As the world?s top-earning female artist of 2018, how has Katy Perry?s star never been lower? Parker Hjelmberg writes on the rise and fall of the Princess of Pop
(1106 Katy Perry 25 by Devon Christopher Adams / CC BY-NC 2.0. Photo Illustration by Nathan Graber-Lipperman)
Editor?s Note: This piece reflects the opinions of the author and not those of UNPLUGG?D as a whole. Also, check out our new website here!
It doesn?t make me happy to write this ? because she was fun once, and no one should take pleasure in another?s fall.
In 2010, she caught several bubblegum lightning bolts in the same bottle: five singles hit #1 off her career-defining album. ?California Gurlz? earned the distinction of Undisputed Song of the Summer, ?Teenage Dream? hit even more shamelessly delightful notes, ?ET? pulled off a four-minute metaphor about a randy alien with a hook as irresistible as a UFO?s tractor beam, and so on, and so forth. Only Michael Jackson?s 1987 album Bad yielded as many chart-toppers. For a moment, the world belonged to her.
Not anymore. Several weeks back, Amazon Prime sent an email with a link to a new Christmas single from ?pop superstar? Katy Perry; they also wanted me to read an interview exploring ?artists she loves,? ?how she celebrates the holidays? and, ?of course, her most recent purchase on Amazon.?
Even those of us who once enjoyed Perry?s music probably have zero interest in her most recent purchase on Amazon ? and were moderately insulted at the presumption. What?s next? Perry could feature in the American Airlines in-flight magazine, posing for photos in exotic locales, uttering platitudes about the glory of travel, and of course proclaiming her preference for American Airlines above all others. It?s a wonder neither party felt shame about actualizing the sophomoric cliches of ?selling out? and ?soulless corporation.? The only question is whether it looks worse for her or them.
Merry Christmas from Katy Perry and Jeff Bezos
On second thought, that?s not the only question. Another question is whether Katy Perry is still, as the email claims, a ?pop superstar.? On third thought, that?s not even really a question. Pop superstars have better things to do with their time/talents than teaming up with Amazon for silly promotions. Rihanna would never risk her hard-won mystique for such a cheap payday.
This awful email from Amazon Prime is a good occasion for considering how, why, and where Perry went wrong.
Certain metrics might make Perry?s career look healthier than it is. According to Forbes, she was the world?s top-earning female musician of 2018: banking $83 million put Perry ahead of Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga. Impressive enough ? but those women trailed Perry only because their tour dates fell outside the Forbes? scoring period or because they weren?t touring at all. Moreover, $25 million of that sum came from her turn as a judge on American Idol, which itself seems like a stunt to keep Perry in the public view even as her hit-making magic fades. Can you imagine Beyonce, in the heart of her prime, grabbing at the opportunity to hang out with Ryan Seacrest every day and sit in a chair saved for semi-retired divas (Abdul, Carey, Lopez).
The simplest answer to Perry?s current struggles is that her most recent album, Witness, landed with such a thud in 2017. After debuting at #1 on the Billboard charts, the album disappeared into the irrelevance of a few paragraphs in her Wikipedia entry. When the lead singles (?Chained to the Rhythm? and ?Bon Apptit?) gained zero traction, Perry and her marketing team turned to her trusty feud with Taylor Swift, releasing ?Swish Swish? and strategically talking about the quarrel in interviews. Again: stunt. This stunt didn?t work, either.
Apart from its value as an instantly viral video ? and as an artifact of a blood feud between American quasi-royalty in the early 21st century ? ?Swish Swish? remains memorable only as an example of tremendously odd lyric-writing. Perry begins with an animal analogy, which unsubtly implies her awesomeness and Swift?s lameness. ?A tiger/don?t lose no sleep/don?t need opinions/from a shellfish or a sheep.? This isn?t the first time Perry has compared herself to a giant majestic cat, as we?ll see later ? but Swift as a lobster? From there Perry moves to basketball-murder imagery: ?Lay ?em up like / Swish, swish, bish / Another one in the basket / Can?t touch this / Another one in the casket.? One lyrical problem among many is that Perry gets the basketball terminology all wrong. You don?t swish a lay-up. Perhaps the songwriting team could have consulted someone who had ever played and/or watched basketball for help with the lingo.
Not shockingly, ?Swish Swish? went nowhere, peaking at #46 on the Billboard Hot 100. The best that can be said for the song, if you consult Wikipedia, is that it ?reached the top 10 in the Philippines and Scotland.? Compared to ?Bad Blood? (Swift?s side of the story, which hit #1 on the U.S. charts), Katy Perry?s ?Swish Swish? only made her look weak, petty, and terribly uncool.
Resorting to stunts is nothing new for Perry. With her career-making anthem ?I Kissed a Girl,? she seemed moderately enthused about kissing a girl ? and much more enthused about telling the world. (This was back in 2008 when girls-kissing-girls held scandalous power.) Then, at her peak, our California Gurl rocked neon wigs and weaponized bras that shot whipped cream, like a West-Coast Femmebot outfitted by Willy Wonka, a walking stunt.
Perhaps Perry wanted to throttle back the stunt work with 2013?s Prism. The video for the lead single (?Roar?) replaces the confectionery aesthetic with more ?natural? hair, makeup, and wardrobe, as Perry discovers herself in a jungle far away from all the glitter. And with all this self-discovery, Perry unleashes one of the most vapid superhits of recent memory. Her songwriters do not reach very deep into the bag of motivational cliches for lines like ?I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything,? ?I?ve got the eye of the tiger,? and ?Now I?m floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.? If this isn?t artless and boring enough, Perry tests the upper limits of the cringe-meter when she declares, triumphantly, ?I went from zero ? to my own hero.? What exactly she is aiming for here is unclear: perhaps she imagines an audience of Oprah-fans crying tears of hot pride for her declaration of strength. Either way, Perry doesn?t realize that real badasses don?t need to trumpet their badassery ? and that we don?t need/want her to be our Life Coach.
?Roar? set in motion the decline that would lead Katy Perry to American Idol. Because she still had so much momentum from Teenage Dream, she could still pretend to be Katy Perry at that point, but not for long.
So we might say that those who live by the stunt will die by the stunt, eventually. So long as you have the moxie and mojo to pull them off, a few youthful turns can be fun ? like Perry in the neon glory of California Land ? but after a while the stunts start to work against themselves. Lady Gaga, to her credit, realized that she couldn?t keep wearing dresses made of sandwich meats or Kermit the Frog dolls. But when Perry tried to cut the stunts for a moment, she had only cliches to offer.
Perry is too old not to have learned. Last season on American Idol she tricked a 19-year-old virgin into a kiss on the lips, and her flirtation with young aspiring singers culminated in her declaration of being a 32-year-old cougar, which prompt some commentators to note that this followed a little too close on the heels of the Weinstein revelation. (Even worse because Perry had recently dedicated herself to ?purposeful pop,? an aspiration that quickly became laughable.) More than anything, it was just a little sad to watch a once-iconic Princess of Pop reduce herself.
There might be a more universal problem here.
At the release One of the Boys in 2008, Katy Perry was 23 years old. She is now 34. Her arc during that decade ? meteoric rise, superstardom, uncertainty, identity crisis ? offers a case study in the difficulties of growing up. Her failures might even tempt a former fan, like yours truly, to throw totally unfair scorn at her now that she?s such an easy target, as all declining celebs are, all the while overlooking the similarity between Perry?s troubles and the challenges that await us all. Here?s an excessively obvious observation: it?s strange to not be as young as you once were, especially in a culture that worships youth. Perry?s career merely epitomizes and magnifies that fate on a grand scale.
We should have considered ourselves warned. Just before the chorus of her best song, during the full onslaught of the Katy Perry Moment, at the height of her powers, she told us so herself: ?You and I ? will be young forever.? And we gladly sang along ? at least I did. That?s a fun Peter Pan-sentiment, especially when you?re driving to Cali and getting drunk on the beach, and perhaps there?s some insight about the importance of Carpe Diem in these lines. But it?s also obviously delusional. Time?s arrow flies in one direction.
Fortunately, though, for Katy Perry and for her fans, time still remains to learn and to grow into a dignified adulthood ? just not as much time as once remained.
Parker Hjelmberg is a contributor for UNPLUGG?D who dabbles at the intersection of movies, pop culture, and NBA basketball. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Note: minor edits were made on 9/11/19.