The Number Ones

December 18, 2010

The Number Ones: Katy Perry’s “Firework”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

The video for “Firework,” the third single and third #1 hit from Katy Perry’s 2010 leviathan Teenage Dream, is an utterly deranged piece of filmmaking. Director Dave Meyers opens the clip with the image of a plaintive Katy Perry looking down from a Budapest balcony before cutting to a montage of people going through difficult situations: a kid whose parents won’t stop fighting, a girl who’s too insecure to take part in a pool party, a young patient in a cancer ward. Then, 45 seconds in, we return to Katy Perry, but now she’s wailing at the heavens while shooting fireworks out of her boobs.

Look. Maybe it’s not her boobs. Maybe Katy Perry is really shooting fireworks from her soul, her innermost self. But the Teenage Dream album cycle started with the spectacle of Perry shooting whipped cream from her boobs in the “California Gurls” video. That’s the kind of impression that lingers. So the “Firework” video really looks, on a literal level, like Perry is advocating the idea that you can get through anything if you just tap into the healing power of nipple pyrotechnics.

It doesn’t end there. Perry’s inner fireworks display grows bigger and more spectacular, like an actual fireworks display. All around Budapest, people look into the night sky, see the boob-fireworks, and feel inspired. The kid with the fighting parents shoves past them and runs into the night. The kid with cancer wanders the hospital hallways and happens across a woman giving birth while also shooting fireworks out of her stomach. Some goons try to rob a guy on the street, but they’re wonderstruck when he has a long rainbow-colored handkerchief and some live doves in his pockets. He’s shooting fireworks, too, while he shows off his card tricks. Finally, a whole ecstatic crowd, Katy Perry included, converges on a palace courtyard, all of them running around in circles and shooting off boob-fireworks. That’s the happy ending.

It’s ridiculous. It’s so stupid. With the tiniest shift in tone, the “Firework” video would come across as a biting satire of self-help platitudes and the clumsy-ass ways that we visualize those platitudes. But Dave Meyers doesn’t shoot the “Firework” video the way you might shoot a comedy. (He’s made plenty of comedic videos, so he understands that visual language.) Instead, Meyers films “Firework” as if it were a gritty cinematic drama, or at least a very inspirational MasterCard commercial. And if you can allow your perfectly reasonable cynicism to slip for a minute, you might find yourself pulled into this absurd display of drama and catharsis. If you happen across the “Firework” video in an emotionally raw moment, you might even find yourself inspired. You might summon your own metaphorical boob-fireworks.

That’s “Firework” in a nutshell. It’s a profoundly silly song that refuses to admit to its own silliness. Other 2010 self-empowerment anthems, like Kesha’s “We R Who We R” and Pink’s “Raise Your Glass,” couch their messages in quasi-jokes and in lyrics about partying. Katy Perry ignores all that. She goes sincerely over-the-top, howling out an earnest message about your own special specialness over swelling strings and booming house drums, never evincing the slightest iota of self-consciousness. It’s cloying and simplistic and cheesy, and it works.

“Firework” has a backstory that’s almost as silly as the song itself. In 2009, Perry filmed a cameo in the comedy Get Him To The Greek; it ended up on the cutting-room floor. In the process, she met Russell Brand, the British comedian and cultural irritant who starred in the film. A few months later, she reconnected with Brand when he was hosting the VMAs. By the end of the year, the two were engaged. In October 2010, three days before Perry released the “Firework” single, she and Brand were married in a traditional Hindu ceremony in India — an early clue that Russell Brand was a real pretentious motherfucker. The marriage barely lasted a year, and we’ll get into the fallout in a future column. But while they were together, Brand introduced Perry to a classic of pretentious-motherfucker literature.

At some point during their courtship, Russell Brand showed Katy Perry a particular paragraph from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Kerouac famously described his companion Neal Cassady as a fleeting, explosive spirit:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everyone goes, “Awww!”

That quote got Katy Perry’s mind humming. Just last year, she clarified that everyone has been singing “Firework” wrong. On the chorus, Perry doesn’t sing about making ’em go up up up as you shoot across the sky-y-y. Instead, she sings that you should make them go “Awww!” (Or maybe “awe”? Whatever.) This revelation came in the form of a preplanned-looking skit that she filmed as one of the judges on American Idol — real firework shit.

On “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream,” the first two gargantuan singles from the Teenage Dream album, Katy Perry worked with the same team of assembly-line pop overlords: Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco, and Bonnie McKee. On “Firework,” Perry enlisted the talents of some different Scandinavian pop A-listers. The Norwegian production duo Stargate had become nearly as huge as the Max Martin/Dr. Luke combo, mostly by working with Rihanna. Stargate co-produced “Firework” with Sandy Vee, the French dance producer and David Guetta collaborator who’d also worked with them on Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In The World).” Katy Perry co-wrote the topline for “Firework” — the lyrics and vocal melody — with Ester Dean, the Atlanta-based singer and songwriter who worked on a whole lot of Rihanna hits with Stargate.

Stargate and Ester Dean worked on two of the tracks from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream album, and those songs appear right next to each other in the tracklist. The other one that she made with those guys is “Peacock,” the goofy and obnoxious cheerleader-chant number that barely even qualifies as innuendo. She might’ve made both songs with the same team, but it’s truly disorienting to listen to the album and hear Perry go straight from the theatrical sincerity of “Firework” to demanding to see your peacock-cock-cock, your peacock-cock. People love to talk about “Peacock” as the worst song on Teenage Dream, but I respect its grating sugar-rush intensity.

Given the names in the credits, it’s easy to suspect that Katy Perry wanted to make her own Rihanna hit with “Firework.” But Rihanna could’ve absolutely never recorded “Firework” — partly because her icy-cool persona wouldn’t have allowed for that particular form of heartstring-yanking manipulation and partly because Katy Perry basically wrote “Firework.” The Stargate guys agree that the song was Perry’s idea and that she and Ester Dean banged out the lyrics quickly. In 2018, Stargate’s Tor Erik Hermansen told Entertainment Weekly that Perry “really took the lead” on writing “Firework”: “We had no idea it was going to become [such an anthem] when she wrote it.” His partner Mikkel Storleer Eriksen affirmed that Perry is “a really good writer.”

Ester Dean, the person who really worked with Katy Perry on writing “Firework,” agrees that the song really came from Perry. In 2011, she told Billboard, “That was me and Katy bouncing ideas back and forth. Katy already had the concept and the name in her head. That was one of the times when you allow yourself to be led by somebody who knows what he or she wants. She knew what she wanted, so I was like, ‘I’ll follow you.'” Stargate and Ester Dean are professionals, but they’re not shy about taking credit when it’s warranted. If they say “Firework” really came from Katy Perry, I believe them.

Katy Perry has repeatedly said that “Firework” is her favorite of her songs. With plenty of big hits, including plenty of Perry’s own, it’s easy to imagine what another singer would’ve done with them. But “Firework” could’ve only ever been a Katy Perry song. Nobody else could’ve sold its hammy sweep the way that she did.

In that Entertainment Weekly story, the Stargate guys say that Katy Perry recorded “Firework” right after writing it. Hermansen: “At the end of the night, she said, ‘Let’s record the song tomorrow,’ and we said, ‘No no no, can’t we just lay down a rough scratch vocal tonight, just so we have something to listen to?’ In 10 minutes, she sang the song two or three times, and we pieced the vocals together. I would say 95% of what you hear on the finished record is from that demo.”

I really like the way Katy Perry sings “Firework.” Her voice isn’t perfect. It’s rough and sometimes abrasive, and it’s got a showy Broadway quality. On “Firework,” she leans into that. Her delivery on the verses is just slightly cutesy, but by the time she reaches the chorus, she’s all pageant-queen histrionics, which is exactly what the song needs. There are no backing vocals on “Firework,” so she has to bring all that drama herself. She’s up to it.

The production of “Firework” is super-effective, too. It starts out with a repeating chord that’s like a siren strobing. (Maybe it’s a keyboard imitating a guitar? I have no idea. It’s the kind of thing that so many French dance producers used on so many blog-house bangers.) Early on, Perry sounds like she’s fighting against that sound, struggling. But then, when the pre-chorus hits, that chord disappears, and the jaunty strings come soaring in. The strings and the fake blog-house guitars soon join forces, intertwining as they shoot skyward, and then the drums come booming in right when the chorus kicks in. It’s the classic studio-pop thing where all these elements sound like they’re in conflict with one another but where they all gloriously align when the track reaches its repeating climaxes.

Katy Perry famously opens “Firework” with an image swiped directly from American Beauty, a 1999 movie that has not aged gracefully. When you’re watching American Beauty, you need to be fully on-board for the plastic-bag scene to work. Wes Bentley’s dreamy-eyed stoner shows sheltered kid Thora Birch a video of a plastic bag blowing around, narrating the whole thing with breathless emotion: “It was one of those days where it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air. You can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just dancing with me, like a little kid begging me to play with it, for 15 minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid, ever.” I was like 19 when I saw American Beauty in the theater, and I thought that scene was terribly moving. Today, I think it’s the goofiest thing I’ve ever seen.

The first line on “Firework” is a rhetorical question: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” And I’m like, “…no?” Katy Perry has more questions. Perhaps, she thinks, you feel more like a house of cards that’s about to blow over, or like you’re already buried deep underground. But, Perry tells you, there’s a spark in you, and you just gotta ig-nite the light and let it shine, just own the night like the Foooourth of Julyyyy! ‘Cause baby you’re a firework, etc. It’s so mawkish! It’s so maudlin! I fucking love it! That shit goes! Listen, I can’t explain it. It’s my job to explain it, and I can’t do it. That’s the magic of pop music. It can sell you the stalest, hackiest, most obvious self-help poppycock, and if everything lines up right, it can still hit you like lightning.

“Firework” is all about the buildup and the catharsis. You can see all the gears working inside the machine, all the songwriting and production tricks that are there to manipulate you, and you can still get swept up in it. The “Firework” chorus is just a great hands-in-the-air moment. “Firework” would’ve probably worked as a ballad, but it’s so much better as a lose-your-mind club jam. The self-acceptance message of “Firework” has an implicit gay-rights undercurrent — something that’s reinforced by the scene in the video where two guys kiss. Perry dedicated the video to the It Gets Better campaign, and “Firework” has since become an all-time classic Pride jam, which is probably just what Perry intended. That’s fucking awesome.

Katy Perry worked “Firework” hard. She sang the song for the first time on Letterman in August 2010, the same day that the Teenage Dream album came out. She kept singing it on TV whenever she had a chance — talk shows, awards shows, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, VH1’s Divas Live. When it came time to make the video, Katy Perry and Dave Meyers partnered up with some European telecom giant and shot the thing in Budapest. She’s kept performing it at every big event that’ll have her. In 2015, for instance, “Firework” was the triumphant finale of Perry’s Super Bowl Halftime Show. She sang it while soaring through the sky on what looked like the NBC “the more you know” star as actual fireworks shot off all around her. It was spectacular.

I’m a easy mark for certain things. A fireworks display set to a song called “Firework”? That’s my shit. I once saw the great instrumental post-rock band Explosions In The Sky play a huge free outdoor show in Austin, and it ended with its own fireworks display. I loved that, too. The band’s name is Explosions In The Sky, and they had explosions! In the sky! Maybe I’m hopelessly literal-minded, but I love stuff like that.

Katy Perry has always understood that “Firework” is a song with spectacle built into it, and she’s used every opportunity to build more spectacle around it. In 2021, for instance, Perry used “Firework” to close out Joe Biden’s inaugural concert on the National Mall. She had fireworks for that one, too, obviously.

A few months ago, Katy Perry sang “Firework” at Windsor Castle as part of King Charles’ coronation. What the fuck was that? She’s not British! We fought an entire war so that Americans would not have to sing inspirational songs at the coronations of ineffectual British kings! Is Charles a firework? Should he come on and let his colors burst? I would argue that he is not, and that he should not. Maybe Katy Perry just loves singing “Firework” in situations where she can be on global television, with crazy light shows behind her. I could understand that. If I’d written “Firework,” I’d probably love doing that, too.

You don’t need me to tell you this, but “Firework” is a big, fat hit. It’s one of four Katy Perry singles that’s gone diamond. Today, “Firework” stands as the biggest hit of Perry’s entire career. (It’s gone platinum 12 times over, which is more than any of those other diamond singles has managed.) I don’t think “Firework” is Perry’s best song, but it’s her defining hit, her signature. Once “Firework” faded, Perry still had more hits in the chamber. Boom boom boom, we’ll see her in this column again soon soon soon.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s former Number Ones artist John Parr singing an overwrought live-in-studio cover of “Firework” in 2011:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the 2012 French film Rust And Bone, Marion Cotillard plays a lady who’s having a tough time because her legs have been eaten by one of the killer whales that she trains. Maybe she should’ve been in the “Firework” video! Hell, maybe Katy Perry should record her own version of “Firework” just for Cotillard. As in: “An orca ate your feet, but your soul can’t be beat!” Here’s “Firework” soundtracking an emotional scene for Cotillard:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves singing a slightly countrified version of “Firework” together on their 2014 episode of CMT Crossroads:

(Kacey Musgraves’ highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2013’s “Follow Your Arrow,” peaked at #60.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Firework” plays a prominent role in The Interview, the 2014 Seth Rogen movie that came under threat from the North Korean government because of its depiction of Kim Jong-Un. Here’s the scene where James Franco’s vainglorious TV host and Randall Park’s Kim Jong-Un sing “Firework” together while rolling around in a Soviet tank and blowing shit up:

(Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” the other song in that scene, peaked at #6 in 2008. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani having their own emotional “Firework” singalong moment in the 2020 film The Lovebirds:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Maybe a reason why all the doors are closed: So you could open the one that leads you to the perfect road. Like a lightning bolt, your heart will grow, and when it’s time, you’ll buy the book.

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