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.
There are many different ways to define the imperial era, the fleeting and mythical moment when a pop star can seemingly do nothing wrong. For instance: If the fourth single from your album is also the fourth #1 hit, you are probably in your imperial era. If that song ditches the frothy and linear pop sound of your recent hits, going instead for clanking and discordant sci-fi weirdness, and it’s still a huge hit, you are definitely in your imperial era. And if you manage to soar all the way to #1 with a song about alien sex, then you’re in a rare space indeed, breathing atmosphere that few pop stars will ever taste. In 2011, that’s where Katy Perry was.
Now: “E.T.,” the fourth massive hit from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream album, wasn’t necessarily a song about literal sex with literal aliens when Katy Perry first wrote it. Instead, it was a song about metaphorical alien love. Before “E.T.” vaulted to #1, Perry told a New Year’s Eve crowd that the song was “about falling in love with a foreigner.” At the time, Perry was married to the British comedian Russell Brand.
I had a lot of Russell Brand jokes on deck for this column, but last week, The Sunday Times and Channel 4 published a report in which four different women accused Brand of rape and sexual assault between 2006 and 2013. One of those women was 16 at the time. Brand, who denies all the allegations, already seemed creepy before this report came out. Now, he comes across downright demonic. In this particular column, Brand is unfortunately one of many toxic motherfuckers who will need to be mentioned. In any case, none of those jokes seem funny anymore.
It’s not pleasant to think of “E.T.” as a song about Russell Brand, so maybe we can better appreciate the track if we stop thinking of it as an ode to metaphorical alien love and consider it, instead, as a song about literal alien love. The song’s meaning shifted a bit when Katy Perry recruited Kanye West, toxic motherfucker #2 in this column, to rap on a remix. With Kanye on board, “E.T.” became a song about alien sex. As in: “Pockets on Shrek, rockets on deck/ Tell me what’s next: Alien sex” — a line made even funnier by Kanye’s dead-serious hard-striver delivery. I’m not making any kind of interpretive leap here. The man said it himself. That’s what’s next: Alien sex.
You can see why Katy Perry would want to release a song as ridiculous as “E.T.” as a single. She’d just gone with the swelling, emotional sincerity of “Firework,” and that was huge. But Perry was known for her playfulness, and she couldn’t come out with two serious songs in a row. At the same time, she had to compete with Lady Gaga, whose freaky maximalism was running wild on the charts. So Perry’s next single was probably the most Gaga-esque moment on Teenage Dream.
Katy Perry recorded “E.T.” with three figures who should be plenty familiar to anyone who’s been reading this column for the past year or so: Dr. Luke (toxic motherfucker #3), Max Martin, and Luke’s protege Joshua “Ammo” Coleman. (Ammo, a Baltimore native, never became massively famous like Martin and Luke, but he’s already been in this column for co-writing and co-producing Kesha’s “We R Who We R.”) The three producers had a different artist in mind for their “E.T.” beat. The track was supposed to go to Three 6 Mafia.
There is absolutely zero chance that Three 6 Mafia could’ve ever done anything remotely good with the “E.T.” beat, and it seems absolutely absurd that Max Martin and Dr. Luke ever had them in mind in the first place, but this was a strange moment in Three 6’s long history. Over many years, Three 6 emerged from the Memphis rap underground and became regional stars, to the point where their biggest hit, the all-Tennessee posse cut “Stay Fly,” peaked at #13 in 2005. That same year, Three 6 architects DJ Paul and Juicy J, along with their protege Frayser Boy, wrote the song “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” for Hustle & Flow, a movie about a Memphis pimp who tries to become a rapper. Hustle & Flow got strong reviews and became a surprise hit, and in a glorious upset, Three 6 Mafia won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
For a minute there, Three 6 Mafia were mainstream celebrities, complete with an absolutely unwatchable MTV reality show. For a while, Three 6 tried to transition into making pop-rap, and it went badly. Their 2008 single “Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)” reached #18, but it’s totally fucking awful. By 2010, the group was in the process of breaking up, so it’s not like the “E.T.” beat would’ve done them a lot of good even if the track didn’t clash horribly with the aesthetic that they’d been building for years. In any case, Ammo, Dr. Luke, and Max Martin accidentally played the “E.T.” beat for Katy Perry during a studio session, and she decided that she had to have it. Katy Perry doesn’t have an Oscar, but she still took precedence over the Hypnotize Minds camp. (Three 6 Mafia member Juicy J will eventually appear in this column as a guest on a different Katy Perry song.)
In 2011, Katy Perry told MTV, “I always knew I wanted to write this futuristic, alienistic song. They pulled [the beat] up and I was like, ‘Wait, I can wrap my head around this. I know this seems like a long shot, but I think I have the perfect material to put on top of this sound.'” It wasn’t a huge stretch. The “E.T.” beat sounds like a stadium-rock track that’s been fed through a club-pop A.I. filter. The drums boom. The power chords crunch. The keyboards bleep away with icy precision. It sounds both artificial and overwhelming, and it’s the kind of thing that might call up CGI-blockbuster images of global devastation. I don’t know how you get a love song out of all of that, but I’ve also never been in love with Russell Brand, so I can’t really access the headspace that Katy Perry was in at the time.
Perry belts out her “E.T.” lyrics with fearsome intensity, her voice sometimes glitching into hiccups: “Kiss! Me! Ki-ki-kiss me!” The lyrics are silly as hell — corny-ass lines about cosmic kisses and vibrating lasers. Given recent stories about Russell Brand, certain lyrics now seem downright dark; through no fault of their own, the “infect me with your poison” and “wanna be a victim” bits have not aged especially well. But the lyrics are pretty secondary on a song like “E.T.” Instead of analyzing the text, you’re supposed to let the thing wash over you.
There are some serious hooks on “E.T.,” and I can imagine the song sounding titanic in an arena or even a big club. Compared to the joyous immediacy of Perry’s other Teenage Dream hits, though, I mostly find “E.T.” to be pretty unpleasant, even without all the Russell Brand baggage. I don’t hear any charm in the hammering enormity of “E.T.” Its playfulness gets lost as all the hyper-polished noise crashes around me.
“E.T.” first charted in 2010. In the lead-up to the Teenage Dream release, Katy Perry put a few songs up on iTunes. One of them was “E.T.,” which sold enough downloads to reach #42. But Perry didn’t give the song a proper single release until February 2011. To keep her string of hits going, she added something that wasn’t on the album version of “E.T.”: A couple of short verses from Kanye West, someone who’s been in this column a bunch of times.
Kanye West endured his first public backlash after he interrupted future Number Ones artist Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech in 2009, and he was in the process of bouncing back when he showed up on the “E.T.” remix. At the end of 2010, Kanye released his massive, ambitious album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and he effectively lampooned his douchebag status on his single “Runaway,” which peaked at #12. Dark Twisted Fantasy is nowhere near my favorite Kanye album, but my fellow critics fell all over themselves to heap praise on that record, and it went a long way toward rehabilitating Kanye’s image.
At least theoretically, Katy Perry managed to land a guest-verse from Kanye West when he was somewhere near his peak. But a track like “E.T.” was never going to bring out the best in Kanye, who was never aesthetically aligned with the whole Max Martin/Dr. Luke school of uber-pop. There’s very little syncopation in the “E.T.” beat, and the subject matter wasn’t exactly close to Kanye’s heart. So Kanye did the only thing that made sense: He said some of the dumbest shit in the world.
Kanye West always had dumb lines, even on his most critically celebrated records. On a phone-it-in job like his “E.T.” appearance, Kanye took the daring step of rapping nothing but dumb lines. Every Kanye lyric on the “E.T.” remix is so deliriously stupid that I can’t help but enjoy it. Consider: “They callin’ me an alien, a big-headed astronaut/ Maybe it’s because ya boy Yeezy get ass a lot.” Maybe so! Or: “I know a bar out in Mars/ Where they driving spaceships instead of cars.” Sure! That stuff is fun, but even on a couple of nothing verses like this, Kanye can’t resist saying something creepy: “I’ma disrobe you, then I’ma probe you/ See, I abducted you, so I tell you what to do.” You can see that he’s trying to keep going with the Area 51 imagery, but he always seems to slide into “you will not control the threesome” territory. That’s just what toxic motherfuckers do.
Maybe Katy Perry was trying to go for prestige when she hired director Floria Sigismondi for the ridiculous mega-budget “E.T.” video. Sigismondi made her name with arty Marilyn Manson and David Bowie clips, and she directed the pretty-bad 2010 Runaways biopic. But the “E.T.” video fits into the trend of utterly incomprehensible sci-fi-spectacle pop videos that were coming out around the same time. In that hierarchy, it sits somewhere between Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me.”
I’m not even sure how to describe the “E.T.” video. It takes place in the distant post-apocalyptic future? A CGI alien eventually morphs into a version of Katy Perry that’s covered in futuristic makeup? She lands on a devastated earth, and male model Shaun Ross plays the half-robotic final human survivor? He falls in love with Katy Perry? But then, in the last shot, she has deer legs? I don’t know, man. I’m glad this whole trend of effects-heavy, narratively incoherent pop videos finally ended; those things were exhausting to watch. For something more entertaining than the “E.T.” video, please allow me to suggest the YouTube video interview that Katy Perry did in 2012, after “E.T.” hit 100 million views. In that clip, Perry attempts to describe the storyline of the “E.T.” video, and she seems to keep realizing, mid-sentence, how insane she sounds. That clip is fun to watch.
With “E.T.,” Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream became the first album since Usher’s Confessions to send four different singles to #1. During the song’s reign atop the Hot 100, Katy Perry and Kanye West performed the track together on an episode of American Idol. Perry, wearing a sparkly bodysuit, was surrounded by dancers in lucha libre/Cirque Du Soleil alien costumes. Kanye hadn’t been announced beforehand, and he didn’t seem entirely certain of all the words to his second verse. You’re not going to believe this, but Katy Perry and Kanye West did not exactly have the best chemistry onstage. I think that’s the only time they ever performed “E.T.” together, and I’m not holding my breath for it to happen again.
To my mind, “E.T.” is a pretty bad song, and its push seemed both goofy and desperate, but I guess people really liked the track. A remix with Kanye West might’ve been enough to push a single to #1 for a one-week run, but “E.T.” stayed there for more than a month, and it’s now gone platinum eight times over. The extremely silly verses did not derail Kanye West’s comeback. Later that summer, he and former Number Ones artist Jay-Z released their dynamic-duo LP Watch The Throne, which I think was the last album that I ever reviewed for Pitchfork before going to work for Stereogum. “N***as In Paris,” the album’s biggest hit, peaked at #5. (It’s a 10. We’ll see Kanye West in this column again, but only as a producer.)
Crazy thing about “E.T.”: It did not mark the end of Katy Perry’s imperial era. It didn’t even mark the end of the Teenage Dream album cycle. She’ll be back in this column again pretty soon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Yellowcard, the pop-punk band with the violin player, covering “E.T.” in a 2011 live-in-studio session for Billboard:
(Yellowcard’s highest-charting single, 2004’s “Ocean Avenue,” peaked at #37.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The hugely successful British girl group Little Mix started out on the UK version of The X Factor, and they performed “E.T.” when they were still contestants on the show. Here’s their version:
(Little Mix have a bunch of UK chart-toppers, but their highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2015’s “Black Magic,” peaked at #67.)
THE 10S: This column is already full of toxic motherfuckers, and it brings me no joy to tack another one on here, but I can’t deny the song. Chris Brown, Busta Rhyes, and Lil Wayne’s breathlessly frantic ping-ponging rappity-rap attack “Look At Me Now” peaked at #6 behind “E.T.” It’s a nuisance, it goes stupid, it goes dumb like the Three Stooges. It’s a 10.
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Welcome to the danger zone, step into the fantasy. You are now invited to buy it here.