost its promise over the years. Perry’s most recent albums — 2013’s Prism and 2017’s Witness — tried to adapt to a changing worldview with a darker palette and more vulnerable process, but ended up with emotionless radio noise.
Prism featured a fresh-faced, newly-enlightened Perry, inspired by her reading of Eckhart Tolle’s Power Of Now and her ex-husband Russell Brand’s divorce-via-text. Costumes and fanfare persisted despite the album’s more serious tone. She was still in-on-the-joke, ready to entertain and exist within the surreal universe she created. Perry’s self-awareness was last seen at her 2015 Super Bowl performance, roaring atop a giant mechanical lion and dancing with the famed “left shark.” It was a fitting conclusion to the aforementioned fairytale; unfortunately, life carried on and she transformed from star of her own spectacle to viral clickbait — from left shark to jumping the shark.
A wider tonal shift began last year and, apparently, nobody told Katy Perry. As the state of the world turned demonstrably darker, her brand of playfulness began to feel trite. Those of us troubled by the rise of fascism at home and abroad were less interested in tales of escapism and more focused on hearing our anxieties echoed back to us. “Sit down, be humble” and “All my friends are dead” were appropriate post-election aphorisms. Pop star aesthetics were similarly affected. Today’s pop stars tend to deal in as-seen-on-Instagram trends or high-fashion and fuck-you-pay-me opulence, á la Taylor Swift’s diamond-filled bathtub and expensive dominatrix look in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video or Dua Lipa’s sophisticated couture. Perry, on the other hand, has always been partial to bright and funky theatrics.
Katy Perry The Political Activist probably seemed like the perfect move during the 2016 election, but her flashy efforts fell flat. Perry’s public support of Hillary Clinton read like a business deal rather than a genuine partnership. Her endorsements took form in American flag-emblazoned gowns and an ill-advised Bill-and-Hillary Halloween costume. At the 2017 Grammys, she sang Witness’ lead single, the vaguely political “Chained To The Rhythm,” wearing an armband that spelled out “PERSIST” in rhinestones. Like the album that followed, the performance felt heavy-handed. Witness struggled to repurpose Perry’s brand within 2017’s politically-charged, social media-centric discourse. Every song has an agenda. You can envision the meetings that led to them, as if they were designed in a lab.
“Bon Appétit” features the hot rap trio Migos and draws on tense trap hip-hop beats. “Swish Swish” is Perry’s Nicki Minaj-assisted, meme-ified “diss track”; its music video stars a cast of internet personalities. Promotional stunts for the album were even worse. She served her head on a platter, disguising herself as an experimental art piece at the Whitney Museum. Later on in the release cycle, Perry moved into a colorful apartment monitored by 41 cameras for her “Witness World Wide” livestream.
This forced candor resulted in a ham-fisted version of her early vlogs, a full transition into the new Katy Perry. During the livestream, Perry welcomed celebrity guests into her temporary home. Activities included cooking with Gordon Ramsey, yoga with an actor from Modern Family, playing games with James Corden, drinking tea with RuPaul, and lounging with Sia. The phony social experiment felt like an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians: a pageant of celebrity where nothing really happens. Perry’s webcam confessionals were once daily bursts of intimacy for her fans, visual diaries for her to unload the humdrum of fame. Now she’s just trying to kill air time.