Madame Butterfly

Katy Perry opened the American Music Awards this year in full Kimono, emerging from behind a rice paper screen and crushing PC whiners with a well-turned foot.  A beautiful spectacle of costume, choreography, and set design elevated the proceedings from trashy awards orgy to something resembling opera. No sloppy strip dance, no desperate groping for attention; rather, the magnificent embodiment of the feminine divine in its most becoming form.

Ms. Perry was performing the song, “Unconditionally,” from her luminous new album Prism.  The song conveys a God-like love; infinite, accepting, and unconditionally loving. “Come just as you are to me… Know that you are worthy. I’ll take your bad days with your good. Walk through the storm I would. I do it all because I love you.”  This is more than mere romantic love, this is love on a higher level. On both  the album cover and in the video for “Unconditional,” Ms. Perry wears cross-shaped earrings, underscoring the spiritual, Christian-themed elements on Prism.

She doesn’t shy away from showing us the depths of pain she experienced in the aftermath of a ruinous relationship. In “Grace of God” we see her, on the bathroom floor, exhausted, defeated, possibly suicidal.  She nearly falls into the abyss, but manages to pull herself up off the mat. “By the Grace of God – There was no other way- I picked myself back up- I knew I had to stay- I put one foot in front of the other- And I looked in the mirror- And decided to stay. Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way.”  She is a wounded healer, one who has taken a painful emotional journey and returned with an inspiring message of hope and encouragement.

Perry explores similar themes in one of the strongest songs on Prism, “Love Me.” She sings of losing herself and then building herself up again, stronger than before. “I lost myself in fear of losing you… I lost my own identity. But now, I don’t negotiate with insecurities… I found I had to love myself the way I wanted you to love me.” She isn’t pleading for someone else’s love. She’s going to give herself what she tried to wrestle from another. “No more second guessing. No, there’s no more questioning. I’ll be the one defining who I’m gonna be.” Here is a woman who has body slammed her own insecurities and defeated self-doubt. She believes in herself and needs no one else to do that for her.

In “Roar,” the empowerment anthem which opens the album, we see the strong and secure Katy, ready to knock-out her opponent. She may have taken some hits in the early rounds, but she is not going down. This is a fight she will win. At this year’s Video Music Awards, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, Perry performed the song in a boxing ring, with boxing trunks, knee-high sports socks and a small posse of back-up dancers. With her strong, athletic body, and sharp, deliberate moves, she is entirely believable as a boxer, a fighter, a champion. This is no waif, no lady in waiting. This is a woman in control of her situation, her mind, her body and her destiny.

The music video for “Roar” puts this champion in the jungle. A small-engine plane has crashed in the jungle and a torn and tattered Katy tries to make her way. Abandoned by her self-absorbed cabin mate, she has to find a way to survive, and she does. No more passive victim, she takes control, and develops self-sufficiency and confidence. She unleashes her inner tiger and takes the title as Queen of the Jungle.

Now, for a really good time, play Track 3,”Birthday.” This tongue-in-cheek dance-pop track  is an effervescent celebration of sensuality. Funny, sexy references fill the air like confetti: cake, champagne, birthday suits and big balloons. “I hope you brought a healthy appetite,” she flirts. “You’re never going to be unsatisfied.” The whole song is filled to the brim with vitality, humor and warmth.  You may just drop everything and dance when you hear this song.  Also great for housecleaning, working out, etc., etc.

“Legendary Lovers” brings us to a lower, even sexier register. Here we are on the steamy banks of the riverside.  Lotus blooming, third eye open, your aura, my mantra, energy…where were we?  Oh yes, by the river. Blood orange sun, silver moon.  “Say my name like a scripture. Keep my heart beating like a drum.” It’s hot. It’s heavy. It’s spiritual. We hear rhythmic chanting, tribal drumming and the jingle jangle of a belly dancer, seducing us, being seduced.

“Spiritual” continues is this sultry territory. “Lay me down at your altar, baby… Your electric lips have got me speaking in tongues…. Found a Nirvana finally.” Spiritual transcendence and carnal desire, together at last, and getting along so swimmingly.

On “Dark Horse,” the seduction takes a more sinister turn. Here the beat seems to hypnotize, to entrance, to lure us toward danger. Rapper Juicy J steps in to warn, “She’s a beast. I call her Karma. She’ll eat your heart out, like Jeffrey Dahmer.” It could be an unhealthy relationship he’s referring to, or perhaps an addictive drug. Either way, this is dark, destructive stuff. The lid on that basket is best kept shut.

But even at the bottom of Pandora’s Box of horrors, there is hope. And it is this message of hope and love that comes through loud and crystal clear throughout Prism.  On the wonderful “Double Rainbow,” you can feel your limbs stretched across the sky like gummy candy. Beside you, upholding and reflecting you, is another neon-candy rainbow. Two brilliant beams of light, side by side. BFF’s swelled to the size of mountains, linked together as if in a pose from Yoga for Giants. Two spirits connected, by covenant, forever. “And wherever you go, so will I,” she sings- a heart-catching, tear-making, perfect phrase for love.

Ms.Perry sings in a voice that could be your own,  your best friend, a lover or even God. There is a universality to these songs that capture human experience in a way that everyone can relate. She fills arenas with adoring fans the world over. Clearly there is something in her and her music that people of all cultures respond to.  (One of many reasons accusations of “cultural appropriation” hold little sway with this listener.) Katy Perry represents the best of Pop Music. Music that has the power to touch something inside of everyone. Music that makes you want to dance. Music that makes you feel good.

Prism is a thoroughly listenable collection of songs that will leave you renewed and uplifted. Pop this CD into your car and a dull slog through traffic becomes a joy ride. It is as though Queen Katy, from her pink cotton candy cloud, rains down her magical, sexy pixie dust upon you, brightening your day, your mood, even your outlook on life. The marvelous musical production has been mixed for maximum enjoyment. Every riff  has been thoroughly finessed to release each song’s sweet essence, a delicious nectar you’ll want to taste every day.

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Pop (T)art- A Look At Katy Perry’s Music Videos

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.