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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Humanizing Katy Perry

Pop’s Man-Eating, Girl-Kissing New Star Fine-Tunes Her Ima

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Katy Perry’s single “I Kissed a Girl” has just topped the Billboard pop chart, and the 23-year-old’s schedule for the day is booked solid. Later today she’ll be shooting an insert for Blender magazine, doing an interview with Rolling Stone, signing autographs for an hour and a half, then performing as part of the Warped Tour. Right now, though, she’s doing phone interviews through an earpiece as she sits in pajamas and hair curlers, getting her nails done in a St. Louis strip mall.

“I didn’t even care where we went,” she says, amused by the unglamorous salon. “I was like, ‘I’ve just got to get these cuticles cut!’ ”

Between fielding interview questions, she directs those around her. “Yes, I want the airbrush,” she tells one staffer, her voice striking the same note as Paris Hilton’s haughty whine. “My wallet should be in there,” she tells another. “If it’s not, then it’s in the pink bag.”

The interview blitz is typically a benign ritual for pop artists promoting their new album, but for Perry, it’s a little more delicate. Unlike other artists, who get to gloat about how much of themselves they put into their record, Perry has to field questions about the controversy trailing her hit single—controversy, of course, her promotional team was very much relying on. “I Kissed a Girl” has irked groups from across the political spectrum. Family and religious organizations object to its glorification of promiscuity, feminists take umbrage with its message (that making out with a girl is a great way to get your boyfriend’s attention), and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups, well, they’re still miffed about Perry’s last single, “UR So Gay,” in which she cuts down her metrosexual boyfriend’s manhood using “gay” as a schoolyard pejorative.

Then there’s also the touchy matter of Perry’s authenticity. Perry fathoms herself something of a Joan Jett rocker, but her Capitol Records debut, One of the Boys, is a pop album in every sense, crafted with a rotating crew of outsourced songwriters and producers who turned Perry into a brazen, bad-girl version of Kelly Clarkson. More glaringly, Perry was raised in a strict religious household. She even began her career as a Christian singer, but at some point between her unassuming 2001 album and One of the Boys—a five year purgatory she spent bouncing between three different labels—she decided that if she ever wanted to release a second album she’d best play down her faith and play up her curves.

These are miserable topics to have to discuss over and over in interviews, but Perry knows how to control the conversation. She defuses a question about her contentious singles by explaining, “If people are really listening to the stories behind the songs, and if they get invested in me as an artist, they’ll see that I’m a very sassy, spontaneous, like-to-have-fun type of girl,” then spins her answer into a lengthy, entirely tangential rant about why she’s doing the Warped Tour: “I think that it’s so important as a new artist that people can come out to the show, see me, meet me and see that I’m a real person. Sure, I have amazing record-company people that back me, and I’m an unabashed pop artist, but I still want people to think that I’m their homie.”

Similarly, she deflects a standard-issue question about what her pastor father thinks of her bi-curious hit with an extended reflection on how happy she is that her dreams are finally coming true.

Asked how much of the personality on One of the Boys is really her own, though, she shows a little more spunk. “Two hundred percent!” she injects before the question is finished. That’s a curious thing to own up to, I respond, with all due respect, since frankly her album persona is unflattering and mean.

“Well,” she replies, her voice softening uncharacteristically, “girls are very sweet creatures until someone breaks their heart.”

Katy Perry performs as part of the Warped Tour on Friday, Aug. 1 at the Marcus Amphitheater.

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