With her team of collaborators, including fashion and set designers, Katy Perry has pushed the medium of music video forward, demonstrating the limitless possibilities of the form. Perry’s videos show us what can be accomplished when unfettered imagination, a big budget, and painstaking craftsmanship come together.
Step inside Perry’s 2010 music video extravaganza, California Gurls, and enter a psychedelic landscape of marshmallow frosting fields, peppermint stick forests and cotton candy skies. The children’s boardgame Candyland has sprung to life in sparkling, sun-drenched California. Perry is a vision in a bejeweled ballerina’s dress, her tutu a shimmering ruffle of fabric. She’s Willy Wonka, Dorothy of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland all swirled up in a soft-serve cone. Sprinkle on a little Betty Page and Gidget. Put a big burlesque cherry (or two) on top. Invite Snoop Dogg to add his distinctive flavor. Now dive in. With each visual and musical reference, Perry invites us to revel in this sensual embodiment of our shared cultural history.
A gingerbread Walk of Fame, staggered with sugar-dusted stars, criss-crosses the game board. But the Hollywood myth bumps into the gritty reality of the place as Perry, playing the wide-eyed starlet, runs into a gang of belligerent gummy bears. Growing up in Southern California, my friends and I would laugh, wickedly, imagining the disappointed faces of world travelers arriving in Hollywood to find what a cesspool the place really is. But the myth is much more fun, and Perry runs with that, while letting us in on the fact that her knowledge goes beyond the fantasy of California Dreamin’.
Perry was raised by two evangelical ministers and like many other accomplished singers, grew up performing in church. Her background in gospel music is evident in moments of transcendent, spiritual power such as those in the richly symbolic video, Wide Awake. Here she travels through a dark labyrinth, eats of the forbidden fruit and feels the walls close in on her. But she conjures a light from within and pushes the walls back with supernatural power. Light shoots out of her chest and into the sky. Similar imagery is put to effective use in her video, Firework.
In another scene, Katy enters a garden overflowing with flowers. Awaiting her is Prince Charming, atop a white unicorn. Katy almost falls for his corny guise, but she sees through his lies and sends him flying through the bushes with a satisfying punch.
She defeats all the fakers and takers and her own demons, and rises again, onto the stage, in her spinning peppermint candy dress, a healthy, integrated woman in touch with her inner child, warrior, princess, and sex goddess. She’s independent, in control, and on top of the world.
One of Perry’s most striking qualities is her ability to embody so many different characters. In Last Friday Night, a delirious send-up of 1980’s teenage party movies, Katy plays the nerd. With a little help from her friend, Rebecca Black, she transforms into a mini dress-wearing bombshell. Debbie Gibson and Corey Feldman make cameos as her parents. Kenny G plays on the roof.
Even with the all-star celebrity cast and well-tooled production behind her, it’s Perry’s off-the-wall acting that steals the show. She throws herself head first into comedic parody, playing her part with zany abandon. Her performance is intentionally ridiculous, yet executed to perfection, along with every other aspect of the production.
It is hard for me to choose a favorite among Katy Perry’s videos, but Hot n Cold could be a contender. The scene opens on Katy and a young, rather dumb looking groom standing before pew after pew of witnesses.The groom’s throat catches just as he’s about to say, “I do,” and Katy shakes her head at this punk who can’t make up his mind. She and her bridesmaids go after him, a mini-army of jilted lovers with mascara-stained cheeks. They look a little like Michael Jackson’s pack of zombies in Thriller with their torn dresses and choreography formations. You can also see Madonna’s influence in the street dance numbers. Think of the dance scenes in Borderline or Hung Up. My favorite visual reference in this video is Perry’s dress, which is a near-exact replica of the fabulous frock on the cover of Roxy Music’s eponymous album.
In Perry’s behind-the-scenes concert movie, Part of Me, you get a sense of the enormous production apparatus behind her, and it becomes evident that Perry is a job creator, wealth-generator, and CEO. I find it inspiring that one woman’s voice could launch the entire enterprise. And it comforts me to see an artist whose work I love, creating a product that doesn’t involve destroying the earth or killing people. In my mind, that alone is cause for celebration.
Perry is not without her detractors. Old-school cultural critic, Camille Paglia has criticized Perry and her cohort of young pop stars, going so far as to accuse the entertainers of “ruining” women for failing to embody a worthy image of womanhood. Paglia takes Perry to task for the “overt raunch” of her lyrics. It is true, Perry drops a couple of F-bombs, but so do I, so I can’t judge her for that. Perry makes some sexual references in her lyrics, but the references are likely to sail over the heads of any too-impressionable minds. The fact that she fills arenas with young concertgoers proves the point that parents, who you’d imagine are buying the tickets, aren’t too scandalized by her lyrics or deportment. And they shouldn’t be. Perry’s energizing music and jaw dropping style have come together in an over-the-top pop confection that all but the scroogiest of scrooges will find irresistible. Katy Perry is, to borrow a line, a walking candy store and her millions of fans want more.