There has never been anything particularly exciting about Katy Perry. One of the Boys (2008-9) is her strongest era to my mind, as it has an aesthetic cohesion her subsequent eras lack. While the record itself is close to unlistenable, her stylised, Bettie Paige persona is at times compelling. Her interviews from 2008 reveal a breathily-voiced, slightly irritating young woman revelling in girlish artifice, clearly a rebellion against the evangelical Katy Hudson she’d been before. This rebellion is the only authentic aspect of her career; Perry was not able to develop further personae as inspired or complete as the first one. The music videos from the first stage of her career complement each other, and are only slightly calculated; with her confidence and unapologetic poppiness, Perry replaced in the music industry the far superior Gwen Stefani, whose commercial success by 2008 was on the wane. If only Stefani had possessed Perry’s ambition and business sense!
2010-12’s Teenage Dream era was a sanitised, manufactured and protracted replay of its predecessor. A demand for a marketable relatability led Perry to try to suppress her tendency towards artifice, creating a tension in the artist which exaggerated her quirkiness into parody. Due to this tension Perry has never, in spite of her infectiously catchy discography, connected with the public as successfully as the entirely relatable and talentless Taylor Swift, whose album sales dwarf hers. While Teenage Dream’s songs are more melodic than One of the Boys, they don’t share that album’s authenticity and (albeit limited) lyrical invention. Teenage Dream’s generic videos also lack the narrative thread which such a long era requires, and Perry’s unsuccessful attempts at satiric winks through self-mockery deny us a truly immersive, sublime pop experience. Her shortcomings are glaring in the “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” video, her most comically ambitious creation which fails on all counts due to the heavy-handedness of her performance. Clever elements of the era, such as the candyfloss scent which permeated arenas on her California Dreams Tour, were so evidently dreamt up by someone else that they do not expiate her selling-out. Perry pales in comparison to the brooding, arch Marina and the Diamonds, her British counterpart, although that artist seems similarly torn between artistic and commercial success (erring on the opposite side to Perry), and the resulting desire is to transcend rather than synthesise pop trends.
Perry’s latter two albums, Prism (2013-14) and Witness (2017-18), are scarcely worth mentioning. Prism evinces a refusal to mature, an absence of subtlety, a cheap and comic sexuality and of course a continued (partly successful) quest for chart domination. Perry does not have political insight, but was evidently empowered by her liaison with Hillary Clinton in her 2016 campaign to contrive a political message for her most recent album. The result is the rather hollow “Chained to the Rhythm”, which is like Lily Allen’s “The Fear” but with an even less definable message. The video, although quite imaginative, undermines the song’s subversion with its high budget gloss and elaborate choreography. Perry has been punished for this misstep (and also for a dreadful haircut): Witness has underperformed dramatically. The short-lived pop princess bows out in style, however: her performance of “Dark Horse” in her recent Witness Tour is, I believe, one of the highlights of her career. Perry dances to the hypnotic song on moving blocks, against the backdrop of a giant, setting sun. The effect is spectacular, recalling the Ancient Egypt of the song’s video but with the subtlety and simplicity which her career has so often cried out for, although the performance is cheapened by her incorrigible goofiness.
The Witness Tour
Perry will not be remembered as an artist, though ambitious pop stars will learn from her very serious marketing formula – hopefully without sacrificing their artistry on the altar of quick singles success. To give her some credit, Perry was not a serious artist to begin with so her career trajectory is not too disappointing; and she has proved herself as an engaging entertainer and effective businesswoman.