Nearly two years ago (amazing it seems so long ago), I wrote this piece of respect toward pop’s princess, Katy Perry. Since this piece Perry has registered three more top-3 hits, including her seventh No. 1, “Part of Me.” Lady Gaga has stalled a bit but has a new album on the way.
Remember that song “I Kissed a Girl”? The one by Jill Sobule. She was this cute blonde, and she sang about experimentation above some basic blues riff, but it was shocking, and she sounded shocked through her enjoyment.
Later, after Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” hit the airwaves, Sobule remarked negatively about it, albeit sarcastically. When (of course) that wasn’t how the quote was printed, Sobule clarified:
“I may be a touch cynical about the business, but I have never really been angry or had ill feelings towards Katy herself. I was actually in a small way happy to not be the ‘Kissed a Girl’ girl anymore.”
In her original sarcastic comment, she mentioned that Perry sang lyrics written by a team of writers. And while Sobule might not have ill feelings toward Perry, the business made her say those things, sarcastic or not. There’s always truth in everything, right?
The business, of course, has turned Katy Perry into a megastar. She’s the face – and body – behind a handful of huge pop hits, some of the most notably catchy songs of this century thus far. And most of those cynical about the business, a majority being artists grasping for some notoriety and financial aid, dislike that Perry has what she has, that she is what she is. Creative people in general don’t like it. I didn’t like it.
“I Kissed a Girl” – the one by Perry – filled me with rage at first listen. Too basic, too throwaway. But worst of all, too pandering. Perry does pandering better than anyone. She’s forever twenty-one, just into the bar scene, flying out on the town, discovering little by little in a world flying fast. She plays provocative kitsch better than anyone, planting her hand over her mouth as if she uttered a dirty word, crossing her legs ever so slowly as if she just learned good manners. She’s a country girl, a church girl, gone terribly wrong, but oh so wonderfully right.
And it’s all so calculated, all so cold. Right?
But for legions of young people – girls and boys – plus the occasional adult seeking some sugar, Perry remains a necessary element of everyday life. People want to feel like they can party once a day. That they can distract themselves from life and kiss the same sex “just to try it,” or become somebody’s teenage dream, or randomly wake up in Vegas. The stories she presents are nuggets of achievable but slightly out-of-focus dreams. And since her background contains so much good-girl habit, her ability to relate is still somewhat high – this despite her marriage to British fiasco Russell Brand.
And all of that began with “I Kissed a Girl,” which stooped to a low degree. While Leona Lewis was singing about true feelings and Adele was chasing pavements or what have you, here’s a chick six days younger than me singing about acting on a dare by some classless muscle boys at a live-band bar. And America was eating it up. ‘It’s so controversial!,’ people said. Yeah, tell that to Jill Sobule.
To me, “I Kissed a Girl” couldn’t be anything more than a novelty. It would wear off just like “Mambo No. 5,” “Hottie Boombalottie” and, yes, the original “I Kissed a Girl.”
But then came “Hot n Cold.” Amazingly, Perry had followed up a novelty song with an opposite song. The opposite song is an old trick in pop music, an easy way for a songwriter to write some words against a basic melody. The Beatles did it with “Hello Goodbye,” one of the band’s most basic songs, if not the most basic, and probably its most forgettable No. 1 hit. “Hot n Cold” is ultimately forgettable, but set against a surefire dance rhythm it’s not half bad. In fact, it’s pretty fun. And I began thinking this while “Hot n Cold” ran its way to No. 3 – Perry’s second top-five hit in two chances – and I began to realize that there was more to this Katy Perry than novelty and opposite songs.
What was more was the writing team, led by the incomparable Max Martin. The Swedish hitmaker responsible for some of the biggest hits of the bubblegum pop era was helping Perry write her hits. Producer Dr. Luke was on board, too, and is very responsible for Perry’s dance-ready sound. And while “I Kissed a Girl” moved very little, “Hot n Cold” dipped and dived. As if on purpose, Martin and the team plotted Perry to have more dimensions with each new single. Build the pop star from the ground up, from novelty song to keynote address.
Perry’s next single was “Thinking of You,” a very forgettable ballad that scraped the top-30. Perry wrote it alone. It added the ballad to Perry’s arsenal, but imagine adding a kitchen knife to a Vietnam soldier – it wouldn’t do much good. If anything it proved that Perry wasn’t a strong-enough vocalist to carry a big ballad, and that the best way to proceed would be to increase the dance rhythms to eleven.
But on Jan. 17, just as “Thinking of You” hit the charts and proved Perry a dance-floor gal, the dance-floor world changed completely. “Just Dance” hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart. The world was completely ready for Lady Gaga, who would own 2009 with a string of huge dance tracks. When Gaga released “Poker Face,” her huge No. 1 hit, Perry came out with “Waking Up in Vegas,” an enjoyable pop song, but written by a new team altogether and absolutely lost in the thick of Gaga’s glare. While Perry was hungover at the Bellagio, Gaga was owning the poker table all night.
After “Waking Up in Vegas” the Perry hit machine jerked to a halt. Gaga was on fire, handing the world two better songs than her first two in “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.” At that point, I felt – like many others – that Perry was all finished. One album and out. And we really wouldn’t have missed her.
By May 2010, Lady Gaga was still hot, releasing a second album “The Fame Monster” in a rush to put more material into the world. Second single “Telephone,” with Beyonce, continued Gaga’s journey of otherworldly dance music, defying the definitions of pop created and repeated regularly by Max Martin. As a writer and producer, Martin had written major hits for the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, N*Sync and Pink, just to name a few. The template he drew in the late 1990s became a monster in itself by the 2000s, and Perry was his second generation star, the one who could move the sound into the new century with a little more promiscuity and a glossier sheen. But Gaga threatened the entire monster, creating her own monster that was stomping everything in its path. With “Telephone,” Lady Gaga had scored her sixth top-10 hit in a little over a year. Her sound, image and disposition became pop music. Katy Perry was nothing more than a grain of salt. Her sex was not sexy. Her tunes were not tuneful. And Martin? His sound was about to die slow.
On May 11, 2010, Perry returned for her follow-up album “Teenage Dream,” and led with the single “California Gurls.” It sounded nothing like the pedestrian “I Kissed a Girl.” It sounded nothing like the Songwriter’s 101 of “Hot n Cold.” It surely wasn’t “Thinking of You” and sounded friendlier and glossier than “Waking Up in Vegas.” But it didn’t sound like Gaga. In fact, it sounded as if Gaga never happened.
Instead, “California Gurls” borrowed from the keyboard-driven pop hits of urban pop, which borrowed from the new romantics style of the 1980s. And it was bright and sunny, refreshing and even funky. Whereas Gaga’s dictatorial dance-pop left a listener cold as ice, this new Katy Perry sounded like a freakin’ rainbow. Grabbing Snoop Dogg for the bridge was a stroke of genius – no rapper has even been more California sunny than Snoop. In all “California Gurls” just sounded simple. The kind of song that should’ve been written years ago, and yet, it couldn’t have been written years ago. Too much was going on in the song. Complex yet simple, bright yet fulfilling (despite much melody or vocal thrills) – the new Katy Perry merely echoed the real Katy Perry.
And yet it was written by five people, including Martin and Dr. Luke.
“California Gurls” shot to No. 2 right away, then moved to No. 1 a few weeks later. And on May 18, a week after “California Gurls” debuted, Gaga released her newest single “Alejandro.” A Latin love song straight out of the Ace of Base catalog, it was Gaga’s weakest single yet. It reached No. 5, but it left a colder taste than ever. For a while, that was the end of Gaga’s single reign. She’d retreat into the studio to record her next album.
Perry’s second single from “Teenage Dream” was the title track, written by the same team that wrote “California Gurls.” Perry and her team felt that the song was written near perfectly, and they were correct. They nailed the concept of a “teenage dream,” with plenty of pay offs, including the “skin-tight jeans” line, the rush of emotions felt throughout the song and the soaring chorus that nevertheless feels somewhat incomplete – which is a good thing for a song like this, because teenage emotions are never fully realized. It was possibly Perry’s top vocal effort, and certainly her best melodic song to date. It easily reached No. 1 on the charts, justifying the album “Teenage Dream” and scoring Martin yet another huge hit. Like “I Want it That Way” before it, “Teenage Dream” was a hallmark song, the kind that can define an artist.
And yet “Teenage Dream” was another stepping stone. Perry was constructed, as a pop star, as a novelty turned enjoyable but flawed. By “Teenage Dream” she had become a star, a sex pinup and – gasp – a near role model. In a way she was the anti-Gaga: whereas Gaga claimed oodles of artistic merit but portrayed herself like a tortured and cold ringmaster, Perry downplayed the art in her pop confections, instead grabbing at cute sex appeal and bright songs that played to basic black-and-white emotions. “Teenage Dream” never broke ground in the songwriting world, but like “Party in the USA” a year before, it played perfectly to its audience, and in such a way that it didn’t feel fake or distant. By “Teenage Dream,” Perry seemed to be convincing in her songs. Again, she was her true self.
Which made Perry’s next move all the more outstanding.
The point of this piece is to appreciate Katy Perry because, in essence, she is her own artist. She’s lifted by a creative writing team that can write great pop songs. She’s lifted by image perfectionists who can make her look like the sexiest woman on the planet. And she’s lifted by public relations professionals who can direct her to the sun. Yet at the end of the day, she honestly sounds, well … honest.
“Firework,” the third single from “Teenage Dream,” elevated Perry from an artist singing about herself, or a version of herself, to an artist singing about other people, about society. Perry is now taking the role of role model. This is her message song, telling her fans – teens needing a lift, young adults needing a moment, minorities looking for a sign – that there’s something great out there. And why not believe it? Perry had delivered on her promises before, elevated herself past Lady Gaga’s glare and, again, always seemed honest in her songs. The same church gal who cheekily sang about kissing a girl and liking it was pretty much the same girl singing about being a teenage dream, and she was pretty much the same girl belting about letting what’s inside come out.
Itself, the song was a triumph. It was powerful and huge, backed by decisive strings, little bits of melody that fly in and out, solid vocal shifts and plenty of climax. Interestingly, it wasn’t written by Max Martin, nor was it produced by Dr. Luke. But in a way that makes sense – for the first time, Perry sounded incredibly assured and free, as if “Firework” was not merely a message song to her fans, but her coming-out party as a skilled pop artist.
Since “Firework,” Perry has released “E.T.” and her most recent single, “Last Friday Night.” The former reached No. 1 in the spring as a re-release featuring Kanye West (the original release was merely a promotional download), and sounded a lot more like earlier Lady Gaga (think “Bad Romance” but with a heavier lean toward urban pop). It also unseated Gaga’s “Born This Way” from the top of the charts. Easily the most forgettable of the “Teenage Dream” singles, it nevertheless was a huge hit for Perry, showing that the goodwill she gathered through her fight to the top had paid off in spades.
Now Perry has “Last Friday Night,” which was written by Martin and Co. and sits at its peak No. 4 position this week. It’s the fifth single from “Teenage Dream” and much more in step with the first two, “California Gurls” and the title track. Its sound hearkens to that odd, new romantics-influenced style – even including a saxophone solo – and its lyrics address the plight of a newly twenty-one-year-old girl after a legendary night at the bars. In a way, Perry has come full circle from “I Kissed a Girl,” only now she’s running naked in the park and having a ménage a trois. And even when Perry spews lyrics such as “that was such an epic fail,” citing a meme that has peaked in popularity, she actually sounds honest. And because of that, there’s something unbelievably refreshing about Perry’s pop hits. “Last Friday Night,” while not on par with “Teenage Dream” or “Firework,” continues to show that there’s some pop pabulum that feels really nice.
Then there’s Gaga. “Born This Way,” “Judas” and “The Edge of Glory” might sound like an honest Gaga, but we’re still trying to figure her out. Is she the vapid dance-floor chick from early on, the cold and calculated ruler of her best songs, the lover of throwaway Ace of Base or the one who kept dressing up as Madonna at Halloween parties? No matter what she’s doing, Gaga always sounds distant. And while her artistic merit might be higher than Katy Perry’s, it’s never completely fulfilling. And it doesn’t quite keep you coming back for more.
The strength of Katy Perry is that honesty, which drives her pop hits to another level. She also has Max Martin, who can hand me a pop hit that I can’t screw up. But he can hand you another, and you might. Perry has grown into a full-fledged pop artist, the kind that you want to hear again, even if her songs fall short of the glory her peers attempt to reach. Sure the songs may be about hangovers, kissing girls and being teenage dreams, but every once in a while there’s a song like “Firework,” and it’s all because Katy Perry is truly Katy Perry.
And that’s something Jill Sobule would probably respect.