The last five years have experienced an awakening in the mainstream music industry, currently reaching out to make an indelible milestone in defining popular culture and artistry. However, most of the efforts in innovation have had to appropriate already established concepts of image and sound; the freshness, though, comes from the almost irreverent use of these iconic ideas. From punk to glam rock, from heavy metal to R &B—many of the artists of the moment have taken these into their repertoire, albeit infusing them with elements that ultimately transform them into novel works. Most notably, the differences are to be found in the way these new sounds and images are relayed to their target audiences, which significantly employ substantial assistance from current technology.
One of the biggest and most talked-about names in popular music today is young Katy Perry, the twenty-five-year-old self-starter who has made attempts to change the already complex landscape of the industry through her sometimes controversial, sometimes stereotypical offerings. Unlike many before her, Perry has dared to go beyond the safe zone created for artists of her technical level; and, like the iconic Madonna, she has also managed to keep audiences waiting for her next musical statements. Much of the discussion is succinctly conveyed in the messages of her music, which toe the line of sexuality and gender boundaries. This, and her innate and to-the-minute knowledge of out-of-the-box media, come together and produce a reverberating sound that can be heard around the world.
II. The Making of Katy Perry
Born Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson to Christian parents in 1984, Katy Perry started exploring her musical inclinations in church by singing for choirs in her native Santa Barbara, California. As she discovered her own idols and inspirations—Alanis Morissette, Cyndi Lauper, and Pat Benatar—and eventually found the beginnings of her musical identity, Perry quit high school and pursued music full time. Voice lessons and music education became her sources of training and knowledge, and soon she learned how to use a guitar. Her efforts—notwithstanding her talent—got the attention of several music executives, an event that allowed her to launch her first Christian album. This did not gain enough success, which urged Perry to explore with other labels such as Island Def Jam and eventually, Columbia Records. However, it was her deal with Capitol Records in 2007 that became the turning point for Perry, and ultimately made her the recording success she is today. Her non-traditional ideas regarding music became a concern for the company, though admittedly these form part of her appeal and marketability (All Media Guide LLC, 2007).
III. The Medium of Technology
Unlike in previous decades, music is now enjoying a wider audience through the advent of the internet and other technological discoveries. In addressing the youth, these media have been proven to reach larger segments, and Katy Perry’s irreverence regarding her favorite themes—particularly sexuality—has been efficiently communicated. Her first song entitled “Ur So Gay”, was promoted initially online, thus making it more accessible to more people, specially the youth who are the main targets of Perry’s music. Unsurprisingly, the controversy that resulted from this strategic method of music marketing paid off in terms of attention and recognition; the unconventional medium as well as the notorious theme of the song that prompted objections from the gay community proved to be efficient ways to create the needed buzz for Perry.
IV. Going Against the Grain: Sexuality in Lyrics and Music
Katy Perry’s most popular single, “I Kissed A Girl”, became extremely popular worldwide and somehow managed to shake the norms of mainstream music. Most songs—as well as the artists who sing them—that stray from the accepted limits of gender and sexuality are usually relegated to the ‘indie’ or alternative label; Perry’s success in making lyrics like “I kissed a girl and I liked it,” (Perry, 2008) sung by people young and old is nothing short of monumental. Her controversial theme brings rise to the discussion of sexuality in the context of society, which may be seen as a “broad and complex dimension of historically shifting socio-cultural and material realities” (Stein, 2008, p. 117). Clearly, the popularity of the song proclaims two possibilities: that the audience merely finds it intriguing and novel, or that the power of sexuality has already reached a level that lets it choose its own space, regardless of societal norms. Perry’s articulation of “I kissed a girl just to try it,” (Perry, 2008) further emphasizes how the idea of experimentation and going against establishment is already a welcome concept, redefining the boundaries of sexuality for the mass market. Homosexuality and bisexuality are two of the most evident mindsets carried by “I Kissed A Girl,” that have long been taboo subjects; however, appropriating both in a pop song shows how the music industry and its audience have relaxed their old restrictions.
Perry’s more controversial song, “Ur So Gay,” is yet another statement on sexuality and convention, the reference clearly evident in the title alone. Supposedly an attack against one of her former boyfriends, the song mentions several consumer brands and specific titles to depict the lifestyle of her subject—a metrosexual male who is more concerned with his own self-image and projection than his relationship with Perry. The most pronounced lyrics in the song, however, is in the refrain, which plainly states “You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys” (Perry, 2008) which appears to be a contradiction in itself. The concept of being gay or homosexual primarily refers to “the components of same-sex sexual activity, same-sex sexual attraction, self-identification as a homosexual, involvement in the homosexual subculture, and same-sex romantic attachments” (Troiden, 1979, p. 362), and Perry’s lyrics do not confirm this given. It is apparent how she redefined the term ‘gay’ within the limits of appearance and lifestyle, specifically to describe her metrosexual boyfriend. Metrosexuality, a fairly recent concept, simply refers to heterosexual men who include stereotypically feminine lifestyle choices in their grooming habits, with metrosexuals literally referring to “male consumers living in or near metropolitan areas who adopt the aesthetic sensibility often associated with gay men (Cova et al, 2007, p. 77); this is not officially covered by homosexuality in general. Expectedly, this indiscriminate use of the term ‘gay’ resulted in an outcry among gay columnists and writers, most of them demanding Perry to educate herself on the correct meaning and to stop using it as a negative (Moody, 2008).
V. Affirming Stereotype: Images of Femininity in Music Videos
Part of the Katy Perry hype not only includes the controversial lyrics and music but also the images she projects through music videos. But unlike her groundbreaking efforts in terms of changing definitions and labels of sexuality, the visual counterpart fails to achieve the same effect. Perry is known for her unconventional use of fashion and color, particularly in her exemplary appropriation of old Hollywood glamour and vintage ideals, yet all this is kept on the surface. In her music video for “I Kissed A Girl,” Perry only succeeds in communicating her flirty personality and feminine vibe, which are both visually appealing and entertaining, but the context of the song and the reference to experimentation of sexuality are not explored at all. One would even expect Perry to be shown actually kissing a girl, yet none of this happens in the video. Perry admitted later that she has never really done such a thing, and that the idea of the act is but a figment of her imagination that she recalled to excite her audience (Powers, 2008).
One of the highlights of feminism is when “men and women…do not follow traditional scripts” (Risman, 2009, p. 83), which happens when the stereotypes are dismissed. In Perry’s case, her image conforms largely with the convention of being female; whether this is done for mere visual appeal or through her own personal idea of femininity, it is clear how she has not chosen to veer from the expected. Because of her idiosyncratic choice to mimic a particular era through style and fashion, Perry’s videos find her staying within the tried-and-tested hooks of wearing frilly lingerie, pinup-girl costumes, and 1940s-inspired career-girl outfits. She often makes use of visual echoes such as fruits—watermelon, usually—to enhance the kind of sexuality she attempts to project; this then classifies her visual efforts into the stereotype of woman and sex. Suffice to say that Perry is more of a tease than an iconoclast in communicating image; while her lyrics and music delve farther than most artists of her generation, her visual choices remain within the conventional.
However, Katy Perry may not be the contradiction this equation makes her out to be. In her more recent outings in shows and events, she has projected a different image that largely changes the image seen in her videos. She has been photographed wearing costumes that toe the controversial line once more, such as wearing superhero gear and dressing as a switchblade—images that give her an edge, and somehow breaks her established vintage aura.
Based on the examples given, it is clear that there is a discord between Katy Perry’s music and image in the realm of sexuality; in one, she destroys established notions and attempts to blur the lines between heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality, while in the other, she affirms the concepts are they are accepted in current times. The contradictory nature of these two supposedly interconnected areas may expectedly result in Katy Perry being seen as false advocate of the cause.
However, Perry never admitted to being an artist aiming to correct concepts of sexuality through music or image. What she is actually doing is mere appropriation of these ideas to enhance her work, or to make her stand out; or it could be that she simply wants to convey her personal views, without having to be responsible for the bigger picture that involves ideology and politics. Today, it may be about sexuality; tomorrow, it could shift to society, culture, consumption, or whatever Perry deems suited to her journey as a musician.
Though Katy Perry did not turn out to be the trailblazer she seemed—at least in changing sexuality concepts in the mass market—this exercise in analysis proves just how relevant music and media texts are in communicating messages and ideas. The power of the media is evident in its influence on consumers, and should always be watched carefully by critics and scholars. In the same manner, the messages sent need to be labeled as they are and the purposes they claim so as not to confuse the ultimate goal of its source.
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Retrieved 17 June 2009 from http://www.billboard.com/bbcom/bio/index.jsp?pid=958673
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Moody, D. (2008). “what do you have against gay people, Katy Perry?”.
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______________. “Ur So Gay”. On One of the Boys [CD]. Capitol Records.
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