Katy Perry: Ripoff Artist
August 30, 2008
Katy Perry. What is there to say? That she’s the culmination of trends going on in the past 15 years of women in rock music? That she’s a dreadful representation of what happens when the mainstream co-opts powerful women singers? That she’s a symbol of “do-me” feminism/postfeminism/Girlie Feminism gone wrong (even if she doesn’t quite identify with those groups)? That she rips off other women artists? That she ends up being kinda homophobic and kinda pruriently bicurious–but for a male audience–at the same time? That she titled her album One of the Boys, which is just irksome and implies a calculated bid for a male audience? That she seems to justify critics such as Ariel Levy, who say that Third Wave feminism has led to women being completely superficial about their sexuality?
How about all of the above?
For those of you who may not be familiar with the off-key singer, here’s a little background. She grew up the daughter of two preachers, released a Christian rock album, and then decided to switch to the pop realm with big producers. So far, no problems: Aretha Franklin, after all, moved from gospel to soul by first making a seven-year detour into pop music.
But Aretha’s path to success wasn’t, in fact, in that carefully crafted genre, but instead in soul, where she could use her immense vocal talents. Perry, on the other hand, has used pop connections to place herself in the same category as women with a lot more talent. She also used pop connections that worked well for other women who had significant success: Like Avril Lavigne, Liz Phair, and Britney Spears, Perry worked with record production team The Matrix; she also worked with Glen Ballard (producer for Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill) on her debut album. Less related to production, but just as calculated, she recently appeared to make a bid for some semblance of subcultural authenticity by appearing on the Van’s Warped Tour, hardly a girlie-pop venue.
Her major success came this summer, when the song “I Kissed a Girl” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and her album One of the Boys was released in late June (so far, only reaching number 9 in the charts). “I Kissed a Girl” is everywhere, and so is Perry, gleefully talking up her tomboy-but-girlie personality, dressing like a cleaner, more stable Amy Winehouse, and promoting, promoting, promoting her songs as not at all political but just so fun, tee hee.
Perry’s sudden success seems cooly calculated and calibrated, reliant upon several trends in the representation of women in pop music that walk the line between sensationalistic and supposedly “owning” your own sexuality. While I could write an essay on how much “I Kissed a Girl” is a vain attempt at drawing male attention in a Girls Gone Wild world, the blog Feministe has already done a nice job of that. Instead, I parse below some of the influences that Katy Perry so freely pulls from in a grab-bag fashion.
1. Jill Sobule: Does no one remember that singer-songwriter Sobule had a hit with her song “I Kissed a Girl” in 1995? Critically acclaimed Sobule, whose brief fame was encapsulated within the moment of the resurgence of the female singer-songwriter in the mid-1990s, wrote a song with exactly the same title, only for an opposite effect. Whereas Perry’s song features a girl telling a guy about her exploits with girls, Sobule’s tale has the protagonist bonding with her friend about their mutually lame boyfriends, and then making out. Instead of being for the dudes, it’s kept secret from them; instead of being an end to attract a man, it’s perhaps a beginning of something new. We don’t know, because the songwriter is smart enough to leave that out. Also ripped off beyond the idea, lyrics such as “her lips were sweet”–yeah, a cliche, I know–also appear in Katy Perry’s song.
2. Alanis Morissette: Morissette walked the line between being one of the angry girls of “alternative” rock and recalling a peace-loving singer-songwriter of the 1970s. Undeniably, however, she was able to tap into the zeitgeist of 1990s pop music, and Jagged Little Pill sold a proverbial shitton of copies. This may have been strategic; it may have just been who Morissette was as an artist at the time. But without a doubt, Morissette forged a difficult link between alternative and girl-pop worlds. Perry, by working with Glen Ballard, and by presenting her undeniably produced pop on the Warped tour, is trying to find that same level of success. And one more thing: Morissette’s first single was as directly sexual as Perry’s.
3. Liz Phair: Another woman who places a focus on the critique of male behavior in her songs (e.g. 6’1″) as well as explicit sexuality (e.g. “Flower”, with the lyric, “I wanna be your blow job queen”), Phair was, for many women, a rare voice of female desire in a rock realm. However, Phair’s public image soon shifted from being a female subject with her own wants and desires to that of a pure object. Her appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1993, for example, flipped the strong-but-sexy image into its negative: the doe-eyed, vulnerable nymphet. (For a great discussion of Phair’s impact on music, sexuality, and Third Wave feminism, click this link.) Perry seems to be drawing on Phair’s ability to attract female audiences, through lyrics about douchy guys, and to attract the male gaze, through her big-eyed sexpot look and lyrics about kissing a girl but returning home to her man, a suggestion of a future threesome if I ever heard one.
4. Avril Lavigne: Ah, the similarities with this one! Levigne pioneered the punk-lite teen scene, toting a guitar with her and acting like “one of the boys,” even when you can’t hear her guitar playing in the mix and she’s tarted up in a skirt and heels. Lavigne’s songs, like “Sk8er Boi,” acknowledges skater subculture in the same way that Perry’s “Ur So Gay” places an “H&M scarf” as a resonant indie-rock image. But the greatest similarity lies in both women tapping the songwriting efforts of The Matrix: while Lavigne made the trio somewhat famous (at least as far as songwriters go), they were the first people that Perry turned to in her quest for fame. Perry recorded an album with The Matrix in 2004, but it was shelved weeks before its release. Still, their influence lingers on in Perry’s coy posing and cutesy musical styling.
5. South Park: This one may more of a stretch than the others, but it’s definitely there. South Park was one of the first venues to regularly have its characters say, “Dude, that’s so gay!” as an insult. But while having cartoon eight-year-olds insult each other with the term “gay” in a show that often layers satire upon satire undoubtedly causes some cognitive dissonance in those of us who think it’s funny but aren’t into homophobia, Perry’s song “Ur so gay!” is about on that eight-year-old level and somehow more disturbingly homophobic. On the one hand, it’s smart in the verses, describing a vain, self-involved, indie rock boy, one whom her female listeners probably identify as that guy who they wasted too much time on once upon a time. But it’s not really that logical, lyrically, to move from the fairly descriptive verse to saying “Ur so gay/and you don’t even like boys.” In fact, any critique of the self-involved dude then becomes lost in the juvenile chorus. Ohhhkay, we’re supposed to think that being gay is the ultimate insult for douchebaggy behavior? That’s a little bit Cartman of Perry, don’t you think?
In uniting all these elements, Perry seems to proclaim that she is a unique and substantial individual: not just a “female-singer-songwriter,” because she is “one of the boys;” not just bubblegum teen radio fare, because she’s “edgy” in her lyrics; not just pop, because she’s on tour with a bunch of bands with street cred. But the real fact is, there’s nothing original about Perry, just a lot of heavily vetted pop tactics on parade.