Perry likely wouldn’t mind being compared to a feminine product. “I love an obvious innuendo,” she once told an interviewer. She also loves the God-given gift of her lovely breasts and the bad-girl business of rock and roll, which she approaches the way the ad men on “Mad Men” approach cigarettes and cold cream. How to capture its spirit and sell it? How to make it seem new, yet unthreatening to an average boy or girl? Bury the dark side, scrub the dirty parts with Ivory and insist, as Don Draper would, that it’s something your audience has never before encountered. That’s madcap Katy, both slap-your-face fresh and unapologetically calculated, a brutally effective advertisement for a self.
More than her Christian background or the chick-lit limits to her take on sexual liberation, what makes Perry a controversial artist is her essential hollowness. “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” she sings in the power ballad “Firework.” Perry felt like that bag, but then realized what a bag was for: to be filled up with shiny, purchasable things.
Though her lyrics generally recount familiar scenarios on the road to romantic fulfillment, Perry’s real subject is consumerism. From the bouncy-house Scandinavian beats provided her by super-producers Max Martin, Stargate and her mentor Dr. Luke to the childlike enthusiasm with which she embraces lyrical clichés to the vocal style that combines sports arena chants with karaoke croons to her Halloween store look, Perry is the living embodiment of what it means to be bought and sold.
Her songs are like ads, with hooks that hit like paintballs and choruses that exhort like slogans; she delivers them with the gusto of a pitchwoman. On “Teenage Dream,” the songs alternate between weekend-bender celebrations of hedonism and self-help-style affirmations encouraging listeners to get an emotional makeover. Either way, acquisition is the goal: of a great love, a happy hangover, a perfect pair of Daisy Dukes.
To judge Perry as inauthentic or unoriginal would be wrong; as with any great ad campaign, uncanny familiarity is her greatest achievement. She can sing a line like “you make me feel like I’m losing my virginity,” and never once hint that she might be thinking of Madonna. She can feign a rocker’s stance on the Alanis-inspired “Circle the Drain” or a hip-hop diva’s stutter on the Rihanna-influenced “E.T.,” and convince you that it fits her perfectly. No tailoring required! Whatever person exists beneath Perry’s wigs and costumes is irrelevant to her music. Her process of self-creation is the purpose and sum of her art.
It’s enough to millions of listeners — especially young women — because this kind of constructed self has been a feminine reality since long before Peggy Olson started hawking Pond’s cold cream. “Put your hands on me in my skintight jeans,” Perry murmurs to a paramour in the title track, but it’s the clothing that matters more than the chance to get naked.