Band: Katy Perry
Album: Prism
Best song: “Roar,” I guess.
Worst song: “Unconditionally” is bad.

Despite my general disdain for the National Football League, I really like having a party for its biggest event. I would agree with what Natalie Shure said this year.

Secondarily, I make chili, get some desserts and have people over. Also, the Super Bowl always falls near my birthday, so the get-together gets to be a pseudo birthday party I throw for myself. I get all the good things about such a party (get my friends in one place, eat like a glutton, etc.), without having to be the center of attention.

I find the NFL to be generally deplorable and am not particular fan of football (outside of my general sports fandom) and this year was absolutely an exercise in that. The Patriots and Seahawks were, to me, pretty hateable teams, so I was more interested in the halftime show than the game and way more intersted in making chili than anything else.

That said, Katy Perry put on a spectacular halftime show. In fact, her entire being was sort of created for such an event.

Perry is so very of her time. I can’t say that’s a compliment or an insult; it’s more of an insult to the early 21 century that an artist of her skills (or lack thereof) can be so emblematic of the pop music landscape in 2015.

Indeed, what does Perry do well? She’s a perfectly serviceable singer, but few would say her voice is memorable or strong. She’s a pretty lady, but no one thinks her the most beautiful woman in the world. She can’t dance to save her life (notice her choreography during the halftime show. She was shoehorned into not dancing). She doesn’t appear — in her public comments or life — to have ever said anything particular interesting and her music is anything but groundbreaking. The arrangements tend to be whatever flavor of the month is and the lyrics are muddled messes of phrases. Her videos echo that, with bizarre combinations of 1960s-esque idiosyncrasies.

Look at “Dark Horse.”

The song’s arrangement hits a very current style, complete with the trap drum sound and a modified man’s voice “never going back” to end the hook. Juicy J’s contribution is minimal and, seemingly, jammed in there to get a hot rapper in there. I’m guessing he was not choice no. 1.

The lyrics make zero sense. “Play with magic” sounds enough like “play with matches” that it seems like someone misheard the common idiom. I’m not sure the songwriters — or 7.9 million people who bought the single — know what a “dark horse” is, nor do they care. She talks about a “bird in a cage” in the second verse, for some reason. In a song that was written to sound like “black magic,” she somehow references Aphrodite (with a video — which we’ll get to in a minute — set in ancient Egypt). It’s just a melange of phrases and lyrical references that a high school dropout might hear and thing “Hey! I’ve heard of that! I’m not an idiot!”

The video is eye-catching and, uh, problematic, but it’s hardly anything that seems like it was malevolent or intended to be playing on any ethnic stuff. Rather, it seems like no one in the Perry camp thought it out and she simply said “let’s get some cool visuals and throw them together.” There’s a vague plot about Perry as Cleopatra having suitors — one guy looks like King Hippo with Kid n Play hair, one guy looks vaguely like a merchant from the market scene in Aladdin, etc. — bring her foods, jewels and the like. She’s wearing what appears to be Minnie Mouse ears with colorful jewels thrown up on them. The video is a melange of colors, vague visual references to things Perry saw in the world.

And that’s Perry’s genius. She takes things that are memorable, dips them in bright colors and presents them to the world to see. Like a somehow stupider Buzzfeed list, Perry constantly elbows fans and screams “Remember this? This is a thing that you’ve heard of!” Substance is non-existent.

Let’s take a quick tangent to tell an anecdote:

A year ago, I met a friend for drinks at the wonderful Iron Horse taproom here in DC. My friend is terrifically out-of-the-loop when it comes to pop culture (she recently sent me an email about how good Deadwood is) and I pay attention to pop music only via the ether that is Gawker blogs. So, we drank by the window of Iron Horse and saw a parade of girls and their moms walking by the bar on their way to nearby Verizon Center, all dressed either as Tarzan-themed warriors or some sort of cupcake creature. My friend and I were utterly confused until I saw someone with a homemade t-shirt referencing Perry and it clicked to me that Perry must’ve been playing a show at the arena that night. Turns out she sold out the 20,000ish seat arena and gave the kids who played dress-up quite a great show.

Perry doesn’t have a unifying theme to her work other than that: Playing dress-up. In a world where videos aren’t particularly important, Perry continues to make them for all of her singles and they all have a strong visual theme. Cupcakes and sweets, aliens, fireworks, some Tarzan thing, sun-drenched Instagram-filtered California fun, whatever the hell that adolescent date-rape hell “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is, etc. She’s not concerned about any of it making particular sense, but rather that the viewer enjoys and, more importantly, remembers it. Putting phrases we all know like “dark horse” and Aphrodite in there are the point. It doesn’t matter if we understand. The image and remembering of said image are what matters.

And her Super Bowl show was like that.

Katy Perry Super Bowl Halftime Show 2015 – FULL… by abzzzOfficial

She came out singing “Roar” on a lion or maybe it was a tiger and was wearing a shirt that looked like something Guy Fieri would look at and say “holy shit, that’s crazy.” She did part of “Dark Horse” on a chess board with people (I guess?), then brought out Lenny Kravitz — basically elbowing us with a “remember him?!?!?!?” — to do a bit of “I Kissed a Girl.” Why? Who cares. It was a guest!

Then, she changed clothes to do the highlight of the show. The utterly meme-able two-shot of “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream” had her and her dancers dressed like Annette Funicello in Bleach Blanket Bingo and, more importantly, “dancing” (note: Perry herself was just vaguely gesturing in a sorta rhythmic white-girl way) next to anthropomorphic surfboards, beach balls, palm trees and the infamous Left Shark. It was easily the best part of the show and only because it was made to go nuts on Twitter because it made about zero sense to anyone not on drugs.

Perry then brought out criminally underrated producer (and properly rated rapper) Missy Elliott to do bits of a few of her songs, including “Get Ur Freak On.” Of course, for part of it, Perry just jumped around arrhythmically and yelled, like the world’s worst-equipped hype woman, inserting herself again to jab the viewer and essentially ask if we remembered Elliott (forgetting that Elliott’s best song was the groundbreaking and utterly brilliant “The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly]”) from her heyday 15 years ago.

Finishing the set was Perry strapped onto The More You Know star with a Wiimote strapped to her, belting out “Firework.” The strap and star were two more pieces of trivia that blogs picked up and Twitter went nuts for, which is probably what they were looking for.

References, all. She and her team picked and chose things that people would remember because they didn’t fit together. Or, if we’re being generous, she was Simpsons-esque in her post-modernism by fitting old pieces of culture into a blender and showing the viewers what modern culture has become. Either way, memorable was the goal and memorable it was.

Ultimately, does pop need substance? Two of Perry’s biggest hits are simple empowerment anthems, a song type that’s sorely needed in a world where preteen and teenage girls — Perry’s biggest fans — are constantly told they are garbage. “Firework” is a mildly homophobic — I actually have issue with the idea that it’s destructive, but that’s a conversation for another ay — punchline for The Interview, but mass media representations of self-esteem like that song are valuable. Adults may not think the song to be anything of particular value — I like singing it to my dog, but I’m deranged — but it’s not for us. Ditto “Roar.” When I was a kid, it was the lyrics to “Search and Destroy” and “20th Century Boy” served those purposes for little boys, outside of the fact that the culture at large tells little boys to be great. Perry’s music, however goofy, fills an empowerment void, at times. Even “Dark Horse” sells the singer — even if said singer is singing into a hairbrush — as a titan.

And those are her two audiences for her halftime show. The first is the girls who love her message of self-esteem in a world that gives them little of that. The other, as referenced above, is the Super Bowl viewer who doesn’t particularly care for or know her music and just wants something to remember. Say what you will about Perry, she’s hard to ignore.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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