Pop stars – and their massive teams – are masters of seamless reinvention. Over the course of a single career, a pop artist takes on numerous personas, each being a reflection of the elements most relevant in culture. Miley Cyrus, for instance, went from vivacious Disney star with all-American charm and a penchant for country vocals to a rapping, MDMA advocating, pansexual, non-binary, self-proclaimed activist over the course of just a few years. These days, Miley has reverted back to her origins, distancing herself from Bangerz and citing the misogyny of hip-hop as one of the reasons for her change of heart.
That Miley has the freedom to dramatically change her belief system, outward appearance and preferred style of music has traditionally been one of the benefits of pop stardom. Even Miley’s past love of rap music, which many are now calling a convenient act of profitable cultural appropriation, can—politics aside—be chalked up to her position as a pop artist to some extent.
Pop is a genre that indulges fantasy over reality. In doing so, it allows fans to recognize the artist as a personality first and an individual second. And because the audience expects to engage in an element of illusion, the line between performance and appropriation inevitably becomes blurred.
Yet over the last decade, a new generation of youth born squarely into the thrall of the internet are questioning every familiar convention of the music industry. Particularly in light of the success of the direct to consumer music model, which is only made more potent by the speed at which information travels. Artists like Chance the Rapper, Desiigner and a host of others have achieved great levels of success while charting their own course in the industry, proving that authenticity and individuality can carry an aspiring musician just as far as a label-created blueprint.
This knowledge seems to be one of the catalysts for the shift away from fantasy-based entertainers; it could also arguably threaten to make the traditional pop star obsolete one day. Today, young people are less interested in engaging with an artistic chameleon and more interested in personalties that feel real and authentic. The evidence of this can be found in the response to Katy Perry’s recent musical efforts.
Perry, who is one of the best-selling artists of all time and the third best-selling singles artist in the United States, has rarely run afoul of her fans. However, the road to her forthcoming album, Witness, has been full of uncharacteristic missteps and an “urban-leaning” direction that is at odds with the image she crafted around 2013’s Prism. Perry’s lead single, the Skip Marley featured “Chained to the Rhythm,” debuted at number four on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart before backsliding to number eight the following week, and then dropping out of the top 10 all together. Despite that, it is still the highest debuting single by a female artist since Adele released the powerhouse that was “Hello.”
Yet in the context of Perry’s past pre-album releases, “Chained to the Rhythm” lacks the staying power of a “Dark Horse” or “California Gurls”. The lukewarm reception is also a bit surprising considering Perry described the attempt at a politically-informed dance track as “purposeful pop,” an angle that artists like Beyonce, Solange and Lady Gaga have proven can be quite successful when well-executed.
“Bon Appétit,” the follow up to “Chained to the Rhythm,” failed to hit the mark as well. First Perry received backlash for featuring Atlanta trio Migos, who made what many felt were homophobic remarks in a Rolling Stone interview earlier in the year. The singer’s fans even took to social media to discuss why the collaboration was directly at odds with Perry’s advocacy for LGBTQ communities. Add to that the riot of food-rooted sex metaphors and formulaic pop lyrics, and some critics felt the song, while effectively upbeat, was far from special. Luckily, “Bon Appétit” did have a saving grace – its bizarre music video. The over-the-top premise and allusions to cannibalism helped Perry break her own YouTube record in just 24 hours.
Next, Perry tried “Swish Swish,” a braggadocios flex anthem featuring a sassy verse from crossover rapper Nicki Minaj. Listeners quickly assumed the song was an answer to Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit “Bad Blood,” which was rumored to be directed at Perry. Oddly, the accepted role of diss tracks in hip-hop doesn’t seem to apply to pop music because almost immediately Swift’s dedicated friend group coordinated a bad blood-style dragging, claiming that Perry was a bully among other things. Considering Perry’s attempt to position herself as a woke activist, bullying is not an accusation she likely wants leveled in her direction.
Watching the album rollout is a bit like being invited into the chrysalis that houses Perry’s metamorphosing form. This time, rather than experiencing Perry emerge triumphantly as a butterfly, we’re seeing the kinks in her reinvention process. Perhaps because this latest persona doesn’t feel quite as effortless as those of the past. Undoubtedly, the increasing disparity between Perry’s “conscious” rhetoric and her identity as a performer plays a role in some of the pushback.
Introducing not one but three singles featuring hip-hop artists, and in the case of “Chained to the Rhythm,” a reggae artist from a legendary family, is vaguely reminiscent of the transitional phase of Bangerz-era Miley. One gets the impression that a formerly inoffensive pop songstress is trying to disrupt in the best way she knows how. And, since kissing a girl and liking it is a bit passé in a time where conventions of gender and sexuality are rapidly disintegrating, incorporating a hodgepodge of social issues with a splash of urban culture is a marketable substitute.
Even her recent SNL performances of “Swish Swish” and “Bon Appétit” called on every trope of radical trendiness that could be packed into twenty minutes.
A sexually liberated Perry laid suggestively atop a dining table as a tempting feast for both genders, (which was totally her choice and thereby uber empowering). Check. A trio of rappers-turned-tastemakers for an extra ounce of grit? Check. An unapologetically out and proud bevy of vogueing drag queens, (in case you forgot Perry’s status as an LGBTQ advocate). Check.
In short, it’s a performance that very intentionally incorporates the flagship social issues and cultural trends of the moment. Of course that doesn’t automatically mean Perry is disingenuous, but it does raise an important question. Is Perry engaging her latest persona from a truly authentic standpoint or is this just a case of the pop juggernaut latching onto the latest paradigm and hoping for a free ride? Her audience, it appears, can’t quite decide.
These atypically skeptical reactions indicate that in our current climate, if a pop artist wants to be perceived as a creator of more than catchy but meaningless music, it is essential that the performer and real personality genuinely align, and that they both consistently stand for (or against) the same things.
For more analysis read up on the glaring problem with the rise of #WokePop.