It took her years of battling to make it in the industry, but when Katy Perry finally stormed the charts, f**k did she make an impact.
After bursting onto the scene with her debut single ‘I Kissed A Girl’, by the end of her One of the Boys album campaign she was officially established as one of the major pop girls. After record labels tried for years to make her into the next Avril Lavigne, it was her campy pop star shtick that ended up catching on with the public.
Katy was a phenomenon, and her hard work and grafting for years had finally paid off. There was talk that she’d soon fizzle out, and while her album sold well, it was 50/50 whether she’d manage to continue her success with the follow-up.
But there was something about Katy that was different. To this day, it’s hard for pop girls to break into the public consciousness and truly be considered one of the major players of the likes of Britney and Madonna. Katy was part of the last wave of major female pop stars to emerge in the late noughties alongside the likes of Lady Gaga, and to a lesser extent, Kesha. No other pop star since has truly had the same kind of immediate impact and, thanks to streaming, it’s doubtful they ever will again.
With the release of California Gurls in 2010, for a time Katy was the biggest pop star on the planet. Not even Lady Gaga could complete.
While Gaga was sellotaping meat to her body, Katy was firing cream out of her tits and writhing around with hot boys on a beach. Teenage Dream became one of the best-selling pop records of the decade, and she became the only female pop star to ever achieve 5 #1 singles from the same album; ‘California Gurls’, ‘Teenage Dream’, ‘Firework’, ‘Last Friday Night (TGIF)’ and ‘The One That Got Away’.
She continued her success with transitional third album Prism, and lead single ‘Roar’ now stands as one of the best selling digital singles of all time. It seemed as though there would be no stopping Katy. Sure, she was criticised for her live singing, but she’d never truly been subject to a backlash like Britney and Gaga had.
But then Witness happened, and everything just went utterly tits up.
Katy had grown tired of the zany character she’d created in order to finally achieve success in the industry, and after playing her for so long, the star, now in her early 30s, claimed she just wanted to be herself again.
“I created this wonderful character called Katy Perry that I very much am, and can step into all the time, but I created that character out of protection,” she said. “I was scared that if you saw me, Katheryn Hudson,” she told The Guardian. “I didn’t want to be Katheryn, I hated that, it was too scary for me, so I decided to be someone else.”
With this new outlook, along came her “purposeful pop” shtick, and ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ was born. Make no mistake, it’s a great song with an equally arresting video. But it’s not Katy Perry. It’s lacking the components that made us fall in love with her as a pop star in the first place.
It’s all well and good if you want to be yourself, but when that somehow manages to feel less genuine than the character you were playing for so long, it becomes an issue. There’s some great music on Witness. ‘Bon Appetit’ is one of Katy’s career highlights – musically at least – but it was never going to be a hit. The trap-channelling ‘Swish Swish’, while an undeniably catchy song, couldn’t sound more try-hard coming from someone who once sang about feeling like a plastic bag.
The public clearly felt the same, and Witness completely bombed. Follow-up singles failed to chart, and the album sold a mere fraction of what her last records had. The media, sensing blood, soon started to rip the star to shreds, and for a singer who was seen once as the pinnacle of female pop, she was quickly reduced to a figure of ridicule on social media.
Don’t get us wrong, a woman deciding to liberate herself should be celebrated. And the media’s insatiable need to tear her down has been nothing short of straight-up misogyny, but there’s a reason for the backlash. The tragic irony to all of this is that the only time it’s truly felt like Katy hasn’t been herself has been during this album campaign. The self-aware, trend-chasing reinvention into a socially-aware singer of substance hasn’t felt in the least bit genuine, and the public have reacted accordingly.
We’ve seen the real Katy before. Fans of the Katy Perry: The Movie movie will remember the heartbreaking moment she burst into tears following the break up of her marriage to Russell Brand, only to force a fake smile on her face seconds before performing to thousands of fans. It was endearing, and a glimpse at the woman behind the pop star. That felt like the real Katy. Not the one who dabs on SNL, latches onto year-old memes and desperately struggles for relevancy.
While Lady Gaga was trying to be as avant-garde as possible, the glorious simplicity of Katy’s all-American girl image set her in a completely different lane. And while the colourful commercialism she came to symbolise took her career to headier heights than most imagined, the lack of apparent ‘artistry’ in the same obvious sense has given Katy Perry ‘the brand’ almost no room to manoeuvre when it comes to album-to-album reinvention.
To be blunt, as a brand, there’s no denying Katy Perry has a shelf life, so trying to reinvent herself makes complete sense. But going about it in a way where she effectively lost any resemblance to the character she built for herself was a mistake that, in the long run, could end up costing the star her career. But hopefully not, because when she gets it right, she’s a f**king force to be reckoned with.