Katy Perry's Journey To "Purposeful Pop" Has Been A Long Time Coming
Dressed in a white pantsuit adorned with a "PERSIST" armband, a not-so-subtle nod to Elizabeth Warren, Katy Perry wore her politics on her sleeve at the Grammys. Fitting, being that Perry's performance of "Chained To The Rhythm," a tongue-in-cheek track that asks you to "dance to the distortion" of a Donald Trump presidency with your rose-colored glasses on, was filled with political statements. It even ended with the singer fading into the Constitution, "We the people" in giant letters. After a year of supporting Hillary Clinton, Perry's new song — her first since her Rio Olympic anthem "Rise" — is mirroring her own political leanings. It's not the first time the singer has tried to send a larger social message with her music, but it's the first time she's doing it so unapologetically.
Her foray into #wokepop is a step in a new direction, but it's one that she hopes will become the new normal. "We gonna call this era Purposeful Pop," Perry tweeted shortly after premiering the track. It speaks to real issues in a real way, just as Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar have been doing for the last few years. With "Chained To The Rhythm," the singer questions her own blindspots and forces you to think about your own while also echoing something former President Barack Obama said in his farewell address. "So comfortable, we're living in a bubble, bubble," she sings. "So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble."
It's a bold and decisive message from someone who started her career with a titillating song about kissing a girl and liking it. After releasing "I Kissed A Girl" in 2008, Perry denied it was based on a true story, forcing it to lose some of its political weight. The lightweight and controversial pop song doesn't seem like a LGBTQ+ anthem, but it could have sent a bold message at a time when it was still politically sound to not support same-sex marriage. During his first presidential campaign, for example, President Obama would support civil unions, not same-sex marriage.
Five years later, Perry talked about "I Kissed A Girl" with W Magazine and admitted it was “a bit radical to sing about bisexuality." It was a song she sang "with a wink," but it could have meant more, and she realized that. "It may be a fun little pop song," the singer would tell W. "But sometimes fun little pop songs most clearly express the zeitgeist.”
That's a theme throughout Perry's career, that she writes songs that make bold statements, but downplays the political aspects. This isn't surprising. Being forthright with your opinions is usually not a "likable" quality, especially when you're a woman, something Jennifer Lawrence emphasized in a 2015 Lenny Letter article about the gender wage gap. The tide, though, is turning and Perry's smart enough to see that.
There's no better example of that than her wavering stance on feminism. In 2012, Perry received Billboard's Woman of the Year and, in her speech, let the world know she wasn't a feminist. It was a surprising statement from a woman whose song "Firework" encouraged women and men to find confidence and strength in themselves. The singer would tell the crowd, "I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women."
It was a Feminist Lite moment, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say in her latest book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Perry would begin to change that stance over the years, later telling an Australian radio DJ in 2014 after releasing her female anthem "Roar," that, perhaps, she was a feminist after all. "I used to not really understand what that word meant," she said, "and now that I do, it just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men."
To be fair, this struggle with the f-word is something a lot of pop stars have done. Even after Beyoncé was posing in front of a pretty-in-pink "Feminist" sign at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, she was telling us by December 2014 that she was a humanist. It's no surprise these two pop stars have become more active in their political leanings in the last couple of years; the truth is, not speaking up in 2017 means you're part of the problem. It's no longer OK to be quiet and complacent.
With "Chained To The Rhythm," Perry's letting her fans know where she stands. So is her Twitter bio, which now reads: “Artist. Activist. Conscious." This isn't saying you can't ignore the political overtones of the track if you disagree with Perry's stance, but she's no longer trying to mask them in partisan messages.
The thing is that Perry's always been political. She's just finally ready to admit it — and the world's ready for her to, too.