Tuesday, June 3, 2014

In Defense of Katy Perry

I love a lot of pop stars because I love a lot of pop music. I listen to top 40 radio almost exclusively, so I’ve come to adore celebrity singer-songwriters like Sara Bareilles, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, and Mumford & Sons. To me, these people are gifted and talented and admirable. But out of all of the pop stars I’ve ever become invested in, not one has fascinated me quite like Katy Perry. I can’t explain why, exactly, the pop star and record-setting young woman has always captured my attention, but she has. So much like my In Defense of Annie Edison (Community) post and much like my In Defense of Taylor Swift post, I thought I would write up a post discussing why I’m so fascinated with her, why she deserves some respect and admiration, and why watching Katy Perry The Movie: Part of Me was an eye-opener into the life of this particular pop star and also pop stars in general.

I think that – above all – I’ve been most fascinated with Katy Perry because of her background in church and in gospel music. Katy’s parents were traveling Pentecostal ministers when she was growing up. Their family was solely focused on God and church and all things spiritual. Thus, she listened to and was widely influenced by solely Christian music as she grew up. As Katy explains in her documentary and her siblings do as well, she didn’t ever know that there was life outside of her bubble of family values – that there were people who didn’t believe the same things she did or act the same way her family did. It’s not a stretch to say that Katy led a sheltered life, but I think that too many people have negative connotations associated with that phrase. Being sheltered, as Katy explains, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is what launched the beginnings of her music career and pursuing her passion. Gospel music was such a large part of Katy’s life that I don’t think she’s ever really shed it, nor do I think she’ll ever really want to. Though it’s not what she exclusively performs anymore, it is still a part of who she is. Gospel music is intensely emotive and personal – those deeply spiritual songs are what grip your heart as you perform them and they’re what you hope grip the hearts of those listening to you. Gospel music is focused on that feeling of hope and that feeling of joy and as I watched Katy’s documentary, I realized that this is still exactly who she is as a person and performer. She wants people to walk away from her shows with a message of love and hope and to know that they are wonderful and uniquely made. That’s a message that transcends genres – it’s not just a message of pop music but it’s a message of gospel music, too.

When Katy grew older, she moved to Los Angeles and began to – as she puts it – embark on a rather “rebellious” phase. She was just beginning to experience the people and life that was commonplace to those who didn’t live in a sheltered Pentecostal bubble. That bubble was great for Katy because it contained her loving and supportive family and was rooted in a faith that still (I can tell) grips at Katy to this day. But when she ventured outside of the world she had always known, Katy was met with new people and new friendships and new possibilities to expand her music and make a name for herself. She found a new passion and zest for life which became evident in her songs. But Katy struggled for years to find success and faced discouragement after discouragement. I don’t think that, prior to watching her documentary, I realized just HOW much rejection she faced in her early years. As an executive in the movie states, Katy Perry was not an overnight success – she fought and struggled for years in order to finally make it to where she wanted to be. The beginnings of her journey are just as fascinating to me as the middle and her current stretch of her career. I’m fascinated with this gospel-singer-turned-pop-star. I’m just honestly intrigued by her, plain and simple.

Post-“I Kissed a Girl,” Katy Perry’s entire life changed. She became a seeming overnight success – her likes and followers skyrocketed and her song began to be played on and requested on nearly every radio station. Life was finally taking off for this young woman who had fought so hard to be heard. And I think that one of the most wonderful things about Katy was that she never wavered in who she was. She’s weird and that’s great. She’s intelligent, too, and makes her own decisions when it comes to her tours and performances. Above all else, Katy doesn’t want to be forced into a mold that doesn’t fit her. She wants to be wild and unique and write and perform songs that fill her with passion and excitement. Katy never wanted someone else’s words to be sung out of her mouth and I think that’s rather admirable, in an age where it would have been much easier for her to be a puppet of a record label and find success by doing everything THEY wanted her to do. But because Katy played by her own rules, she eventually found success and – I would argue – happiness. She could have easily become a puppet but I don’t think that would have ever made her HAPPY. It would have made her successful, but not joyful, and there is a huge difference.

As Katy’s name began to take off, so did her songs and subsequent “California Dreams” world tour in 2011. That’s where the documentary really picks up, as we see Katy and her team begin to piece together every element of this tour. The film kicks off with high energy during the first 100 or so days and then begins to wane as Katy gets worn down not by the tour but with the struggle to make her marriage to Russell Brand work. I never really understood what attracted Katy to Russell in the first place but if I learned anything through watching her documentary it’s that she and I have more in common than I once believed. Katy is a romantic – she wants, so desperately, to believe in fairytales that she creates them in her songs and concert tours for her fans. She loves color and glitter and outlandish costumes because they’re bubbly and fun and reminiscent of something straight out of a dream. Normal life has enough turmoil and trouble of its own, so why wouldn’t Katy want to create an immersive fantasy for her fans and herself? Why I admired Katy and respected her so much throughout watching this film (which I recommend you all watch because it’s seriously eye-opening into her life) is how MUCH of herself Katy puts into everything. As her sister and best friends affirmed, she throws herself – all of herself – into whatever she does. That, in and of itself, is admirable. She doesn’t skim by doing the minimum amount of work and preparation. When she has an idea, she commits to it. When she has a commitment, she sticks to it wholeheartedly, no matter what the cost.

There’s a scene in the documentary where Katy is curled up on a chair, her assistant and tour manager asking how she wants to proceed. This scene is during the beginnings of her relationship trouble, clearly, and the young woman is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted from the demands of tour and from flying on her off days across the world and back to see her husband (who, as it is revealed in the movie, rarely ever flies to see HER). When they ask if she wants to push the show back fifteen minutes, Katy is silent for a moment and then rolls over and insists that if they push it back, then she won’t be able to make it to the meet-and-greet with her fans. And so, Katy gets up and puts on her wig and make-up and dress and greets her fans with smiles and laughter. That is the first scene in the documentary that broke my heart but that also made me have an intense amount of respect for this pop star. She could have easily cancelled the meet-and-greet and pushed the show back in order to focus on getting herself rest and napping, but instead she sacrifices her own wishes (and possibly best interests) in order to be there for the people who are there to see her.

Later in the movie, Katy’s marriage – in shambles – drives her to tears before a performance. She’s in her make-up chair, crying, and her assistant notes that she NEVER cries. All I wanted to do while watching the scene was hug her and let her take a night off. I wanted to give her ice cream and a blanket and a sad movie and let her cry herself to sleep. Normal people would do that, you know. Non-celebrity pop stars would drown their sorrows in Ben & Jerry’s because we have the freedom and luxury to do so. But after a few moments and composing herself, she instructs her make-up artist to begin work: she’s not going to cancel the show. As she prepares to step onto the platform that night that will raise and take her into the arena, she begins to break down again. It’s the most heartbreaking sight in the world, but also one that made me feel more – emotionally – for Katy Perry than I ever could before. You don’t have to like her music and you don’t even have to like her, because that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to remind me and all of you that she’s a human being who chose to step out onto a stage and perform for two hours even though her entire world was shattering. What is that? That is strength. That is resilience. That is what it is like to be in the spotlight. Too often, we forget that these celebrities – actors and athletes and pop stars – have to put on brave faces. And they don’t put on brave faces for themselves. No, they do it for US. They do it because they don’t want to let US down.

As Katy steps out on the platform, she plasters a smile onto her face (which breaks my heart). Because the truth is that there’s nothing she can do but go on. And she wants to be there for the thousands of people who need her, even when she is breaking. It’s the most I have ever respected and admired Katy Perry, to be honest. It’s the first time I was able to see her not just as a celebrity or a singer but as a person. The funny thing about watching the documentary was that after it finished, I had this intense urge for Katy Perry to find happiness. I’ve never met her and probably never will. I don’t know her at all. But I desperately want her to be HAPPY. I think that’s what empathy feels like, to be honest. It’s the moment that I went from fascination to respect for this woman and artist and it felt good.

I’ve spent a lot of this post talking about Katy Perry’s documentary and her life and you’re probably thinking that this is all well and good but you don’t like her music and her songs are basically spun cotton candy and you’d never like her, let alone defend her. To you, I would say this: that’s fine. Just like people view television shows and movies and books differently, they are also allowed to view pop stars and other celebrities differently, too. I’ll never force you to love or respect Katy Perry but I hope to make it abundantly clear the reasons why I DO.  Yes, some of her pop songs are sugar-coated and filled with fun, dance-inducing lyrics. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with people like Katy who want their listeners to just feel GOOD after hearing a song. And come on, when you hear “Teenage Dream” or “Last Friday Night,” a part of you just feels like dancing around. But Katy has also produced songs of substance. Below, here are some of my absolute favorites:

Each of those songs is so heartbreakingly beautiful. “By the Grace of God” is a powerful and evocative song about picking yourself back up after heartache; “The One That Got Away” in an acoustic version showcases Katy Perry’s gritty vocals and her vibrato; “Not Like the Movies” is a song about waiting for your fairytale; and “Thinking of You” is one of her most emotionally and vocally powerful ballads.

You don’t have to like Katy Perry’s music, and if you don’t, try out the playlist above of her more emotional and nuanced songs. While the singer may want her fans to feel good after listening to an album or a concert or to go home with smiling faces, it doesn’t mean she undercuts the emotional resonance of her music by only playing and writing “happy” songs. She’s an artist which means that she expresses everything about herself – the highs and lows and everything in between – through her music. Music is the way that she expresses herself, and I totally understand and respect that about her. I respect her dedication. I admire how hard she fights for everything she gets. I love that this life was not simply handed to her on a silver platter and that those struggles made her fight even harder and become more resilient. I love that she is human – she is flawed and sometimes broken but that she doesn’t allow herself to stay that way. She’s a woman who wants so desperately to believe in love and fairytales and I get that about her. I’m the same way. Sometimes those fairytales last forever and sometimes they fade, out of no fault of your own. Katy really is a fighter and she doesn’t appear to be a person who gives up easily. But occasionally things crumble and you’re left with the choice to either pick up the pieces or just stay broken. She never stayed broken and I admire that.

Yes, Katy Perry is a unique little bird (it’s what I’ve started nicknaming her – “little bird”) who will not stop flying and fighting for as long as she lives. As her sister said in the documentary, when Katy becomes a mother, she will devote her entire self and life to her child. She’ll pour as much of herself into that child as she does to her music. And while Katy expressed a desire to be a mother and have a family, she admitted that she was still growing up and that a baby could not raise a baby. (I wish more people in this world understood that, Katy.) I admire this pop star not just as a celebrity but as a woman now. I’ll defend her and her uniqueness and her message because her story is one that deserves to be told and her message is one that deserves to be spread.

Katy Perry wants her fans and everyone who meets her and hears her music to know that they are unique. They are special. They are beautiful and loved just as they are. They shouldn’t change to try to fit in. They shouldn’t pretend to be someone they are not in order to garner attention and relationships. They should believe in fairytales and happiness. They should smile. They should dance and be silly and weird because that is what is wonderful in this life.

Thank you for that message, Katy. And I agree wholeheartedly.


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  2. You've made many observations from the viewpoint of what Katy is doing and has done for her fans. You're correct. However, the missing factor for the complete picture is what Katy did for Katy. What we all do when we absolutely must because our circumstances, personality and learned behaviors bring us to our base self. We survive. I saw a woman transform into her core self. She has always been and will always be a performer. An artist. That is who she is at her core and the situation caused that biggest part of her to take control. That's why she is a professional. She couldn't have been anything else right then. I love her more for having the courage to show that to us even after giving herself time to reflect on it. A quick edit could have robbed us all of her most human moments. Oh, and I am a 48 year old man going through a divorce after 29 1/2 years who deals with the public in my job every day and all they will ever see is me smiling and enjoying the fact that they are choosing to spend their time to talk to me. Bravo Katy! I hear your ROAR!!!!