Mark Radcliffe is inspired by Katy Perry’s talent and success. Admiration aside, he hopes Katy knows that impressionable teens are the ones listening to her lyrics.
I met Katy Perry about 5 years ago, before she was “Katy Perry.” We were both singer/ songwriters on the LA circuit, though she was already playing venues a level above me. We had a lot of musician friends in common and I was told to check her out.
The first night I saw her play at Hotel Café, she was so drunk and rowdy on stage she actually drew a few boos. Until she sang. And there was no denying: her voice was stellar and her songs were raw. She brought us all in with her fierce emotionality. You couldn’t not watch her. After the show, I ran into her in the hallway. I didn’t say a word; instead, in a gesture that was somewhere between admiration and flirtation, put my hand underneath my shirt, over my heart, and simulated giant heartbeats, implying they were entirely her doing. She beamed a beautiful, appreciative and glowing smile back at me. We kinda had a moment. Then she was whisked down the hall by her manager or boyfriend or whoever and I didn’t see her again.
After her show, I dug into her music library and downloaded her tunes (yes, legally). She was cool. She was indie. She was real. She had a bold, did-she-just-say-that? song called “You’re so gay (and you don’t even like boys)” that made fun of emo dudes who wore eyeliner and skinny jeans. I saw her a few more times in LA and she always left it all on stage. She was real, authentic, her voice a fire hydrant of emotional power.
But then, a year or two later, I was driving down the road and heard a song I instantly hated. It was big, pop-y, over-produced, full of overdone bravado, and its hook was the exact same line Jill Sobule made popular 15 years earlier: “I kissed a girl.” Only this song wasn’t as good.
I was a bit heartbroken to find out it was Katy Perry. Huh? I wondered. What happened to the indie girl with the quirky songs that bordered on folk music? What corporate label wormhole did she get sucked into?
I got the story: she’d been signed to Capitol, but they were “taking her in a new direction” and brought on new songwriters to flesh out her album. And the pop songs kept coming. “Hot n’ cold” I could handle – it was pop for sure, and a far cry from the vulnerable tunes she played years ago, but it was just about an indecisive guy, and hey, I dig it when girls call out guys on their bullshit. But then came “California Gurls,” then “Teenage Dream.” The lyrics were the same portraying-women-as-nothing-more-than-sex-objects stuff I’d written papers about in college. I had to turn the radio off any time either of them popped on. These songs – while catchy as hell – were riddled with lyrics that took women’s lib back 30 years. This was bubble-gum pop on high. Her video showed her spraying whipped cream out of her tits, for crying out loud! The indie cred was gone. She’d sold out big time.
The crowning moment was when I was playing a house concert in Seattle Washington a few months later. As my show wrapped up and people were heading home, my host’s 5 year-old daughter asked if she could sing on the microphone. That’s so cute, I thought. “Sure, have at it!” I told her, lowering the microphone so she could reach. And on cue, she launched into a word-for-word, perfectly-memorized version of “California Gurls.” My jaw hit the floor – and not in a good way (if you know the not exactly rated-G lyrics to this song). If you ever want to feel embarrassed for the state of modern society, listen to a 5 year old girl sing “We’re so hot, we’ll melt your popsicle” while preening for her audience. Thanks a lot, Katy, I thought to myself. Now 5 year-old girls everywhere are taking notes from your playbook on what boys like. Where was Gloria Steinem when you needed her – or at least Alanis Morissette? She could be sexy and sassy while still keeping guys in check.
I was upset in Katy’s general direction. And sure, part of my disgruntlement was good ol’ fashioned American jealousy; Katy had Rolling Stone covers, Grammy performances, probably a 5-bedroom house in Malibu and the world in general on a platter while I was still playing to audiences of 50 on a good night. But deep down I just didn’t want to accept the lesson that her career seemed to be demonstrating; the only way to the top is to lose yourself along the way. I wanted Katy to get there with the authentic songs I’d heard her play in small venues years earlier. Maybe she’d only be playing to 5000 people a night rather than 50,000, but it would make me feel better about the world.
But then I heard “Firework.”
This was something different. The lyrics finally had a message, encouraging the shy and marginalized to believe in themselves and shine: “Cause baby, you’re a firework/ Come on, show ‘em what you’re worth/ Make ‘em go, oh, oh, oh/ As you shoot across the sky.” Sure, it was still pop, but here was an anthem of hope for alienated teens. I came across stories of depressed teens who genuinely turned to the song for inspiration and reason to believe in a better tomorrow. She even dedicated the song to the It Gets Better campaign, giving bullied teens the support they desperately need.
Then I saw her face on a campaign for Proactive, the anti-zit cream that has been a kind of salvation for teenagers. While, sure, I’m guessing Katy was paid a handsome sum for the ads, it sure wasn’t like doing a campaign for Clairol. She was doing something that beautiful celebs never do – admit they’re not perfect, and that they’re not always beautiful. The fact that she was willing to admit she struggled with the same unflattering problem of acne as the average teen struck me. This was a rare, vulnerable and humble gesture. It made her human. And made teens realize, “Hey, if Katy suffered from acne and still ended up on top, maybe there’s hope for me, too.”
Even her video for the song “Last Friday Night” showed a willingness to play the role of the dork, the ugly duckling at the party. Madonna never did this – she always made sure she was an impenetrable shell of beauty. But Katy was willing to be dorky for her fans. She was “one of us,” not simply waving down from the window of her penthouse apartment like so many other stars.
And as for her song “The one that got away”- her anthem of regret for a lost love – goddamn if it didn’t choke me up a bit when I first saw the video. Me and all my steely reserve were unable to resist being pulled into her pop vortex. We’ve all got someone in our past whom we still wonder about, with whom maybe we were supposed to end up with but didn’t. Here’s a song that comes from a place of having screwed up, not on top of a mountain, hands held high and triumphant. This is what we need more of.
The marriage to fellow celeb Russell Brand struck me as a bit of a clichéd move, but at least she was marrying a comedian. And while I’m sorry for her that the marriage didn’t last , I think it might possibly be helping her write music on a deeper level. Her latest song “Wide Awake” shows some genuine introspection, and is a stark departure from her first few sexually-preoccupied songs. Here she is, wounded from the crash of her failed marriage, baring her soul, admitting she was dreaming, wondering “how did I read the stars so wrong.” This, we can all relate to. And it’s what’s endearing her to more fans than ever. It’s rare when the powerful admit they’re not perfect. And it helps us all.
So good on you, Katy. You’re turning me around.
I fear there will be another unabashed “don’t you want my body?” song on her next album (timed with a Maxim photoshoot of her in lingerie), but hopefully it’ll be balanced by some of the deeper material she’s getting around to now. Sure, Katy: embrace your sexuality, embrace love, passion and following your instincts – but remember that impressionable teenagers everywhere are listening to your lyrics more than to their parents. You’ve got an awful lot of influence with the fan base you’ve now acquired, so please, use your power for good not evil. The rest of us songwriters who are nowhere near your status need to believe that an artist’s message is still more important that her image.
Photo credit: AP