29 April 2011

On Katy Perry

If you had told me I would one day write a blog post in tribute of Katy Perry, I'd have thought you crazy.  Of course, I also would have balked at the notion that in 2011 we would see state governments overturn child labor laws from 1847 and overthrow locally-elected officials.  Here's the thing, though: I think Perry is a perfect microcosm for exploring some topical subjects.

How do you dislike anyone
willing to dress like Jessica Rabbit?
There is no more meritocratic career than art.  The only way to succeed is to hone one's craft until the formula of


talent + opportunity = audience.

Katy Perry grew up singing in church, learning about the physical and artistic skills of vocal performance.  This is not a referendum on what you may think of Perry's vocal skills; rather, the point is that she didn't just up and decide in a vacuum to begin singing for a living.  She had the opportunity as a member of her congregation to sing in public, the encouragement of her family to develop the self-confidence to pursue singing professionally and eventually found a record label willing to take a chance on her.

If Perry's family says to her, "It's one thing to sing in church, but you can't be serious about trying to go pro," maybe the world never hears her.  There are millions of talented people who were discouraged from ever pursuing their dreams and working with their natural talents.  I have a cousin who sings beautifully, and I fear that if she decided she wanted to do more singing than high school chorus someone in our family would scold her for having unrealistic fantasies.

Before adopting the stage name Katy Perry, she recorded an eponymous gospel album (as Katy Hudson) released by Red Hill Records shortly before it folded.  She wrote or co-wrote every one of the album's ten songs, a perfect example of how art is both a collaborative medium and one that relies on the individual talents of artists.  If you read this and shrug, "Big deal," I defy you to write ten songs--go ahead, even use your friends for help--and then sing all ten.  Now go back and do it until they're ten songs you honestly think someone else will want to hear, and that they'll want to hear you sing them.  Maybe you can do it.  I know I can't.

In 2008, of course, she had her breakthrough as a pop artist with her second single (and the first of hers to chart), "I Kissed a Girl."  When I first heard the song I admit I was a bit excited--I've long been a proponent of LGBT rights and hoped this would spark meaningful national discussion.  Then I found out it was basically a tease meant to titillate adolescent males turned on by girl-on-girl action, and I dismissed it.  But after a while, I gave in and used some of my My Coke Rewards points to buy the song from Rhapsody and I don't even know how many times I've played it in the last couple of years.  It's addictive and fun.  And even though I still see it as falling short of what I would have liked it to have been, I'm hopeful that somewhere out there is a teenage girl who feels better about her own sexual curiosities because of this song (though I hope she won't feel the need to make out with another girl just to get the attention of a boy).  It also opens the door for conversations between youth and their parents, and I applaud that.  Perry's detractors might dismiss her as a hypocrite, but I agree with her that there should be room on the pew for the LGBT community.

I read a delightful anecdote in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone about Perry calling on a friend of hers when the time came to make her second pop album (third release, counting her Katy Hudson gospel album). Perry met Bonnie McKee before she hit the big time, and called on her for songwriting assistance on "Part of Me."  McKee went on to co-write three of the songs on Teenage Dream ("Teenage Dream," "California Gurls" and "Last Friday Night [T.G.I.F.]").  Now, McKee--who had released an album of her own that went ignored--has been signed by Dr. Luke's publishing company.  Everyone likes to think that if they hit the big time they'll remember the little people, but Perry actually did it.  McKee has a new opportunity to work with her talents, after languishing since her album flopped in 2004.

Bonnie McKee and Katy Perry.
Photo from iheartkatyperry.tumblr.com.
A side anecdote in the Rolling Stone piece I found interesting: The two went skinny-dipping in the Atlantic and Perry was swept away by a wave.  McKee "dived in after Perry and fished her out, Baywatch-stye," as Gavin Edwards put it.
Perry is a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Performers (ASCAP), meaning her work is protected by a union.  In addition to protecting the copyrights of its members and fighting for all due royalties, ASCAP provides benefits including health insurance.  Not every member hits the big time like Perry has, and it's understood that the protections and benefits of membership are good things to be preserved.  Everyone in the music business belongs to at least one such union, and while I've occasionally heard members say they wish their unions were more aggressive on their behalf, I've never once heard of anyone say that ASCAP is responsible for destroying the music industry or that the veteran artists in the twilight of their careers should be thrown to the wolves.  I suspect McKee and Perry both appreciated their membership even when it wasn't easy to pay their dues.  So think about this: Katy Perry has better protection as a worker than what teachers and emergency workers in Wisconsin are expected to have.  I don't know about you, but that upsets me...and it's not because I resent Perry for what she has.

Thanks to her success--for which she has undoubtedly worked very hard, in an extremely competitive industry, vying for the attention of the fickle public--Katy Perry is now a One Percenter.  How many girls in Afghanistan or Sudan will grow up to have a career like hers?  Their greatest concern is whether they'll be mutilated and raped before they eat dinner.  Again, I don't begrudge Perry in the least, and I suspect if you asked her she'd tell you she's damn grateful to have lived here where she's had the opportunity to become successful using her talents.

Make no mistake: I believe Katy Perry has earned every penny she has.  She has a talent as a songwriter and as a performer, and I think it's terrific that she or anyone would be able to tap into those talents like she has.  But I also don't see anything wrong with raising Katy Perry's taxes to help pay for the kinds of social programs that other Americans who haven't hit the big time need.  I believe that Americans should enjoy everything that ASCAP does for its members.  The A-listers pay into the system even when they're so successful they could do without it, because they know what it was like when they were at the bottom and how important ASCAP was then.

Here's just one example of how America and public spending has contributed to Katy Perry's success:  Perry is coming to Louisville 10 September, to perform at the newly built KFC Yum! Center.  The new venue, owned by the Louisville Arena Authority and operated by the Kentucky State Fair Board, cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, and like nearly every other venue in America much of it came from public funds.  The seating capacity for an end-stage concert is 17,500 people; tickets are priced at $38 and $48 apiece.  I don't know the breakdown between how much Yum! gets, how much Perry gets, her promoter, band members, etc., but those are very modest ticket prices--I applaud Perry for her pricing scheme at a time in her career when she could have charged twice that--and the show is still guaranteed to make a sizable chunk of change.  And she should; Perry has built an audience willing to pay $38 and $48 to see her live show.


I know most people balk whenever the subject arises of using public funds to build these kinds of venues.  It may surprise you, but I'm not one of them.  I agree that we should address our needs first, and hopes second.  It's now estimated that Yum! will actually post a profit of $196,000 this year.  That's a healthy return.  I can already tell you that Yum! is having a positive economic impact on its neighborhood.  My wife and I went out one night a while back with her step-sister to go to the Old Spaghetti Factory across the street from Yum! on a game night.  The parking garage, typically $5 I think, was $15 that night...and it was at capacity.

It's a state-of-the-art facility, the kind of place that has already brought Lady Gaga to town, with Taylor Swift scheduled for July and Perry in September.  Previously, the only shows that came to Louisville were country and established classic rock acts.  And most of those scheduled their shows as part of the Kentucky State Fair in August, meaning that you had two weeks full of shows, but rarely anything noteworthy the rest of the year.  Up and comers still play free shows here and there, but A-listers in recent years have taken to booking their shows in Lexington, Cincinnati and Evansville.  It's good for the community of Louisville to be on the itinerary again.

Because Perry's family encouraged her, because Capitol Records took a chance on her and because the Louisville Arena  approved the construction of Yum!, there's a very good chance that a young woman in Louisville has heard a song that encouraged her to not be shamed by her sexual curiosity, and now she'll have the opportunity to pay $38 to go see Katy Perry in concert.  The state of Kentucky and Louisville Metro will make money from the show.  I consider every part of that formula a good thing.

Somewhere out there is a little girl singing in school or church, and her family has the opportunity to foster self-confidence in their daughter and encourage her if she feels drawn to pursue her talent.  I hope they do.  There's a record label executive being asked to take a chance on a young woman, and I hope he does.  There's a city council considering a proposal to finance a new venue, and I hope they do (you know, as long as it's not near Louisville).

3 comments:

  1. I just want to focus in on a tiny fraction of your post and acknowledge the dual pulls in a song like "I kissed a girl" on the one hand to maybe make the topic more accessible for more people, but on the other hand risking to trivialise the experience due to using it as a gimmick only.

    I've seen people argue for either side of that debate, but personally I think that given the tide towards social progressivism that even the more fanatical elements on the right hasn't been able to stop from making gay marriage poll better every month that passes, that anything that gives people permission to talk about things is bound to be a good thing overall.

    When more girls that want to start feeling it's actually okay to kiss another girl, then the manufactured sentiment of that song will be quickly forgotten.

    (And the rest of the post is great too)

    - Arthur

    ReplyDelete
  2. As I said, starting to post again, I need to start with what I know and one thing I know is boobies and this girl has a penchant for outfits that certainly haven't hurt her success, but may have damaged the amount of respect she gets from people who so quickly overlook the points about personal drive and encouragement that you have made regarding what it takes to create a successful music career. One of the things I appreciate about Lady Gaga, she openly discusses not being happy with how she looks but also not wanting to change it because she wants to be more than that and show that such things shouldn't be handicaps to what someone can achieve.
    I love the new arena. Say what you want about 4th Street Live but the pincer strategy of developing that entertainment complex and the arena a reasonable walking distance from one another has gone a long way towards revitalizing the downtown area between the two venues.
    And on the subject of the dealings in Wisconsin, it's all a waiting game. As you said, the teachers AND emergency workers are affected as public employees. It snows a hell of a lot in Wisconsin, so it'll be interesting to see how thoroughly the public workers who salt roads and clear snow approach their work in the red counties versus the blue.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I just want to focus in on a tiny fraction of your post and acknowledge the dual pulls in a song like "I kissed a girl" on the one hand to maybe make the topic more accessible for more people, but on the other hand risking to trivialise the experience due to using it as a gimmick only.

    I've seen people argue for either side of that debate, but personally I think that given the tide towards social progressivism that even the more fanatical elements on the right hasn't been able to stop from making gay marriage poll better every month that passes, that anything that gives people permission to talk about things is bound to be a good thing overall.

    When more girls that want to start feeling it's actually okay to kiss another girl, then the manufactured sentiment of that song will be quickly forgotten.

    (And the rest of the post is great too)

    - Arthur

    ReplyDelete