The Number Ones

September 14, 2013

The Number Ones: Katy Perry’s “Roar”

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.

The 2013 MTV Video Music Awards started out as a vision of absolute fucking chaos. As detailed in last week’s “Blurred Lines” column, this was the night that Miley Cyrus, an artist who will appear in this column very soon, twerked her way into pop-cultural infamy. A dizzying 10-car pileup of a medley came to include Robin Thicke, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz, dancers in teddy-bear outfits, a towering burlesque queen, and, most prominently, Miley Cyrus’ tongue. This was the final moment that the VMAs truly accomplished their prime objective, creating a sordid spectacle that become an online watercooler moment and a readymade moral panic. It was not fun to watch, but it was consequential.

By the time that award show ended, however, it had returned to something approximating business as usual. The night ended with Katy Perry, coming off the world-historical success of her Teenage Dream singles run and hard-launching her third major-label album, performing on a remote set under the Brooklyn Bridge. She was there to sing “Roar,” the big-swing lead single that came out a couple of weeks earlier. The set was visually incoherent. Perry and her backup dancers were dressed in boxing gear, and the stage was a ring, complete with ring girls and grizzled central-casting coach. But there was also another stage set up for Perry’s backing band, a couple of giant golden tiger statues off the the side, and the bridge itself glittering above her.

None of these things had much to do with each other, and the performance was visually cluttered enough that it was sometimes hard to know where to look. But by the end, when Perry was doing choreographed jumprope routines with the New York skyline glowing behind her, I started to realize that I was watching a real work of pop-star professionalism. This kind of minutely planned-out spectacle is one vision of pop stardom, while Miley Cyrus’ horny and attention-addicted bedlam is another.

Katy Perry had a carefully plotted album-rollout strategy, and she executed every step of it. Business arrangements were made. Pepsi came on board as a sponsor. Perry was already selling fragrances, and she had more on the way. Every aspect of Prism, Katy Perry’s third major-label album, was presented as tightly controlled corporate entertainment. You can make a huge hit when you line everything up the right way. You can make a good song, too, though that’s a little less important to the various interests arrayed behind such a release. But you’re probably not going to capture the world’s attention or command the zeitgeist when you’re doing everything inside such a meticulously designed system. Maybe that’s the problem.

Unfortunately for Katy Perry, there is no scientific textbook on how to follow a huge album. There are approaches, but those approaches are not guaranteed to work. It’s almost impossible to build on a zeitgeist-swallowing moment, to get even bigger than you already were, and Katy Perry had no hope in hell of making a record bigger than Teenage Dream. If you count the deluxe-edition bonus track “Part Of Me,” Katy Perry sent six different singles to #1 during the Teenage Dream album cycle. She parceled those hits out carefully over nearly two years, and she became the defining pop star of a very specific moment. So how do you follow that? Do you make a carbon-copy version of the last record? Do you attempt to show your growth as an artist and a human being? Is is possible to do both at the same time? To answer that last question: No, probably not, but that’s basically what Perry tried to do.

Katy Perry started off the Teenage Dream album cycle as the “I Kissed A Girl” girl — a fun and flirty pinup-model type whose thundering electro-pop compositions worked as novelty songs and pop-chart steamrollers at the same time. While she was rolling out those hits, however, she was married and divorced, an entire love life swelling and then crumbling during the short breaks in an insanely grueling schedule. She didn’t take a long time in between albums, and when she started gearing up for the follow-up, she made noises about delivering something darker, more introspective, more acoustic. That’s not what happened. Instead, she made a Katy Perry record.

There are certain aspects of the Prism rollout that now seem paleolithic — like the chance to unlock song-snippets by adding a Pepsi-approved hashtag to your tweets, or like the golden promotional-billboard truck that was smashed by a drunk driver in a Pennsylvania Walmart parking lot. But most of the Prism campaign looked like the ones that we now see on big new albums — the strategic deployment of new singles, the carpet-bombing press coverage, the teaser videos that gesture at entire aesthetic makeovers. In Katy Perry’s case, that meant a 30-second clip where she pulled the “Freedom ’90” move of burning the blue wig that she’d worn in her “California Gurls” video.

It’s hard to even imagine how a gothed-out Katy Perry album might sound, though I’m a little worried that she would’ve just made “E.T.” into the sonic template for the whole record. But we’ll never know, since Prism is not a dark album. Instead, she got the album rolling by getting her Teenage Dream collaborators Dr. Luke, Bonnie McKee, and Cirkut to do a songwriting camp with her in her Santa Barbara hometown. At different points in the recording, Perry brought in more big-deal pop professionals: Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Stargate, Benny Blanco, future Number Ones artist Sia. Most of these were past Perry collaborators. She wasn’t going into unexplored territory on this album. Maybe there was too much money on the table, or maybe she was merely working in ways that made her feel comfortable.

On Prism, Katy Perry’s attempts to convey her own maturity aren’t really aesthetic. She works with the same ingredients — ’80s arena-rock, late-’90s teenpop, hammering EDM — that she’d used on her previous two albums, and she sings everything in the same belt-it-out quasi-Broadway voice. Instead, the personal-growth stuff comes through mostly in lyrics that allude to a couple of years of therapy. I wonder if Prism was the quiet beginning of the wave of therapy-speak pop records that’s become so oppressive in recent years or if that stuff was already floating in the atmosphere. Either way, that’s the energy of “Roar,” the album’s massive first single.

The first time that you hear “Roar,” you can practically visualize the board meetings that led to the track’s release. Where Katy Perry had been flirty and playful on past singes, “Roar” was meant to work as a serious empowerment anthem. The lyrics alluded directly to Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger,” the gold standard of muscular ’80s motivation anthems. I once heard someone — I think it was The New York Times‘ Joe Coscarelli — pointing out that tons of our nation’s high school football teams are called the Lions or Tigers, which meant that “Roar” would have the additional benefit of appearing in cheerleading routines for the foreseeable future. Maybe that was a consideration, too. That means that there’s no playfulness in “Roar.” It’s the mission-statement version of a pop song.

As you can probably tell, I’m generally suspicious of the forces behind too-big-to-fail pop songs like this one. But there’s no rule that a mission-statement pop song can’t work, and “Roar” kind of works. Katy Perry co-wrote most of the “Roar” lyrics with her old friend Bonnie McKee, and McKee has said that she had a particular unnamed person in mind for the song’s fuck-you sentiments. (McKee’s only Hot 100 hit as lead artist is 2013’s “American Girl,” which peaked at #87.) So “Roar” is at least expressing something, even if all its self-help talk takes the form of vague, rote platitudes about brushing off dust and floating like a butterfly. But you’re not supposed to experience those “Roar” lyrics on the page. You’re supposed to hear them through the lens of a gargantuan fist-in-the-air chorus, and that’s what “Roar” gives us.

“Roar” was not the only song hitting those big-chorus notes in that moment. A few months before “Roar” came out, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles released her own single “Brave,” a song that’s very similar in lots of ways: self-affirming message, huge fuck-off chorus built around a single-syllable invocation of strength, verses that marry staccato plinky-plink pianos to big rap-adjacent drums. Bonnie McKee and Dr. Luke both said that “Roar” was written before “Brave” came out, but it was hard to shake the impression that “Roar” was a “Brave” ripoff, and that cast a shadow. (“Brave” peaked at #23. Sara Bareilles’ highest-charting single, 2007’s “Love Song,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)

Honestly, though, a little bit of controversy was only going to help “Roar.” It’s the kind of song that you can hear once and know that you’re going to keep hearing for months, if not years. The message is simple. Someone has been holding Katy Perry’s narrator down, to the point where she lost all sense of herself. But now she’s had enough, she’s in touch with her own strength, and you’re gonna hear her roar. This is standard-issue message-pop stuff, but Katy Perry delivers it with the chest-beating intensity that a song like that demands. She never does anything on “Roar” that I’d define as roaring, but when that chorus reaches its climax, she turns the song’s title into a hiccuping battle cry.

Katy Perry recorded “Roar” with the production team of Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Cirkut, and you can tell. The Martin/Luke formula was starting to get tired by this point, but in “Roar,” you can hear why it became a formula in the first place. The instrumentation of “Roar” is either all electronic or close to it, but these guys use their plugins to expertly echo the tension-and-release dynamics of an arena-rock power ballad. The verses, with their pianos and synth-drone hums, are just about buildup, and then it’s time for the chorus to come through and crush the buildings. When the hook kicks in, synths blaze like power chords as Perry’s voice builds into throaty overdrive. The chorus is so big that none of the five songwriters really bothered to come up with a bridge. Instead, Perry just wails the word “roar” a few more times, and then we get a key change.

“Roar” is muddled and formulaic and obvious, which means that it can’t be great pop music. It doesn’t have the heft of “Firework,” which remains Katy Perry’s best message song. But “Roar” has a way of wearing my resistance down. This kind of canned uplift can still sometimes lift you up, as long as it’s done at this high a level. When “Roar” comes on the radio — something that still happens pretty often — I start out feeling vaguely irritated. But by the time we get to the fake church bells on the climactic final hook, I’m at least partially on board. I’d probably be more on board if I hadn’t already heard the song a million times.

Katy Perry and directors Grady Hall and Mark Kudsi came up with a fun idea for the “Roar” video. Perry may or may not be a stewardess. When we meet her, she’s staggering away from a jungle plane crash while an Indiana Jones type poses for duckface selfies and makes her carry his stuff through the underbrush. By the time the first verse is over, though, he’s been eaten by a tiger, and Perry is free to befriend monkeys and elephants. She fashions her own jungle-queen costumes, swings on vines, and finally tames the tiger who ate that one guy. When the clip ends, she’s living peacefully in the plane wreckage, with her animal friends all around. It’s presented as expensive high camp, and it’s pretty fun.

My son was a year old when “Roar” reached #1. About a year or two after that, he discovered the “Roar” video, and I truly have no idea how that happened. For a year or two, though, “Roar” became a car-stereo staple. My kid wanted to hear it all the time, to the point where he’d sometimes cry if he couldn’t. The big hook, at least for him, was the lyrical presence of lions and tigers. (He’s big on animals.) He liked the “Roar” video, especially the thing about getting to be friends with a tiger. When we’d play the song in the car, he’d insist on hearing the video-edit version, since it has a few tiger-growl sound effects thrown in. The “Roar” video now has nearly four billion views on YouTube, and a good number of those are a direct result of my family’s car trips. When the Katy Perry/Taylor Swift feud was going down, mine was a house divided.

Katy Perry had the kids with “Roar,” and she had a lot of other people, too. In its first week on sale, the “Roar” single sold more than 500,000 downloads. The single is now diamond. Perry’s Prism album came out a few weeks after “Roar” fell from the #1 spot, and it also sold a ton of first-week copies. But Katy Perry’s brand of maximalist mass-appeal pop music was on the way out, and we can see that in the fate of follow-up single “Unconditionally.” The Max Martin/Dr. Luke power ballad peaked at #14 and eventually went double platinum. Those would be good numbers for almost anyone except Katy Perry in the immediate aftermath of Teenage Dream. But for Katy Perry in that moment, “Unconditionally” was an unconditional flop.

“Roar” was not the only hit from the Prism album, and we will see Katy Perry in this column again before long. But the tastes of pop-music consumers were changing. Some people were finding out that they wanted quieter, more personal music. Some were discovering that they liked the feeling of out-of-control debauchery on display in the Miley Cyrus VMA performance. That shift will play an important role in future columns, and I think it’s the reason that Katy Perry’s star ultimately faded. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s coming.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: At a 2013 Hollywood Bowl benefit, Katy Perry sang an all-star posse-cut version of “Roar” with the aforementioned Bonnie McKee and Sara Bareilles, as well as Kacey Musgraves, Ellie Goulding, and Tegan And Sara. Here’s fan footage of that performance:

(Ellie Goulding’s highest-charting single, 2011’s “Lights,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7. Tegan And Sara’s highest-charting single is “Everything Is Awesome!!!,” the Lonely Island collab from 2014’s Lego Movie, and it peaked at #57. Kacey Musgraves will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Seattle indie band Tacocat playing a rousingly ramshackle “Roar” cover for a 2016 installment of the sadly defunct AV Undercover video series:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Former Number Ones artist Rick Springfield regularly covers “Roar” when he’s playing live. Here’s video of him playing the song at a 2019 Nashville show:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Naturally, the cast of Glee did their own version of “Roar,” and theirs featured actual pop stars Demi Lovato and Adam Lambert. But I don’t like to post Glee videos unless I don’t have any alternative, so let’s go with a different TV jukebox-musical rendition. Here’s Lauren Graham — better known, at least to me, as Lorelei Gilmore — singing “Roar” on a 2020 episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: For reasons that I will never understand, Katy Perry performed an extremely elaborate version of “Roar” at Windsor Castle for Prince Charles’ coronation last year. Here it is:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. I got the eye of the tiger! A fighter dancing through the fire! ‘Cause I am a champion! And you’re gonna buy my boooook!

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