staring into the void

Katy Perry and the Fear of a Female Planet

Photo: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Katy Perry has recently announced plans to campaign for Hillary Clinton. Given that we’re in the midst of one of the most openly feminist eras of the past three decades, this news isn’t so hard to parse. After all, outspoken superstars like Beyoncé and Rihanna and Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift dominate our stages and screens, offering their assorted flavors of pop empowerment and complicated personal narratives to the masses. In fact, if aliens were tuning in to Spotify right now, they’d probably get the impression that our world is ruled by unapologetic lady outlaws, aggressive, wriggling seductresses, and brash she-creatures emboldened by their zip-up pleather body armor.

But when you pan from these reinvented, super-empowered lady superheroes to Katy Perry, the picture becomes far less threatening and explosive. Because Katy Perry never changes. Her brand is the very essence of reassuring, non-threatening stagnancy. She encapsulates that remaining, silent majority (It never goes away! Don’t fool yourselves!) that doesn’t like to be challenged at all, ever, for any reason — not by women, not by music, not by the weather, not by anything. Where Beyoncé pushes us to accept feminism and strong, assertive women (with a faintly wicked twist), and Taylor Swift pushes us to embrace vulnerability and femininity (with some emotionally volatile undercurrents), Katy Perry pushes such avant-garde, high concepts as teenagers, horny; California girls, awesome; aliens, weird; and kissing girls, actually kinda nice.

In all likelihood, then, Katy Perry’s intention to campaign for Hillary Clinton suggests nothing more than the fact that Katy Perry would prefer to sound like someone who stands for something, even though she isn’t that person and never has been. It’s a nice try. But against a backdrop of female pop stars who push the boundaries of what a woman can do and say and get away with, Katy Perry remains a comforting, nonthreatening attachment object. She is a giant woobie in a time of great change. She is a blank slate, a soothing emotional day spa for those who prefer easy answers. She’s a void with swappable wigs, a tasty nothingburger.

If you think about it, even the most ludicrously manufactured pop stars have at least one or two hints of inner contradiction to them. That’s what makes them interesting. Madonna was virginal but aggressively dominant. Britney was a little girl on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Taylor Swift undercuts her Skipper-doll-in-day-wear-separates exterior with lyrics about rage and being crazy (not like a fox, either). We may not love any of those artists but we believe in their real and in their fake (just as important!). They battle themselves. They’re trying hard. They’re complex.

Katy Perry is as conflicted and complex as a pumpkin-spice rug-and-room deodorizer. She doesn’t have a look. She never changes. The Katy Perry of 2010 is the same as the Katy Perry of 2015. Her hair color is different here and there. That’s it. She wears tight, glittery, rainbow-colored dresses and black eyeliner. Always and forever a Super Star Barbie circa 1988.

Her music is pragmatic pop, no more, no less. It’s the sound of shopping for cool shoes at a giant mall. It’s the sound of eating French fries in the food court with your boyfriend, the one with the nice eyes who has nothing to say beyond the fact that he likes your butt. Katy Perry’s music is all about carefree lingering within the boundaries of the male gaze. “My heart stops when you look at me,” she sings. “I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock,” she tells the guys, and she’s not remotely conflicted about it. “You are the actor, I am the acted-upon,” she seems to say. “Go ahead and fill me with your poison already.”

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag — not because you’re polluting the oceans, but because you “want to start again,” presumably by being recycled? So does Katy Perry. But then she remembers that she’s a firework. Singular. Think for a minute about what it takes to be the kind of person who can sing the word firework like it’s an actual word, over and over and over again, without feeling the faintest hint of self-loathing.

Katy Perry is a winner, not a loser. She belongs. She is never out of step with anything. She is Über-normal. She is never neurotic and never second-guesses herself. She takes everything at face value. Katy Perry would never disavow fame like Lorde or embrace fame like Swift or ask “Miley, what’s good?” like Nicki Minaj. Katy Perry is Mariah Carey without the amazing voice or the bubbly script written in a glitter pen. Katy Perry is Britney Spears without the dance moves and the natural bubbly appeal and the nervous breakdown. Katy Perry is Kate Bush without the everything.

This is how Katy Perry answers a question about the inspiration for her songs in 2014: “I saw all these people roller-skating to Deep House in Central Park, and I was with one of my best friends, Mia. And I just looked at her and I was like, ‘You know, I think EDM is out and Deep House is coming in, like I think I can feel that coming back even though it was really big in the ‘90s.’ And so I was like, ‘I want to do a big voice diva kind of song’ and I took that to Stockholm and ‘Walking On Air’ came out of it.”

In other words, to Katy Perry, inspiration and “predicting” the next trend (not really predicting but observing the next trend and then acting like you predicted it) are exactly the same thing. In Katy Perry’s own words, she’s not creating stuff that moves her or wells up from within her. She’s doing simple math. This is why her sound is the audio version of something you’d buy on a sale rack at Target. Target sale racks serve their function, but they’re not about to move you to tears or piss you off or change the world.

But then, pissing people off and changing the world aren’t exactly the key talents of successful politicians, either. As fun as it is at this point in the presidential campaign to imagine that some unapologetic outlaw or aggressive, embolded creature could be the next president, we all know, based on the history of politics in this country, that letting your anger show or dwelling on your complicated personal narrative or lingering over-long on the messes and the ugliness we face as a planet do not land you in the Oval Office. So in truth, Katy Perry is exactly the kind of safe, nonthreatening, middle-of-the-road nothingburger that every candidate wants in their camp: one who sometimes feels like a plastic bag, but solves this problem not by regulating plastic-bag use or declaring war on global-warming apologists, but by focusing on something idealistic and imaginary and frankly, stupid: A FIREWORK.

We might want girls to rule the world, true to Beyoncé’s prophecy, but most people still fear a female planet pretty deeply. Hillary Clinton knows that better than anyone. Remember the ‘70s? Remember how outspoken the women were back then? Remember how we thought everything would be changed forever? We were wrong.

So while we may hope for the best for Clinton, Katy Perry can only serve as a helpful reminder of what happens when all of the bluster and the pulpit-pounding die down. Because like every retrogressive, subtly anti-empowerment movement to gently but steadily erode the hard-charging swagger of mainstream feminism before her, Katy Perry represents the status quo. Marilyn Monroe, without the second-guessing and the darkness. Sandra Dee, without the alcoholism. Katy Perry reminds us that all of the progress we’ve made could still disappear into thin air at any moment. Her steady, uncomplicated candy-coated persona, her lady sound that never steps on any toes, offer a safe place to hide out until the storm passes and everything goes back to the way it was before.

Katy Perry and the Fear of a Female Planet