Birkut and I agree, it seems, on everything. One night we sat up talking about Katy Perry and her new album, PRISM. Birkut wondered, in spite of our manifold agreements, why I would listen to — much less enjoy — the work of Katy Perry, especially her new album (which he does not like). Because it was late, I talked a lot without making a lot of sense. I rambled and stumbled. The truth is that the questions he asked me were better than the questions I had thought to ask myself (and, incidentally, better than the answers I gave).
You see, it’s easy as a critic to get caught up in one’s sense of self-importance. It’s easy to get caught up in the supposed significance of one’s ideas. Before the album was even released, I grabbed from a couple of songs (“Roar,” “Dark Horse,” etc.) a series of images and themes, and I already knew what I was going to write about (therapy, divorce, etc.). I had great sentences already written out, ones that I knew I could already apply to an album I hadn’t even heard. I had the perfect epigraph from Christopher Bollas. I had already had my say. But I wasn’t prepared to listen to PRISM, much less write about it.
So for Birkut to ask me all my unthought questions forced me to consider why I would even want to write about Katy Perry again. Leaving his questions here, I’m left only to say what’s really on my mind.
My ultimate curiosity is about how the music makes you feel — and why?
You sound like my therapist. [Laughs] It’s strange to think about why Katy Perry would make me feel anything at all. Okay. Why? Irony and sentimentality. There’s no need to lie or pretend things are otherwise. This is Tiny Mix Tapes, and Katy Perry is not someone our demographic genuinely cares about. I’m not immune. I won’t pretend to be. I listen to Graham Lambkin, too. I “know better.”
That said, I came into Katy Perry’s music by accident. I listened to it, initially, for the lulz and kept with it because it was the best thing on the radio — which really is saying a lot. Eventually, the songs became habitations, inside jokes with my girlfriend, enjoyable. I know an answer like that can’t be satisfying to you. I know you want an intellectual defense. I can’t offer that. In the beginning as in the end, I like Katy Perry for the same reason I like Taco Bell nacho cheese — and to underestimate my attachment to the latter is to miss the point. Take that for what it’s worth, I suppose.
What do you like about the album aesthetically?
I guess that depends on what you mean by aesthetics. After spending too much time with Kierkegaard, I really think of aesthetics as a modality and not a particular theory. And as with Kierkegaard, “aesthetics” merely stands in for our basest modes of receiving something. What I like about PRISM is that, with some important exceptions, I only have to receive the album aesthetically. It doesn’t require the patience or emotional/intellectual involvement that albums I typically listen to require.
The cool thing, though, is that it does have quite a bit of redeeming value. I guess we’ll get to that, though.
Where does that leave the reviewer?
You know that I’m not interested in reviewers. Reviewing music is a total diversion. Then again, so is what I’m doing here. I’m not trying to bullshit you or the readers who have stuck with me until now.
But the reviewer who is reviewing a Katy Perry album is completely meaningless. Let’s be clear. Most of the readers — the ones who come by way of Metacritic — who care about this review care only about the score I give it. A handful of readers — the ones who come by way of Tiny Mix Tapes — are only looking for the joke, the gimmick (spoiler: it’s an interview), the relentless trashing, or the amazingly clever defense via Derrida or Agamben or whoever. The reviewer is a substitute for met or un-met expectations of the reader. The reader only asks: does this validate me? And, does this make me feel good about my choice to (a) love Katy Perry and/or (b) love Tiny Mix Tapes’s “witty” and “provocative” reviewing style? My answer becomes a stupid justification or an even more stupid scapegoat.
But the reason the reviewer is meaningless — the real reason — is that no matter what I write and no matter what her MetaCritic score is, she will still make millions of dollars. [Laughs] Seriously, more importantly, the real-real reason is that she will still matter — deeply — to the people who love her. I’m glad that neither you nor I can step in their way. Sometimes you just can’t help what you’re attached to.
How do you feel about the messages in Perry’s lyrics when taking into account her target audience?
I honestly don’t know who Katy Perry’s target audience is. I’m not sure Katy Perry knows who Katy Perry’s audience is; or rather, Katy Perry — like Whitman — contains multitudes. At least on Teenage Dream and, now, PRISM, there really is a little bit for everyone. Songs venture into the deep and stay on the surface. There are as many “explorations” of partying and frank sexuality as there are explorations of spirituality and suicide. (I personally don’t think any of those necessarily need to be distinct subjects or songs, by the way; but thematically, on PRISM they are.) I guess you could say that Katy Perry is embracing contrary aspects of what it means to be, well, herself. (As Katy Hudson, the person? Or as Katy Perry, the performer? I guess I really don’t know, in case it matters.) All I mean to say is, hell, every story we claim about ourselves is in tension with the rest. I can only assume the same is true for her.
Of course, what this means, cynically, is that every song has potential to become a franchise in and of itself — a look, a trend, a single, a video, a t-shirt line, a stuffed animal, a PopChips flavor, whatever. That definitely makes the tension seem less genuine and more of a marketing strategy.
There are a couple of points I’d like to make — definitely offhand remarks that I don’t feel the need to back up, as I think the songs speak for themselves.
(Dedicated to Benjamin Pearson)
01. Katy Perry (hereafter KP) claims that “therapy” is the reason these songs exist. There is no doubt that several of them are borne from pretty intense introspection, more than is typically attributed to mainstream pop songs, especially KP songs.
02. In the past (on One of the Boys and Teenage Dream, especially, but even her first self-titled album, if the big Other counts), KP’s songs have been directed to a possessive, masculine “you.” Virtually every song was this way. PRISM is the reversal — not of the masculine you, but of the possession.
03. “Empowerment” gets thrown around a lot, but on PRISM, it shows up as a kind of very pragmatic feminism. Jezebel has already pointed out that KP is “problematic,” and we can all agree. But we can’t live and die by purity tests, and for what it’s worth, I’d rather hear someone sing about the advantages of introspection and making incremental progress than doing molly in a club bathroom. (No offense, I guess.)
04. There are admissions of failure on PRISM, as well as admissions of reaching out to loved ones for support. It’s strange to me that this strikes me as a relatively unique theme in contemporary pop music, but then again, most pop is all party and apocalypse.
05. KP may not present a complex theology, but she presents a complex spirituality, and a complicated understanding of love as it’s experienced — from within and without. There’s something both unfashionable and unmarketable in this that I think is worth consideration, and even respect.
Even if the artist is presented as alluring to men through her sexuality, why should that impact on your enjoyment of the music?
This one is easy. Because she validates my sexuality (or what I perceive to be my sexuality), and we like things that do that. It’s not a big deal, but it’s weird to write “out loud.”
This gets perverted all the time, of course. Take pornography, for instance. You’re fooling yourself if you really think the desires being sold to you are your own. No, some middle-age executives in a boardroom dreamed them up for you to want long before you wanted — and subsequently, shamefully masturbated to — them.
What you desire is incidental to how you came to desire it. Unfortunately, the story is rarely ever as interesting as you want it to be.
There’s no doubt that there is an element of that in Katy Perry (as a marketed object). Do a Google image search of her name, and tell me how many of those images are marketed to women. No, they’re men’s desires about women — at least so far as some middle-age executive at Capitol Records is concerned. Hear me out. I’m not trying to knock women’s empowerment via dressing sexy or anything like that, but only that we’re several decades past the sexual revolution, and that “sexy” is, now, mostly for making sales.
It should be noted, though, that her look has changed again. More “adult,” in her words. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here. I think the move slightly away from objectification is a good one.
How might you derive any personal attachment or sentiment from them when they seem to have just as much meaning as a Coca-Cola slogan?
May I answer your song with a quotation? To the extent that the songs are slogans, and regarding Coke,
I guess what I’m saying, vicariously, is that the meaning of the slogan or song isn’t inherent to it. That’s definitely true for my relationship with Katy Perry’s songs, even as I follow her into her depths. But, you know, I wouldn’t trade anything for those times I’ve driven around with my girlfriend, singing along to Teenage Dream, and I won’t trade anything for the times when I get to do the same with PRISM. I just don’t believe that criticism has anything meaningful to say to that.
Why not write about an album that is sure to receive less mainstream media coverage?
Because you do a way better job of that.
Coda. Pop culture is a mirror, and it tells you only what you’re able to see. That is to say: mirrors are only prisms in disguise.