Katy Perry is many things. She’s a singer, of course. She’s a very famous person and yet one whose inner life no one in the public actually seems to care about at all. She’s a hit-churning machine whose music plays in grocery stores. And boy is she a songwriter.
You can argue that Katy Perry’s whole career is manufactured fluff — the way she started her career going for an Alanis Morissette or Joan Jett vibe but took a sharp pivot into “pop star, like Britney Spears,” the increasingly desperate moves she’s taken to hang onto relevance. But you cannot argue that she doesn’t write her songs. There’s an obvious pattern to her lyrics, a real je ne sais quoi, that certain “something.” Like they make no fucking sense, and are bad.
Do you need examples? Do you??
“Thinking of You”
This song was a later, lesser-played single from her breakout pop album One of The Boys, and it was the one that made me take note of her as a songwriter. It’s a serious ballad, which the video makes apparent by casting Katy as a war bride turned war widow. From the first line, you realize Katy Perry’s songwriting cannot carry this weight. “Comparisons are easily done,” she begins, and the listener might pause. Comparisons are often drawn, and I would allow for a lyric saying a comparison was made, but you do not ever hear anyone say “I could easily do a comparison.” That sounds awful. It sounds like a dog meme. Continuing on through this first verse, she sings sadly “Like an apple hanging from a tree / I picked the ripest one, I still got a seed.” That’s not how botany or metaphors work. The ripeness of fruit does not determine whether there are seeds in there, and seeds are not typically used as imagery for a disappointment or tragedy. A seed is usually a symbol of a new beginning, or in this context, just a thing that you find in fruit and it’s pretty standard. She looks gorgeous in this video, though!!
For an artist whose career so often plays with sexuality — see above video if you are somehow unaware of that fact — Katy Perry really struggles with sexual metaphors. She wants to be on Top 40 radio, so she can’t go too explicit, but the innuendo she uses to get around that fact can be head-scratching. In the chorus of “California Gurls,” she brags that said gurls are “so hot, we’ll melt your popsicle.” Okay, I get what she’s going for here. The gurls are hot, and who loves gurls? Bois. Bois with popsicles. The popsicles are dicks. This is all straightforward stuff. But we have to circle back to the word “melt.” A popsicle is cold, but it’s also hard. Katy promises that these hot gurls will melt those cold popsicles. That imagery…is not what she’s going for.
Well now she's gone too far in the other direction. This one is too obvious. Sick of parsing metaphors, she’s going for wordplay. “I wanna see your peacock!” she sings, and then just repeats the second syllable over and over and over. Obviously her message is clear — really couldn’t possibly be clearer — but one can’t attempt to make a double entendre if there’s only one entendre to it. She doesn’t want to see a bird, so there’s no text besides the subtext. To do a comparison, it’s as if Lauren Bacall told Humphrey Bogart, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? I know how to suck a dick.”
“Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)”
The woman loves shock value, but she doesn’t always know how to achieve it. Let’s look at “Last Friday Night,” which I love. It makes it seem like Katy Perry has never left the house after 8pm and only knows about debauchery from watching teen movies. The chorus rapidly escalates from “Yeah we danced on tabletops / And we took too many shots” (standard) to “We went streaking in the park / Skinny dipping in the dark/ Then had a ménage à trois” as if Katy couldn’t decide on one sexy drunk thing and had to throw in all three, logical order be damned. (Where did they skinny dip while in the park? Was the three-way conducted in a public fountain?) The whiplash continues in the verses with lyrics like “Ripped my favorite party dress / Warrants out for my arrest,” adding to the implausibility of her rallying cry “Next Friday night, do it all again!” I know that there are people who go hard every weekend, but I do not believe, based on this evidence, that Katy Perry has ever been invited.
Our girl has well and truly hit her stride by “E.T.” She’s mastered her craft. The whole thing is a metaphor, her favorite writing tool. The metaphor is for sex, her favorite topic. She has a concept for a kitschy video built in. Now That’s What I Call a Katy Perry Song!
Clearly the point of this one is that her new lover is different, so different from her that it’s as if he’s from another world. That’s kind of a flimsy premise, because I’ve never heard anyone say “I met this hottie and I’m so attracted to him. He’s so unique, it’s like he’s an alien.” That implies to me that the person she’s dating is bizarre and off-putting, unable to mimic human interactions. So the metaphor isn’t great, but let’s look at the execution. It’s even worse.
In the bridge, she sings “You’re from a whole other world / A different dimension / You open my eyes / And I’m ready to go, lead me into the light.” Great! He’s opening up a whole new world to her. That’s a fine way to describe an exciting new relationship; just ask Alan Menken. But she later sings “Wanna feel your powers / stun me with your lasers,” and we’ve lost her. What do the lasers symbolize? “Your kiss is cosmic, every move is magic,” she adds later, despite the fact that aliens aren’t magic. She’s just running out of sci-fi words. She builds up a bunch of tension before the final chorus and cries “I wanna walk on your wavelength / And be there when you vibrate” and we’ve devolved into complete nonsense. You don’t walk on wavelengths! What is vibrating here? Are aliens known for their vibrations? Are men??
As a bonus, the remix features not one but two Kanye verses, each one an absolute disaster. He’s the perfect addition to this song. We simply cannot get into the words that Kanye chose to write and perform without anyone forcing him to. In a metaphor that actually fits the situation, Kanye is the Galaxy Brain of this song’s lyricism. Oh, Katy can make a flimsy metaphor that seems a little gross? “Infect me with your love and fill me with your poison,” she sings in the chorus, and I gag as I try to analyze it. Kanye can top that. He jumps in at the top of the remix to drone “I got a dirty mind / I got filthy ways / I’m tryna bathe my ape / In your milky way.” First off, disgusting. Secondly, focus, Kanye. You’re dropping a fashion reference here, but Bathing Ape has nothing to do with space. You might have thought you were referencing Planet of the Apes but you forgot to do so. Later he raps “I’mma disrobe you, then I’mma probe you” and I’ll allow it because it actually accomplishes the duel goals of talking about sex and referencing aliens, but then he mentions Shrek, who is an ogre, not an alien, and I give up! It’s a mess. We cannot analyze “They calling me an alien, a big-headed astronaut / Maybe it’s because your boy Yeezy get ass a lot” here. Who has the time.
This one is just delightful. Katy Perry, never one to settle, has chosen to level up her metaphor songs. She’s gonna tackle a metaphor that she herself doesn’t even understand. A dark horse is an underestimated political candidate, but that means nothing here, and neither do any of the other lyrics. I think this is the ultimate Katy Perry song in that regard.
The meaning of this song is truly anyone’s guess because of the word carnage committed in its writing. I think that this is a song like Taylor Swift’s “…Ready for It?” where the point is warning that if you enter into a relationship with the singer, you’ll be overwhelmed by her intense love. But to be honest, I don’t think it really means anything because by this point Katy has stopped caring about words making sense.
The chorus features no fewer than four metaphors. I’ve helpfully illustrated them for you:
Ooof, that’s rough. You don’t fall for magic once you’re playing with it! I think she means the titular dark horse to be a literal galloping horse! A storm comes into the picture out of nowhere! Later on, latching onto the magic idea but none of the others, Katy promises that her love will make you levitate. Not clear what that means but let’s be charitable and say it means something like “walking on air” or “soaring.” She helpfully adds “like a bird without a cage,” though, so now we need to add zoology under botany on the list of science things Katy doesn’t understand. Birds are not capable of levitation, though they are gifted with the scientifically explicable act of flight. I’m beginning to worry that the sexy bizarre extraterrestrial was Katy herself all along.
Katy claims that this song was going for “witchy, spell-y, kind of black magic-y” vibes, which I don’t think is fully supported by the text. I think Katy just sat down with her team and said “What’s a theme I haven’t used in a video yet? I’ve done aliens, the 80s, jungles, fireworks, Las Vegas, the army, Candy Land, and mourning a fallen soldier after World War I. Oh! Duh! Magic! Wait, aliens are magic. Dark magic! Like witch stuff!” and proceeded to scribble out whatever spooky nonsense popped into her head. And then I guess she called Max Martin and Dr. Luke and said “You know the drill, get this to number 1.”
The video doesn’t even have a witchy theme. It’s set in Egypt and has Twinkies and Cheetos in it. As ever, Katy Perry is just grasping at imagery like a curious Capuchin monkey and setting money on fire like an arsonist on the run. Look, I can mix metaphors too!! Someone give me fourteen People’s Choice Awards and the key to Orlando Bloom’s heart!!
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