Monday, October 19, 2015

Katy Perry and the Pleasures of Pop

It’s rare that something I read on the internet that isn’t about ISIS - the world’s worst straight edge youth crew – riles me up, but Heather Havrilesky’s hatchet-wielding “takedown” of Katy Perry in New York Magazine did. When people first learn that I unashamedly love Katy Perry, they often assume that as a 30-something straight man my fondness is purely carnal. There is that, of course, (and why would being one of the most beautiful American celebrities since Elizabeth Taylor be such a bad trait in a pop star?) but I genuinely enjoy her music and I like the personality (or persona,) that she shows the public. What’s more, the reasons I like Katy Perry seem to be exactly the things Havrilesky, and others I’ve spoken with, dislike – or in this case hate – about her.

Havrilesky writes with the venom of someone who, having walked in on Ms. Perry in bed with her lover, has decided to write about her while fuming at a desk in the same room while the adulterers finish. She describes Katy Perry as “the very essence of reassuring, non-threatening stagnancy. She encapsulates that remaining, silent majority (It never goes away! Don't fool yourselves!) that doesn't like to be challenged at all, ever, for any reason — not by women, not by music, not by the weather, not by anything.” Havrilesky then goes on to compare her – to say unfavorably would be an understatement – with Beyonce and Taylor Swift, then presumes to know the mind of Perry by speculating that her endorsement of Hilary Clinton “suggests nothing more than the fact that Katy Perry would prefer to sound like someone who stands for something, even though she isn't that person and never has been.”

Shelly once called poets the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world. It would seem that these days some people expect our pop stars to take on that role. It is precisely the fact that Katy Perry’s music, persona, and polished performances lack the pretension of Lady Gaga’s quasi-glam art school costume party, Beyonce’s bravely standing in front of the word feminist, Miley Cyrus’s Terry Richardson shock pop, or Nicki Minaj’s deeply empowering meditations on the sound of two butt cheeks clapping, that makes her so appealling. Not because we, her fans, are too lowbrow and afraid of being challenged, but because some people can find intellectual interest and fulfillment beyond the Billboard charts.

Katy Perry doesn’t take herself too seriously, and that seems to bug the hell out of people like Havrilesky, who demand that pop stars be more than pop stars. But why should our pop music necessarily do more than give us pleasure? Why isn't the pleasure of pop and end in itself? Does Havrilesky lament the fact that “Mr. Postman” wasn’t a righteous denunciation of the United States Postal System? Or that “Surfin’ Bird” didn’t do enough to raise awareness of the plight of marine fowl? Perhaps “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was a far slyer dig at the patriarchy than I give it credit for. She might point to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” as a right-on feminist anthem, were it not for the fact that it was originally written and sung by Otis Redding.

Yes, Katy Perry’s music is bubblegum. Delicious bubblegum. And while it's true that a diet of nothing but bubblegum isn’t good, the occasional chew, blow, and pop can give people a lot of pleasure and happiness. Unfortunately this kind of pleasure unadulterated by guilt and a vague semblance of making a point (or at least pretending to,) is what some people can’t stand.

Havrilesky claims that Katy Perry doesn’t have a look, and then immediately complains that her look never changes (which would imply that there is, after all, a look in the first place.) For some reason, the idea of consistency baffles and outrages Havrilesky. Katy Perry’s aesthetic palette is rich even if it isn’t eclectic (I would argue that comparing Perry’s stylish Moschino ads to her tongue-in-cheek goofy videos shows quite a nice range of styles for someone often dressed by other people.) It would seem that Havrilesky would prefer a pop star whose costume changes are more radical, like David Bowie or The Beatles or maybe even Duke Ellington’s unfortunate end-of-life Dashikis and ponytail. One would have to assume that Havrilesky thinks the Ramones leather jackets and ripped jeans wasn't a "look" because it never changed. Her sartorial-aesthetic sense is calibrated only as a motion detector.

Katy Perry has one of the rarest qualities in today’s often-sanctimonious celebrities: a sense of humor. She’s unafraid to look silly, make fun of herself, and unapologetically enjoy it. For some reason, a woman having fun on her own terms and getting pleasure out of goofing off isn’t a sufficient “message” for a pop star to have. If you want to see Katy Perry at her best, watch the video for “Birthday,” a hidden camera piece in which she makes herself absurd with makeup and prostheses and masquerades as various awful birthday entertainers (including an elderly stripper and a Jewish comedian,) at actual birthday parties. It’s a perfect, puckish example of Katy Perry’s joyous, life-affirming embrace of pleasure without pretense. Picture Kanye West or Beyonce or Taylor Swift making themselves deliberately unattractive and ridiculous in a video.

One final point. Havrilesky makes a very big deal out of the song “Firework,” somehow operating under the misapprehension that “firework” is never a singular word:
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag — not because you're polluting the oceans, but because you "want to start again," presumably by being recycled? So does Katy Perry. But then she remembers that she's a firework. Singular. Think for a minute about what it takes to be the kind of person who can sing the word firework like it's an actual word, over and over and over again, without feeling the faintest hint of self-loathing.
I’d like you to think for a minute about what it takes to be the kind of writer who doesn’t even bother to open the Oxford English Dictionary to find five different definitions of the singular word firework, the most relevant being “A single piece of pyrotechnic apparatus,” and then publishes an article with a snide and condescending self-assured paragraph about it without feeling the faintest hint of self-loathing.

No comments:

Post a Comment