The Number Ones

August 27, 2011

The Number Ones: Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (TGIF)”

Stayed at #1:

2 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.

We should talk about the Bad chart record. Between 1987 and 1988, five different singles from Michael Jackson’s Bad went all the way to #1 on the Hot 100. That had never happened before. There had been blockbuster albums, albums that had spun off multiple #1 hits. With both Off The Wall and Thriller, MJ reached the top twice. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and Whitney Houston’s Whitney had four chart-toppers apiece. But the very idea of five #1 hits from a single album is absurd. Even Michael Jackson, near the peak of his powers, could’ve never pulled it off if Thriller, his previous record, hadn’t been such a cultural phenomenon. Bad isn’t the biggest MJ album, but it represents a moment when radio stations would throw every last one of his singles into heavy rotation.

For 23 years, that Bad record stood untouched. A few other albums came close. The late ’80s were a time of massive pop blockbusters, and a few of them were within grabbing distance of the Bad record. George Michael’s Faith, Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl, and Michael’s sister Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 each had four #1 hits, but none of them could quite equal what Michael had done. Over the years, trends shifted, and it seemed less likely that anyone would ever catch up. When Usher sent four Confessions tracks to #1, it was the closest that anyone had come in more than a decade.

And then: Teenage Dream. Katy Perry’s second major-label album remains one of those imperial-era success stories — a pop star and her collaborators operating at peak capacity, cranking out hit after hit until you could hear half the damn album on the radio on any given day. Suddenly, it became plausible that Katy Perry could catch up to Michael Jackson. And then it happened. Almost exactly one year after Katy Perry released Teenage Dream, “Last Friday Night (TGIF),” the album’s fifth single, finally elbowed its way to #1. Now, there are two albums that have sent five songs to #1, and those albums are Bad and Teenage Dream. Barring some drastic change in the way that we consume music — or at least the way that Billboard tabulates the Hot 100 — there might never be a third.

There are caveats, of course. Katy Perry was a huge deal in 2010 and 2011. She was, by just about any metric, the dominant pop star of the moment. But she was not a household name on the level of late-’80s Michael Jackson. Katy and her label heads clearly and intentionally targeted the Bad record, and they used all the chart-manipulation tricks available to them to land those last couple of #1 hits. Michael Jackson didn’t need to put rappers on remixes to score all those Bad hits, but Katy Perry played the game in a different time.

You can’t argue with “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” or “Firework.” All three of those singles reached #1, and all three were huge, undeniable monster smashes. I can’t say the same about “E.T.” Katy really wanted to release her weird stadium-techno alien-sex track as a single, and her bosses at Capitol weren’t so sure. They went along with it, but they did what they could to juice the track, releasing a single version with a clumsily stapled-on Kanye West appearance and giving it a gaudy, expensive video. I don’t much like the song, but the ploy worked.

Katy Perry released “Last Friday Night (TGIF)” as the fifth Teenage Dream single in June 2011, and she must’ve felt like she was playing with house money. Pop radio loved her. Her California Dreams arena tour had already gone through Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and its North American leg was just about to start. Later that summer, she’d make her big-screen debut as the voice of Smurfette in the Smurfs movie, which looks like pure pigshit but which earned more than half a billion dollars at the global box office. For a while, though, “Last Friday Night” just didn’t look like it was going to go all the way. The song charged into the top 10, but then it ran into a buzzsaw. LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” was sitting on top, and it wasn’t going anywhere.

“Party Rock Anthem” and “Last Friday Night” make a fitting pairing because they’re both party rock anthems — fizzy, cartoonish, seriously unserious songs about consequence-free youthful hedonism. LMFAO didn’t feel the need to impose any kind of narrative on their own party song, but Katy Perry had that theater-kid energy, and she just had to make a whole story out of it. Katy later claimed that she’d written “Last Friday Night” about a big night that she and some friends had in her Santa Barbara hometown. She told MTV, “Most of that song is actual truth, apart from the ménage à trois — unfortunately! But, yes, streaking in the park, that’s what we did, so we had to write a song about it the next day!”

I have some notes here. First: Katy Perry did not write “Last Friday Night” by herself. She shares writing credit with producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke, her two regular Teenage Dream collaborators, and with her old friend Bonnie McKee, who helped write a bunch of her hits in that era. But that’s not my issue. No pop star wants to be like, “I had this crazy experience, and then I provided some helpful hints to what my collaborators had already written for me!” My problem with “Last Friday Night” is that it doesn’t sound like the party song that it so clearly wants to be. I don’t think “Party Rock Anthem” is a great song, but I do get the sense that LMFAO’s Redfoo and SkyBlu really love to party. I don’t get that from Katy Perry.

I can’t front like I’m some unassailable authority on the subject of partying, but I’ve had some big nights. I’ve blacked out, pissed down staircases, puked on couches, made out with strangers, hooked up in public parks, feared for my own safety, all that stuff. Once, years before we actually got married, my wife and I decided to have a spur-of-the-moment drunken late-night wedding, with bachelor and bachelorette parties and some possibly-ordained acquaintance presiding over the supremely halfassed ceremony, and then we had to have the awkward next-day conversation about whether that counted as a real wedding or not. I’ve gotten busy, OK? I’ve lived the life.

Some of those nights were glorious, life-affirming experiences, and some of them were, let’s just say, mistakes. In all of those situations, however, my next-morning internal monologue went something like this: “Buuuuuh, holy shit, what the fuck, what did I do, what even happened, buuuuuh.” In most of those situations, I spent the next day gobbling Advil, doing unspeakable things in the bathroom, and zoning out to some VH1 marathon. (The majority of those big nights were in the ’00s.) My reaction to those nights was not to go sing a perky pop song about whatever just happened.

“Last Friday Night” is a perky pop song. This should not come as a surprise. Katy Perry excelled at perky pop songs. For a while, she was our foremost master of the perky pop song. Her collaborators Max Martin and Dr. Luke built vast empires out of perky pop songs. “Last Friday Night” has all the hallmarks of the Katy Perry/Max Martin/Dr. Luke connection. The track’s pieces all click into place with the kind of precise efficiency that only exists in car-commercial assembly lines. The melodies are so sharp and obvious that they sound like they’ve always existed in your head, that hearing the song is simply unlocking something that was always there. The song has no real genre, unless “perky pop song” counts as a genre.

The different Teenage Dream singles are mostly variations on the same flavor, and “Last Friday Night” is the new wave variation. The guitars chug and sparkle. They keyboards zoom and fizz. The drums are too dry and utilitarian to be anything other than plugins. Deep in the mix, someone plays slap-bass. Katy Perry’s voice doubles up on the chorus, and there’s just enough Auto-Tune that her voice sounds uncannily unreal. On the verses, she reels off staccato memories with what we’re clearly supposed to hear as loopy charm. On the bridge, a bunch of people chant “TGIF” over and over, as if that was something that anyone ever does at real parties.

Max Martin and Dr. Luke always knew what they were doing, and the hooks on “Last Friday Night” are so clean that you could eat off of them, so sharp that you could use them to operate. Still, “Last Friday Night” isn’t one of the more inspired efforts from the “Teenage Dream” team. It’s oddly low-energy. There’s no urgency, no catharsis. Katy Perry’s supposedly-blurry party memories — “We danced on tabletops/ And we took too many shots/ Think we kissed, but I forgot” — simply are not convincing. I’m not saying that Katy Perry has never done these things, but I am saying that she didn’t do them last Friday night. The whole tone of the song is really more “That One Friday Night Five Years Ago, Remember That?”

I’m not generally too hung up on pop-music authenticity. Pop songs are always selling us something, and I’m more interested in whether they succeed at doing whatever they’re trying to do. But the version of hedonism on “Last Friday Night” simply sounds fake as hell, and I can’t get past that. Too many of the lyrics — “Think I need a ginger ale/ That was such an epic fail” — have that Steve Carrell “bags of sand” thing going on. Katy just doesn’t sound like someone who has ever partied. Someone like Kesha or even Rihanna would probably be a whole lot more convincing with a song like this. In one lyric — “sunglasses and Advil, last night was mad real” — Kanye West captured a whole lot more of that next-morning feeling than Katy Perry could ever summon. Katy is going more for comedy than for any realistic depiction of partying, but real-deal drunkenness is a whole lot funnier than this Disney Channel-ass depiction.

2011 was a particularly hedonistic pop-music era, and Katy Perry soundtracked much of it. Katy was married to Russell Brand, so I’m sure she was no stranger to drunken, bad decisions. But for whatever reason, she’s uniquely ill-suited to singing about processing a hedonistic night after the fact. If I heard “Last Friday Night” the morning after a big night, I would want to crawl into a hole and die. It’s just too chipper. It’s not a bad song, but the dissonance between the tone and subject matter just doesn’t work for me.

I’m reasonably certain that Katy Perry released “Last Friday Night” as a single at least in part so that she could make the video. Marc Klasfeld directed the clip, and Perry played a nerdy teenage character who she called Kathy Beth Terry. (Sure. Whatever. Fine.) The video is structured like The Hangover, with Katy waking up in a wild tableau and then figuring out everything that happened the night before. Tonally, it’s a bright and garish salute to the teen movies of the ’80s, though it honestly feels more like the early-’10s movies that tried to evoke ’80s teen comedies. (I’m thinking specifically of Project X here.)

Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” character is supposed to be a big nerd, with glasses and headgear and all that shit. Naturally, she goes through the standard movie-nerd makeover, though she still looks absolutely deranged when she’s supposed to be hot. The person who gives her the makeover is Rebecca Black, the actual teenager who was catapulted to traumatic, unexpected fame when her 2011 song “Friday,” recorded when Black’s mom hired a music production crew called the ARK Music Factory to write and produce a song for $4,000, went mega-viral. “Friday” became huge because it was supposedly the worst song ever, but its loopy charm has always worked on me, and I like it better than “Last Friday Night.” (“Friday” peaked at #58, and it would’ve gone way higher if Billboard had counting YouTube views on the Hot 100 at the time. Rebecca Black’s highest-charting single, the 2013 sequel “Saturday,” peaked at #55.)

Rebecca Black isn’t the only famous guest-star in the “Last Friday Night” video. Former Number Ones artists Hanson show up as themselves. Glee stars Darren Criss and Kevin McHale are in there as partiers; later, in a meta touch, the two of them would sing “Last Friday Night” on Glee. Kenny G, playing Katy Perry’s uncle, pops up to mime the song’s sax solo while standing on a rooftop. (In real life, the sax player on “Last Friday Night” is Lenny Pickett, the former Tower Of Power member who became the leader of the Saturday Night Live band, which means he was Dr. Luke’s boss for a while. Kenny G’s highest-charting single, 1987’s “Songbird,” peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)

At the end of the video, Katy Perry’s parents show up, and they’re played by ’80s fixtures Corey Feldman and Debbie Gibson. Feldman was an actor, and Gibson, who’s been in this column a couple of times, had at least some acting experience. But when the two of them have to attempt some comical riffing, it does not go well. (Also, Debbie Gibson is 14 years older than Katy Perry, and she doesn’t look old enough to play her mom.) The video goes on for eight minutes, with a full Jackie Chan blooper-reel credits sequence. It hinges on Katy Perry’s broad slapstick performance, and not to be rude, there’s a reason that Katy Perry’s acting career peaked with The Smurfs. I don’t really like that video.

The video wasn’t enough to push “Last Friday Night” to #1. For four weeks, the song was stuck at #2 behind “Party Rock Anthem.” As a last-ditch effort to push the song to the top, Katy released a “Last Friday Night” remix with Missy Elliott, and you could buy it on iTunes for the discounted 69-cent rate. Earlier in 2011, Rihanna used the same tactic; the version of “S&M” that went to #1 was the remix with Britney Spears. The plan worked for Rihanna, and it worked for Katy Perry, too.

Missy Elliott doesn’t really do anything on the “Last Friday Night” remix; she doesn’t have a single memorable moment on there. The version of “Last Friday Night” with Missy wasn’t the one that topped the Hot 100, since the original was still getting more radio airplay. Still, those iTunes sales finally pushed Katy’s song over the top and allowed her to clinch the tie with Bad. That means that Missy Elliott still doesn’t have a #1 hit to call her own. (Missy’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “Work It,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.) When Katy Perry played the Super Bowl Halftime Show a few years later, she brought out Missy as a surprise guest, but they didn’t do the “Last Friday Night” remix together.

These days, “Last Friday Night” is probably mostly remembered as the track that enabled Katy Perry to make chart history, or maybe as the one with the video where she wears the headgear. As an actual song, I don’t think it has much of a reputation. The track simply doesn’t linger in the same way, though it has gone platinum six times over. Katy Perry actually came pretty close to breaking the Bad record when she followed “Last Friday Night” with “The One That Got Away,” the relatively ruminative number where she flashes back on making out in a Mustang to Radiohead. But “The One That Got Away” really was the one that got away, since it peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.)

Finally, we’ve reached the end of the Teenage Dream album cycle — a massively successful pop-star era that still evokes warm memories in most of us. This was the moment for Katy Perry. By the end of 2011, Katy was launching perfumes and hosting Saturday Night Live and whatnot. On New Year’s Eve that year, unlikely muse Russell Brand texted Katy to tell her that their marriage was over, and she reportedly hasn’t spoken to him since. The divorce sent Perry into a fog of depression, but she kept working through it. Before long, she’ll be back in this column.

GRADE: 6/10

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the dour, ironic “Last Friday Night” cover that UK indie rockers the Vaccines recorded in the BBC Live Lounge in 2011:

(The Vaccines have never been on the Hot 100, so I’ll use this space to talk about something else. In 2011, the Vaccines and I were on the same plane out of Austin after SXSW. I was sitting in the same plane row as one of them — I think he was a Vaccine, anyway — and he had the nerve to ask me if I’d switch seats with him so that he could have the aisle. I had to be like, “Buddy, I’m seven feet tall, that’s out of the question. What the fuck are you even talking about?” And he still looked at me like I was crazy. I guess he was hungover, so he wanted the legroom, but this was the flight out of SXSW. Everyone on the fucking plane was hungover. The pilot was probably hungover. Grow the fuck up. I still get annoyed when I think about it. So that’s why I’m anti-Vax.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s fan footage of Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody having a good time with a solo-acoustic “Last Friday Night” cover at at 2011 show in London:

(Snow Patrol’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, 2006’s “Chasing Cars,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. It’s a blacked-out blur, but I’m pretty sure it rules. Buy it here.

more from The Number Ones