When Katy Perry first announced the beginning of a new “purposeful pop” era, it was hard to keep my eyes from rolling to the back of my head.
To start with, it suggested that pop music had lacked that substance before. Even within Perry’s own discography, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Songs like ‘Firework’ – while admittedly serving fairly generic, Hallmark card messages of acceptance – positively impacted the lives of millions of people, and disregarding them felt like a disservice to her own work.
But in addition to that, it seemed a bit odd for Katy Perry to position herself as the new face of wokeness. With a career that was launched off two singles that were divisive at best regarding their same-sex content, she’s been consistently followed by a myriad of other controversies that include transphobic tweets and a noticeable silence during Kesha’s ongoing legal battle against her abuser (and Katy’s longtime collaborator) Doctor Luke.
She’s also defended her repeated appropriation of various cultures, snarkily saying, “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it” in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone. Still, these were all events of the past – however recent – and to completely disregard what was a seemingly well-intended realignment of her priorities seemed harsh.
Fast forward to this year’s Grammy Awards however, and Katy was under fire yet again, this time for repeatedly referencing Britney Spears in an ugly joke about mental health. Placing both feet in her mouth, Katy told reporters on two separate interviews that she was holding off on shaving her head until her first “public breakdown”.
In April, she acknowledged some of her past prejudices in an interesting interview with Vogue, providing some added insight of her strict Christian upbringing.
“But my house was church on Sunday morning, church on Sunday night, church on Wednesday evening; you don’t celebrate Halloween; Jesus gives you your Christmas presents; we watch Bill O’Reilly on TV. That was my whole childhood and youth and early teens. I still have conditioned layers dropping off of me by the day.”
It was a much-needed reminder that we all have years of conditioning to shed and grow from. Unfortunately, a week later, Katy caught heat yet again for sharing a picture of goddess Kali on her Instagram, jokingly captioned “current mood”.
Her first single ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ was a limp attempt at deconstructing what makes our society tick. Its video itself offered a similarly weak commentary, and some of its more topical ideas (such as systemic racism) were so subtle that most missed them entirely – a potentially deliberate move to avoid creating backlash from her less-awakened followers.
The next single, ‘Bon Appétit’, was rumoured to be a collaboration with Ariana Grande, but when the song did drop, eyebrows were raised yet again – as the song was revealed to feature Migos instead. The group faced criticism earlier this year for the homophobic comments they made about rapper iLoveMakonnen, as well as after Offset shut down the idea of him ever performing at a gay bar.
It was becoming increasingly clear that Perry still wasn’t suited for this new title she had placed over her head. For someone so eager to position herself as an activist, it was apparent that she neither had the understanding, the initiative, or the courage to truly tackle the issues she was so eager to build her entire album campaign around. Here was a straight, white, cisgender woman with no real idea about the numerous factors that contribute to the societal problems marginalized people face – but who still felt content enough in her limited knowledge to prop herself up as an expert.
At this point, I was annoyed, but also somewhat amused. This was the sort of ignorance that many minorities are all too familiar with, and (more unfortunately than not) have grown to tolerate at some level. Her bumbling attempts at social justice were subjected to scoffs, but not much else.
Still, Perry pressed on with her attempts. Her next single ‘Swish Swish’ – a thinly veiled diss track which she sloppily described as an anthem against bullies – felt like another misfire in her crusade for progressiveness. It featured Nicki Minaj, who chose to use last year’s Pulse tragedy as a teachable moment for fans who she deemed to have stepped out of place. After days of silence following the shooting, many of her followers were extremely disappointed when Minaj finally took to Twitter – but to promote her new song instead. When one of them pointed out this insensitivity, Nicki promptly unfollowed him, and then went on a spree of liking various tweets that jeered at those who expected her to speak up. It was a shocking display of apathy, in which she went out of her way to taunt her LGBT+ fanbase, all of whom were hurting at the time.
To promote her new material, Katy went on Saturday Night Live to perform ‘Swish Swish’, as well as ‘Bon Appétit’, accompanied by Migos. For the former production, Perry brought on a number of drag queens to the stage to perform with her, no doubt in an effort to further push the song as a strange empowerment anthem.
For ‘Bon Appétit’ however, only a few queens were present, all seated nearer to the edges of the stage, away from the song’s performers. After her appearance, Perry tweeted out the following:
Subtly referencing Migos’ past controversy, her tweet suggested that their SNL performance was an act of unison and acceptance. That moment was quickly tarnished when an article on World of Wonder popped up, with various queens and an SNL crew member detailing the issues faced by the production due to Migos’ homophobia. The original post was quickly deleted and reps from Katy Perry and Migos denied those accusations – but both acts have since unfollowed each other on Twitter, suggesting that Katy’s kumbaya tale may not have been all she claimed it was.
Witnessing all these developments started to affect me in a way they hadn’t before. Everything that had come out of this campaign felt so half-assed and insincere. It bothered me that Katy would rather ride off the popularity of a homophobic act than choose from a multitude of different options. And while she claimed to be digging deep to represent the disenfranchised, her messages were so shallow that it was clear she wasn’t about to get her hands dirty fighting for us. I tried to separate how disheartened I felt with her marketing scheme with how I felt about her music. It was an impossible task. My sexuality and ethnicity are so intrinsically tied to who I am (whether I like it or not), that I simply couldn’t get past the fact that someone was trying to profit off pretending to care about the issues I faced, without even understanding how I felt.
So why was I turning a blind eye for Katy’s sake? Why did I feel so conflicted about expecting more? It was she who so boldly accepted a National Equality Award, who dares to sell her music as next-level social commentary, and who continues to promote herself as a voice when she’s only willing to whisper. And I asked myself, why do I support artists who don’t do the same for me and those I care about? Is it really that hard to move on to new music? There are incredible, inspiring new acts popping up every week, who either use their platform for genuine good, or at least fully realize the responsibility they have and attempt to educate themselves.
So why give these clearly problematic popstars a pass, when if a person we knew in real life acted like they do, we’d cease all contact with them? Why support Katy Perry after she makes a mockery of the struggles people are fighting every day to end? Or Camila Cabello after that disgusting conversation in which she called Normani Kordei the n-word? Or Future after the horrendous slurs he’s unleashed on Ciara?
While there are indeed more pressing things to worry about than who gets our streaming coins and who doesn’t, is this not another manner in which unapologetically ignorant people continue to find success they don’t deserve? Taking up resources and attention from a limitless supply of acts who are just as – if not more – talented?
As someone who writes about pop culture daily, I’ve found myself struggling with these questions a lot. Do I cover this singer’s latest single? Do I bring more attention to their work, and thus contribute to their stay in the spotlight, or abstain? And how does that make me appear? Bitter, biased, unprofessional? I looked around and saw other, reputable publications carrying on as normal, and felt like the odd one out.
But Katy’s album campaign has made me realize something. As we’ve seen repeatedly in the past, it’s oppressed groups (whether by race, sexuality, religion, etc.) that so often need to lead the way. Katy does not know better, and mostly likely will not do better. She’s symbolic of a lot of people who believe they check all the boxes of basic decency, but actually fall short. The ones most equipped to bring about change are ourselves, by using our voices to educate, and our actions to steer how we progress as a society.
I don’t wish any of the celebrities listed above any ill will, and I hope they realize and take strides to make up for the things they’ve done. But personally, I don’t want young children growing up to revere popstars who don’t empathise with what they’re going through, or who promote a lackadaisical approach to supporting those less fortunate than them. Compassion stems from understanding, and understanding comes with effort. And the people who we place on podiums – for whatever the reason – need to be able to showcase this.
In the end, no matter how trivial it seems, we shouldn’t have to sit in a corner – or feel the need to make excuses for those that leave us there. Music is supposed to heal. We don’t need artists that dig up new wounds.
Words: Julian De Valliere