by RACHEL SYKES
Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream is three years old next month. The album, which sold 2.6 million copies in the US alone, and 6 million worldwide, was only the second in history to have five number one singles (the first: Michael Jackson’s Bad), keeping Perry in the top ten of the airplay charts for a total of 71 weeks. This week also marked the first anniversary of the film made to document her success. Katy Perry: Part of Me is part biopic, part concert film, released over the weekend of July 4, 2012 and premiered with an array of Pepsi sponsored, US-themed outfits.
On July 4, 2013, Perry was draped in more stars and stripes, in an Instagram of her reunion with John Mayer. Dressed in matching outfits and locked in an embrace, the couple’s heads are turned away from the camera. It’s an image that is both strikingly intimate and playfully coy. Even the photographer seems unsure of how close they should be.
The caption, “Whose broad stripes & bright stars?!”, alludes to the same mystery: who are these people and how are they so recognisable that they can communicate through the backs of their heads?
As Susan Sontag once wrote of the camera, on Instagram we are ever more “a tourist in other people’s reality”. And in the great tradition of the pop-umentary, Part of Me is another exercise in the construction of intimacies. We, the fans, gain access to the breadth of Perry’s career, beginning with her teenage years as gospel singer, Katheryn Hudson, and ending with the behemoth California Dreams Tour, 11 months long and 124 dates wide.
“This film,” Perry said, “you’re going to see it from my best friend/buddy perspective; you’re going to see exactly what I mean and feel and think about everything.”
You’re going to see it all, and you’re going to see it in 3D.
In claiming to show us everything, however, Perry shows fissures in the curation of her image. Part of Me portrays her transformation from preacher’s daughter to professional glamorama with a trajectory so smooth that it jars.
What’s more, her anti-bullying mantra, most palpably observed in the self-celebration of ‘Firework,’ comes through in the oddest of ways. “Thank you for believing in my weirdness,” she yells from the stages of different continents - but that is the weirdest thing she will say throughout. It is the task of imagining her as an outsider that proves the most bizarre - Part of Me is a wholesome movie, for a wholesome audience, which carries no hint of the blackout centred party girls, awkward lovers, and teenage runaways that her songs so frequently refer to.
The poster, for example, shows Katy, her hair flowing freely bar the cutest of hair clips, as she sings obliviously into her hairbrush. Reflected in the mirror is her on-stage persona, hair now bright blue, décolletage spruced up, in a sparkly pink tutu and lilac silk gloves.
The reflection is a hybrid: Hollywood starlet, ballerina, and cyber princess all in one. Her ‘real’ self is all American, the girl next door surrounded by battered ornaments and faded wallpaper. The comparison is simple: there is nothing she has that you cannot achieve. But what she is is a polysemy, a performance of different identities, of different fantasies, that allude to possibilities without a glimpse of a reality that is anything less than polished.
Similar claims to normalcy were made in the early days of the Spice Girls, who grossed $77 million from their 1997 mockumentary, Spice World. There was something ramshackle about the band, although this was as highly cultivated as Perry’s coiffured sexuality.
But they were a bunch of girls who had no talent in particular, their performances reeking of Tia Maria stained lyrics sheets and last minute rehearsals. All five had worked their way through odd jobs and bit parts and made no attempt to hide their ambitions. Geri was a former Turkish game show hostess; Victoria had decided to become famous after watching the musical, Fame.
As with Perry, there were contradictions in their claims to authenticity but these were more pronounced because they couldn’t dance, couldn’t sing, and they definitely couldn’t act. And whilst the media accused them of illegitimacy, the public didn’t follow. Their first single, ‘Wannabe,’ was released in June 1996. By August 1997, the Spice Girls had filmed their movie and signed over twenty sponsorship deals. The Spice Girls sold records from their ‘normal’ personalities, and Spice World accentuated the personalities that they sold.
In Part of Me, however, Perry is caught somewhere between a pop music of aspiration and of the everyday. She claims to be both the girl singing into her hairbrush, and the embodiment of old school glamour. Her commercialism is so complete that it’s almost admirable; even the movie’s title seems resigned to her commodification. But although she tells us that she will be showing us “everything”, Perry seems more than aware that her image can be divided into segments.
But what is disturbing is imagining how Perry might conflict in the minds of younger girls. There are the lollypops which equate her sexuality with a literal consumption so phallic that it’s embarrassing even pointing it out. Then there’s ‘E.T.’, which I think of because my housemate delights in repeating the lyrics back to me:
“Infect me with your love? Fill me with your poison?”
“Take me, ta-ta-take me / Wanna be a victim / Ready for abduction?”
I am talking about childhood, but also about authenticity, a term which is often applied to popular music in order to find it lacking. In the 1920s, critics used the idea of authenticity to attribute relative values to jazz and pop; in the 1930s, between black and white jazz; in the 1960s, between rock and teen pop. The musicologist Elizabeth Leach suggests that although the musical markers for authenticity change between decades, the implication is always the same – “the authentic music is more real because it is less designed as a commercial venture.”
In this respect, Katy Perry can’t win. As a pop musician she is already defined as an effigy of the inauthentic and as one of the world’s most successful pop stars, she can only perpetuate the rot, so inscribed is she with the protensions and retensions of both the music industry and rock music’s dominant authenticity.
The idea of authenticity is thankfully so vague that people quite wisely stay away from it. Yet it will always be bandied around when discussing pop songs with indie kids. Pop music is commercialised bollocks, they say, with no depth and little meaning. Where’s the integrity in Justin Bieber?
These men (for they are men) use ‘pop’ as a swear world. Pop music is so aggressively attacked because of the reaction it provokes in young girls, so readily dismissed because it so firmly embraces the temporary as to be unsettling. But pop music is a shot, a talisman, or a lover, and should be defended as such. I’ve heard half-hearted defenses that describe it as escapism, but it has to be bigger than that. Pop music is incantation, the invocation of something larger than yourself, the affirmation that follows you like a flashback through the day. Don’t fob me off with guilty pleasures, because that isn’t real - pop music’s effect is no slighter for its immediacy.
Why I listen to pop music is another matter, but this sentiment is something that Perry knows too well. The movie’s opening song, ‘Teenage Dream,’ went through a series of drafts before it was finally recorded and released in July 2010. Perry and her co-writers knew that they wanted to explore the feeling of being forever young; the first draft of the lyric was written about Peter Pan which all decided was too devoid of sex.
Focusing instead upon the emotions of becoming a teenager, Perry had the verse perfected, an ode to finding a love in which you can finally admit vulnerability. Without make up, without a punchline, she says, “I let my walls come down”.
The chorus was written after meeting future husband, Russell Brand, yet Perry defaults back to clichés: “You make me feel / Like I’m livin’ a / Teenage dream / The way you turn me on.” By the middle eight, the teenage dream has changed completely. Perry is no longer living her dream, she has become someone else’s: “I’m a get your heart racing / In my skin-tight jeans / Be your teenage dream tonight.” The shift in agency may be a slip, missed in the process of drafting and redrafting. But what was so securely conceived as a song about Katy’s personal reveries, becomes a song in which she is an object. It becomes, like all things concerned with Perry, both strikingly intimate and provocatively coy, both reality and fantasy combined.
Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about her fear of flying.