The Number Ones

March 3, 2012

The Number Ones: Katy Perry’s “Part Of Me”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

“You have two options. You can cancel the show, or you can do your best.” It’s not supposed to be an ultimatum, but that’s how it sounds. Katy Perry probably knows that this choice isn’t a real choice. She knows that she has a job to do, and she knows that she’s going to do it. The guy who’s breaking the news says those words gently, but he probably knows all this, too. The Katy Perry circus is too big and too elaborate to stop for one person, even if that person is Katy Perry.

Katy Perry is backstage in São Paolo, quietly sobbing in what appears to be a dentist’s chair, while some stagehand explains why she’s so sad, probably for the benefit of the camera. Outside that dressing room, tens of thousands of Brazilians have gathered on the grounds of a racetrack, and they’re chanting her name. Inevitably, Katy Perry decides that she’ll do her best. We see her all made up, standing in the elevator that will soon take her up onstage in front of all those Brazilians. She’s shaking, heaving, clutching her sparkly microphone. Through the magic of editing, the music and the crowd get louder. The little pinwheels mounted on Perry’s boobs start to spin. The elevator goes up. At the last moment, Perry flashes her best approximation of a million-dollar smile. She’s going to do her job, and that smile is part of her job.

That’s the most famous scene from Part Of Me, the Katy Perry concert movie that made a little more than $30 million in theaters in the summer of 2012. Part Of Me follows a playbook that should be familiar to anyone paying attention to pop stardom these days. It’s a combination of live-show theatrics and footage engineered to give you some idea of how hard it was to pull off those live-show theatrics. You certainly learn things about Katy Perry while watching Part Of Me, but the things you learn are the ones that Perry wants you to learn. Katy Perry was one of the producers of Part Of Me, and those scenes aren’t necessarily there to give a more raw, intimate look at Katy Perry’s life. They’re there to advance a narrative.

In that moment, the narrative was this: Katy Perry married the loathsome British comedian Russell Brand in 2010, when Brand was at the peak of his American fame. Scarcely more than a year later, Brand texted Perry and told her that the marriage was over. They never spoke again. In recent months, all sorts of terrible allegations about Brand have come out, and he’s found refuge on the now-familiar right-wing anti-cancel-culture circuit. He’s a fucking creep. He’s always been a fucking creep. These days, Katy Perry is probably very happy to be rid of him. In the moment, though, she was crushed. That’s what we see in Part Of Me.

Katy Perry filmed Part Of Me while touring behind her blockbuster album Teenage Dream in 2011. The São Paolo show happened about three months before the marriage ended, but Perry could see the writing on the wall. In the months after the divorce, Katy Perry did not take a break. Instead, she turned her heartbreak into content. The film depicts Katy Perry as a true professional, a soldier for pop music who will fight through her own personal apocalypse. I have no doubt that this narrative is the absolute truth. I also have no doubt that Perry was eager to turn real depression into pop entertainment, that she saw her own story as something to be controlled and monetized.

That’s how pop stardom works these days. Maybe that’s how pop stardom has always worked. When a singer becomes sufficiently famous, every new song becomes, in one way or another, a comment on that singer’s fame, on her public image. In 2012, Katy Perry had a real interest in presenting herself as a strong, independent, empowered woman — someone who could suffer a bad breakup and come out stronger on the other end. Part Of Me was part of that effort. So was “Part Of Me.”

“Part Of Me” is not a song about Russell Brand. Katy Perry, to her credit, has always been forthright about this. She and her collaborators, the dream team behind Teenage Dream, initially wrote “Part Of Me” before she and Brand were even married. Some have speculated that the song is actually about her previous ex, Gym Class Heroes doof Travie McCoy. It could be, or it could just be a generic breakup song. Every pop star has them. Katy Perry wrote “Part Of Me” during the Teenage Dream sessions, working with regular collaborators Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Bonnie McKee. She recorded it with Martin, Luke, and Cirkut, a Halifax-born producer who worked on a lot of big early-’10s dance-pop records and whose work will appear in this column again. A demo leaked online shortly after Teenage Dream came out.

“Part Of Me” didn’t appear on Teenage Dream because Katy Perry didn’t think it fit the album’s vibe. Maybe she was saving it for the inevitable deluxe edition, or maybe she just thought the song wasn’t good enough. Either way, she released “Part Of Me” only a few weeks after she and Russell Brand got divorced. It’s a good thing that she had an unused breakup song sitting right there, that it fit the same sonic formula as all the other monster hits that she’d just finished cranking out.

We’ve already seen so many Teenage Dream tracks in this column. Famously, Teenage Dream tied a record set by Michael Jackson’s Bad. Both albums sent five songs to #1. Katy Perry would’ve broken that record if Billboard hadn’t decided that enough was enough. When Katy Perry released the deluxe edition Teenage Dream: The Compete Confection, Billboard changed its rules, decreeing that bonus tracks that weren’t on the original album didn’t count toward its total anymore. Usher still got to claim that Confessions had four #1 singles, even though one of them was the added-later bonus track “My Boo,” but Katy Perry — who’d racked up all those stats partly through strategies like adding rappers to remixes — would not get to brag that she’d broken MJ’s record.

Still, the success of “Part Of Me” works as further evidence of the chokehold that Katy Perry had on the popular American imagination for a few years. “Part Of Me” wasn’t good enough to make it as a Teenage Dream deep cut the first time around, but it was still good enough to debut at #1 without significant radio support. In its first week, “Part Of Me” sold more than 400,000 downloads, and I think that had a lot more to do with Katy Perry’s personal narrative than with the song itself.

“Part Of Me” does a whole lot of familiar things in familiar ways. Everything about the song would be extremely familiar to anyone listening to the radio in 2012: The produced-to-death new-wave guitars, the mechanized kickdrum boom, the blaring preset synths, the chorus that sounds bigger than everything else. The sentiment is familiar, too. Katy Perry’s narrator has been through a bad romantic experience, but she’s determined to thrive in its aftermath. She wants her ex to know all about it, too: “Now look at me, I’m sparkling/ A firework, a dancing flame.” When “Part Of Me” reached #1, it knocked off Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” a song with the same basic sound and message. Such was the fashion at the time.

“Part Of Me” has none of the flirty playfulness of Katy Perry’s best Teenage Dream hits, and it also doesn’t have any of the delirious, anthemic intensity of “Firework,” the song that the lyrics evoke. “Part Of Me” isn’t terrible. Max Martin and Dr. Luke had their formula, and there’s always going to be something satisfying about hearing that formula executed on a grand scale. But it’s grim, automatic, uninspired. The hooks are there, but they don’t take flight. It’s oddly inert — almost like Katy Perry felt duty-bound to deliver another Katy Perry hit.

And here’s where we must address the whole “duty” thing. In the genuinely unhinged “Part Of Me” video, Katy Perry sees her boyfriend at his office job, flirting with some girl — High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale — and then barges in and confronts him. She tearfully drives off and sees a bumper sticker about joining the Marines on a gas-station corkboard. On the spur of the moment, she cuts all her hair off in the bathroom and enlists. The rest of the clip is Katy Perry at boot camp, gutting her way through obstacle courses and finding meaning and purpose in her struggle. It’s fucking deranged. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.

Look: I have no love in my heart for militaristic imperial-American propaganda, but that stuff can at least be fun. Both Top Gun movies are thinly disguised recruitment tools, but they’re also effective entertainments. This shit is something else. It’s presented as some kind of allegory of girlboss self-actualization, but it’s also a naked and full-throated endorsement of the war machine — Private Benjamin played not as farce but as empowerment fantasy. I can’t believe that this video ever existed, that we all accepted it as something normal.

Not everyone accepted the “Part Of Me” video as normal. Plenty of people pointed out how weird and gross it was. Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham, a guy who I know and love, tweeted, “Seeing Katy Perry as a soldier in ‘Part Of Me’ really makes me think that we need to start a war so she can go die.” That’s a reference to the old hardcore band Fear’s song “Let’s Have A War,” which you would know if you were familiar with Fucked Up or the genre of music in which they operate. But a bunch of Katy Perry fans seemingly thought that Damian was calling for Katy Perry’s murder, and they besieged his Twitter mentions — an early example of the kind of fan-army feeding frenzy that’s become so commonplace in recent years. I understand and appreciate fandom, but if you can’t be critical of the “Part Of Me” video, you can’t be critical of anything.

The “Part Of Me” video came out a few weeks after the song had already fallen out of the #1 spot. Instead, the way most people found out about the song was Katy Perry’s performance at the 2012 Grammys. After doing a little bit of “E.T.,” Perry descended from the arena ceiling in a transparent cube, and the glass shattered when the song kicked in. After that, she led a bunch of dancers through an elaborate routine, with fireballs erupting all around them. That performance, the “Part Of Me” video, and that scene from the documentary are all part of the same initiative — the push to depict Katy Perry as a strong, determined single woman post-divorce.

“Part Of Me” isn’t about Russell Brand, but the timing of its rollout was auspicious. Maybe pop stars have always done this — used their music to shape their personas and comment on the gossip surrounding them. But “Part Of Me” felt like a bit of a tipping point. Going forward, we’d get a whole lot more of that. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad one, but it’s definitely a thing. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry’s chart contemporary and future rival, was already doing that, and that style of song would eventually help turn her into one of the biggest pop stars in history. We’ll get into that phenomenon soon enough.

“Part Of Me” isn’t one of Katy Perry’s biggest hits, but the song didn’t immediately fade after a big first week, either. It’s quintuple platinum now, and Perry’s hit streak didn’t stop there. Perry followed “Part Of Me” with “Wide Awake,” another breakup song that she released on her Teenage Dream deluxe edition. That one went all the way to #2. (It’s a 6.)

As the Teenage Dream album cycle finally wound down, Katy Perry made money moves. The Part Of Me movie came out. She endorsed a perfume and sang “Part Of Me” in a Sims commercial. She rebounded from Russell Brand with John Mayer. And she got to work on her next album. We’ll see Perry in this column again soon.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Echosmith’s video for their acoustic 2012 “Part Of Me” cover:

(Echosmith’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Cool Kids,” peaked at #13.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. You can keep the diamond ring — it don’t mean nothing anyway — but buy the book here.

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