When did Katy Perry become woke?
While there are certainly more important questions we could be asking right now—like are we going to be ok, and could you please point me towards the entrance of the panic room?—there’s no time like the present for a frank conversation about the artist formerly known as Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson.
Before 2015, Katy Perry was the pop star who shot whipped cream out of her tits. There were approximately two interesting things to know about Katy Perry: she was raised by Evangelical ministers, and she named her cat Kitty Purry. Then the presidential campaign of the century hit the U.S. like a tornado, and Perry found herself picked up and turned around. Once a proponent of frivolous, trendy pop, Katy Perry transformed into a chief peddler of Hillary Clinton propaganda. She followed the Secretary of State across the country, touting her accomplishments and singing her praises in a series of increasingly patriotic ensembles. She emblazoned her outfits with Hillary slogans, brightened up the campaign circuit with red, white and blue bustiers, and concocted this half-turban. There was nothing Katy Perry wouldn’t wear if it would help elect the first female president.
Unfortunately, the best laid plans of well-meaning wardrobe consultants often go awry. Having edged out her competition to become the more-or-less official entertainer of HRC’s campaign, Perry was justifiably heartbroken when election night didn’t go according to plan. If you’ve ever felt like a plastic bag—drifting through the wind, wanting to start again—then you can imagine how Katy Perry took Trump’s victory. Perry was so certain of her candidate’s fate she had even gifted Clinton with a POTUS nameplate necklace. That’s got to hurt.
Ready for four years of White House performances and lady power, Perry was, like so many of us, totally blind-sided and slightly humiliated. That being said, Clinton’s defeat has, unexpectedly, led to good things for Katy Perry.
Here’s the thing: Katy Perry was never a political artist. She was trendy, sure, but not quite cool. Rudderless, without a strong personal brand or a cause to make her righteous. If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, Katy Perry would still be just Katy Perry: a famous white lady whose feminism was predictably limited to endorsing a fellow white lady’s political campaign. In other words, Perry would have been just another complacent, cheerful celeb offering vacuous musings on girl power and glass ceilings.
But this is Donald Trump’s America, aka four years of opposite day. Justifiably pissed off by the election, Perry has assumed an alien identity as an outsider, a resistance leader, and a celebrity with something to say. Hillary Clinton’s loss gave Katy Perry a purpose. She changed her twitter bio to “Artist. Activist. Conscious.” She regularly instagrams about social justice issues. And when she performed at the 2017 Grammys, it was in a white pantsuit and matching “persist” armband. At the end of the song, Perry shouted, “No hate!” and the Constitution flashed on the screen behind her. So obviously, that’s some sort of political statement. But does anyone, let alone Katy Perry, actually know what she’s saying?
Katy Perry believes that Black Lives Matter. She loves Hillary Clinton, and thinks that Donald Trump is a “scary, controlling guy.” She supports Planned Parenthood, and does not care for Betsy DeVos. While all of these opinions are a new look for Perry, they don’t change the fact that she’s historically presented herself as apolitical. Perry doesn’t exactly have causes—despite what her Twitter bio might say, she doesn’t organize marches or deliver fiery speeches condemning Trump’s policies or his incompetent administration. In fact, Perry is more likely to talk about the idea of “Political Katy Perry”—her rapidly evolving conception of self—than to actually discuss Katy Perry’s politics. Nowhere is this more evident than on May’s Vogue cover, which features the pop star in head to toe Comme de Garcons. “If you have a voice, use it,” the cover cries out. And there she is, Katy Perry, fashionable and startling with her messy halo of platinum blonde hair.
The accompanying Hamish Bowles profile offers insight into how Katy Perry sees herself. When asked about her political views, she explains, “I don’t think you have to shout it from the rooftops…but I think you have to stand for something, and if you’re not standing for anything, you’re really just serving yourself, period, end of story. ‘California Gurls’ and fluffy stuff would be completely inauthentic to who I am now and what I’ve learned,” she adds. “I do believe we need a little escapism, but I think that it can’t all be that. If you have a voice you have a responsibility to use it now, more than ever.”
Perry is deliberating offering herself up in opposition to other female pop stars—you just know that Taylor Swift is on the tip of her tongue. Perry wants to be known as the real girl power pop star; not to be confused with fake feminists and self-serving millionaires who can’t even be bothered to hashtag #ImWithHer. Of course, the idea that Perry is distancing herself from her frivolous oeuvre and apolitical ways is sorta bullshit. Perry’s new, “authentic” offerings are songs like “Chained To The Rhythm.” Much like Perry herself, this single and accompanying music video clearly want to be taken seriously. It takes place in “Oblivia,” a theme park where Perry and her music video co-stars cycle through rides that “make you crazier and crazier.”
According to the Vogue story: “The rides are metaphors for such contemporary concerns as the mortgage and loan crises, the poisoned-water catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, and ‘the addiction we get from posting and curating our lives on social media to look like they’re perfect, when they’re not,’ as Perry notes.” Of course, those specific crises don’t really come across in “Chained To The Rhythm,” a forgettable pop song that overconfidently presents itself as a societal critique.
Oft-described as a sartorial and musical chameleon, Perry is the queen of co-option, sampling from aesthetics and latching on to trends. Sometimes this habit is fun and harmless; other times, it’s appropriative and poorly thought through. Lest we forget, Perry has been consistently referred to as the face of cultural appropriation. She was called out by the internet for going above and beyond the appropriation of her pop star contemporaries, churning out offensive music videos that pulled from African-American, Asian, and Egyptian tropes. Perry has dressed in pseudo-Native American garb at Coachella, donned “yellow face” at the 2013 AMAs, and sported gelled-down baby hairs while speaking in a “blaccent.” When confronted by Rolling Stone on multiple counts of cultural appropriation, Perry responded, “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it…I know that’s a quote that’s gonna come to fuck me in the ass, but can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don’t know.”
Let’s put it another way: Katy Perry’s name is so synonymous with cultural appropriation, John Mayer invented a whole disco dojo to try and win her back.
And while Katy Perry has been consistently criticized by people of color, she’s also a polarizing figure within LGBTQ communities. Perry has had a complicated relationship with the LGBTQs long before her current coiffure. Clearly, Perry is taking fashion notes from the queer community. In her Vogue profile, she describes her current aesthetic as “androgynous, architectural.” Of course, like many other female pop stars, Perry has consistently sported looks that can be traced back to campy aesthetics and drag culture. Perry’s homages are complicated by the fact that she has not always been an ally. Who can forget “Ur So Gay,” an early Perry track mocking an ex-boyfriend. “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf / While jacking off listening to Mozart” it begins, culminating in the line: “You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys.”
But everybody makes mistakes, right? Unfortunately, Perry’s next go at non-heterosexuality, “I Kissed a Girl,” similarly pissed off a whole lot of people. Riot grrrl legend Kathleen Hanna called the bi-curious track “straight up offensive,” explaining, “The whole thing is like, I kissed a girl so my boyfriend could masturbate about it later. It’s disgusting. It’s exactly every male fantasy of fake lesbian porn.”
But Perry wouldn’t be such a problematic figure in the queer community if she didn’t make such a show of her allyship. It’s not just that the pop star has proudly called herself a “gay activist.” She’s also collected numerous honors and accolades for her seemingly non-existent LGBTQ activism. As far as I can tell, Perry’s active allyship begins and ends at her music video for “Firework,” the inspirational track that she dedicated to the It Gets Better Campaign. While the video features two boys kissing at a dance party, its vague lyrics suggest that it wasn’t actually written with queer solidarity in mind. Featuring a gay couple is a sweet idea, but doesn’t exactly counteract Perry’s lyrical history of mocking effeminate men, using “gay” as a slur, and trivializing lesbianism as a naughty experiment. Oh, and Perry once described her over-the-top looks to Rolling Stone as “full tranny.”
Still, none of this has stopped Perry from appearing on the 2008 OUT 100 cover—begging the question: couldn’t you find an actual lesbian?—and collecting allyship awards from the Trevor Project and the Human Rights Campaign. As Autostraddle’s Riese pointed out, Perry has done very little for the LGBTQ community beyond being pro-equality, a political stance that’s fairly commonplace among her generation of pop stars. While she donates to a number of AIDS-related causes, there don’t seem to be any explicitly gay non-profits on her giving list—not even the HRC, which just awarded her their National Equality Award. As Riese writes, “It is troubling that Perry’s honoring fits into a longstanding tradition of gay organizations headed up by cis white men often elevating straight artists who produce sanitized and desexualized queer representation rather than promoting more authentic work that might challenge the status quo.”
If that weren’t enough, Perry has been remarkably silent concerning Kesha’s allegations of sexual assault and abuse at the hands of songwriter Dr. Luke—the man responsible for producing most of Perry’s biggest hits, including “I Kissed a Girl,” “Hot n Cold,” “Teenage Dream,” “California Gurls,” and “Roar.” Furthermore, unlike Kristen Stewart, who skewered our pussy grabber-in-chief on Saturday Night Live, Perry hasn’t said a peep about Donald Trump’s bizarre obsession with her love life.
All of this isn’t to question Katy Perry’s ability to grow and evolve as a person, or the sincerity of her disappointment with the current political climate. If we are comparing Perry to Taylor Swift, as she so clearly wants us to do, it’s clear that Katy is the more politically active pop star. For a mainstream celebrity, she’s brought an impressive amount of awareness—basically just in the form of tweets and Instagrams, but still—to important causes like trans rights and Planned Parenthood. Unfortunately for guilty millennials worldwide, Instagramming about important issues isn’t exactly activism. Awareness is important, and encouraging young fans to find their voices, whatever that means, is admirable. But if Katy Perry really wants to be the voice of her generation—or a voice, of a generation—she has to realize that speaking up about how she’s speaking out isn’t enough. It’s not enough to use your voice—you have to weaponize it.
If the pop star took half the time and effort she spends on presenting herself as a political, “purposeful” performer, and actually went out and organized (or, at the very least, used her platform to highlight real activists and the work that they do), she might actually be worthy of her own Twitter bio.