Katy Perry, Taylor Swift: Music's Mean Girls -- Contrarian Corner
Katy Perry’s 3-D extravaganza Part of Me hit theaters this week. Obvious self-reflective implications aside, it’s strange that Perry chose this title from her collection because it’s lyrically the least Katy Perry-ish song in her repertoire. “Part of Me” foregoes the whipped-cream-and-rainbows sensibility that so perplexes (and captivates) my colleague Annie Barrett. It speaks of overcoming adversity and seeks self-empowerment. It’s also a hit job.
I’m not here to sift through the dross surrounding Perry’s divorce from Russell Brand. And I can’t fault Perry for documenting the unraveling of the relationship in the documentary — not to do so would be as glossy and inauthentic as one of her lolliprops. Still, it seems this song speaks to a potential directional shift in girl pop that, frankly, is troubling. Perry and her fellow hit-churner Taylor Swift have taken the break-up song to a new level, crucifying their exes publicly — to massive success. It begs the question: When did a few cute girls’ personal burn books turn into the American songbook?
Perry and Swift certainly aren’t reinventing the wheel with these heartbreak anthems. All great songs arguably have something to do with love — whether it’s the ecstasy of falling in, the agony of falling out, or a deeply shallow passion for party rocking. Like Perry, Rihanna used the hard-edged Rated R to wade through the wreckage of her romance with on-again, off-again boyfriend Chris Brown. She has wisely moved on in subsequent years and “Found Love” — not to mention her biggest hit to date. And, of course, no conversation about break-up songs would be complete without mentioning Adele. Like Swift, Adele’s blockbuster 21 chronicles every moment of a relationship withering on the vine. And yet Adele’s M.O. feels different, less tawdry, if only because she has steadfastly refused to name the man who spurned her. To do so, she said, would empower him.
Now stack that up against songs like “Dear John,” the tune in which Swift set her sights on former fling John Mayer, or nearly every other track on Speak Now (which made history when all 17 of its songs and remixes found a place on the Billboard Hot 100). Swift has sought to fortify herself by issuing emotional hits (in every sense on the word) against her lovers done wrong. Adding fuel to the fire, she’s been explicit about the men who have inspired her songs (sometimes more cryptically than others). Much of this can be attributed to age. Swift is still only 22. Fame notwithstanding, it’s a very self-centered age. It’s also a demographically desirable one — a bridge when young girls can look up to her and older women can still consider her a contemporary. With that in mind, what message does it send when Swift uses her guitar as a pitchfork and her voice as a torch to lead a musical witch hunt? Sure, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Martina McBride (to name a few) have all had a vengeful hit or two about no-good men. Taylor Swift has made a career on them.
Unlike Swift, Perry has not artistically laid her love life bare with any regularity. She flirted with confessional songwriting in Teenage Dream deep cut “Circle the Drain,” a song about extricating oneself from a relationship with an addict that was widely considered to be about her ex-fiancé (and Gym Class Heroes frontman) Travie McCoy. In March, after her Grammys debut of “Part of Me,” she denied the track was about Brand. But her admission that it didn’t fit in with the rest of Teenage Dream and her decision to debut the song in her first public, post-divorce filing performance speak volumes. Like Swift, Perry is not purging the ugliness from her life. She is capitalizing on it, wallowing in it for personal and financial gain. Only her vendetta anthem involves a thumping beat instead of a banjo strum.
NEXT: Do Swift and Perry promote bullying?
Perhaps the most baffling element of Swift and Perry’s success is that they have indulged in this bitterness while still keeping their good girl, teen dream images intact. When Alanis Morrisette yowled “You Oughta Know” back in 1995, she was immediately dubbed a badass rocker chick. Seventeen years later, leather and songs laced with bitterness aren’t contained to angsty rock anthems. They’re an increasing force in girl pop.
As EW‘s Owen Gleiberman noted, “there are a lot of things to love about Perry.” One of those things is that her carefree, upbeat persona generally trumps any sadness. As viewers of Part of Me learned, even while divorce-induced sadness reduced her to tears backstage, she never forgot to bend over to keep her false eyelashes in place. Perry is a professional through and through. She takes great pains to maintain her stylized image. An image that is, in my opinion, more effective than her actual personality will ever be. So it’s exactly this self-indulgent trade-off inherent to “Part of Me” — personal turmoil for professional momentum — that makes the song feel cheap.
Digging deeper, both women have talked openly about their own experiences with bullying. Cynically, these kind of confessions are on-trend and useful in ramping up a star’s relatability. However, Swift and Perry’s latching on to the bully conversation makes their tactic of using of songs as public humiliation tools all the more unsettling. When Swift gloats at her unnamed assailants in “Mean,” does she undercut her message of strength overcoming cruelty by participating in essentially the same behavior? Can she rightly claim that others’ “words like knives and swords and weapons” used against her actually made her a better person when she’s wielding all her lyrical might to make her foes feel “like nothing… pathetic and alone in life”?
Point of fact: I actually do enjoy Swift and Perry’s music. They are artists who write and perform their own songs (impressively at that), not puppets of some industry Svengali. More to the point, they know how to pen seriously danceable ditties. But it’s a bit rich when Swift sings of how “people throw rocks at things that shine” and Perry dares her nemeses “to throw your bombs and your blows” considering both ladies are raining down retribution all the way to the top of the charts.
It remains to be seen whether “Part of Me” is a one-off or a directional shift for Perry, and Swift could certainly change her tune on her forthcoming album. I am by no means saying that all pop music needs to be whipped cream and rainbows (if only for Annie’s sake), but when your personal empowerment is predicated upon taking down another person in the most petty, public way, how empowered can you really be? If record-breaking album sales and a solid $3 million opening day for Part of Me are any indication, a scorched earth policy may very well be the new path to self-actualization. Girls of today, take note?