Artist: Katy Perry
Album: One of the Boys
In Brief: It’s an interesting piece of unintentional social commentary, particularly as far as gender issues are concerned. But as music, well, let’s just say it “likes penis”.
Katy Perry is honestly a bit of an easy target. If you’ve heard her infamous radio hits about people who should be gay and people who aren’t but pretend they are just for kicks, then you know what I’m talking about. There are plenty of obvious reasons why folks ranging from the religious right to gay activists might criticize her for her lyrics, and doing so would be a lot like shooting fish in a barrel. Too easy. Normally I try not to go for the obvious bait in choosing albums to review, because I don’t think it takes a genius to point out that Britney Spears or Avril Lavigne or whoever put out a detestable album. (Obviously not everyone agrees with these assessments; nevertheless, such artists are frequent recipients of the proverbial kick in the pants.) So I’d honestly leave Katy Perry alone, if not for the fact that I knew her in a former life.
Alright, so I didn’t know her. But I knew of her. And I liked her music once upon a time. At least somewhat. It’s no secret that Katy Perry started her career using her birthname, Katy Hudson, only deciding to choose a different stage moniker when she began the long and difficult road to mainstream music stardom, and realized her given name would get her confused with actress Kate Hudson. But back when she went by this name, and before I had ever even heard of her, she had a rather low-profile opening spot on a small-time solo tour by Phil Joel, then the bass player for the popular CCM band Newsboys. Not exactly the stuff of legend, but Earthsuit, the genre-hopping stalwarts that eventually gave birth to Mute Math, was also on that tour, which piqued my interest, and that’s how I came to hear of Katy. She was roughly 16 at the time, with sort of a sparkly made-up look to her that suggested a little bit of teenybopper glam, but performing on a lone acoustic guitar, suggesting the work of a young Jewel or Jennifer Knapp. Her songs were fairly innocous CCM fare about trusting in God and being devoted to her faith and whatever. Pleasant enough, but nothing to write home about, until I heard those songs come to life with decidedly quirky production on her debut album. Then I was on her side. She had the tendency to oversing, and her music, the result of throwing an overblown mix of genres at the wall and seeing what stuck, could be annoying at times, but I figured she had a promising future. The album didn’t make her a household name, but somehow she got discovered and announced that she would be pursuing a career in mainstream music. I was cool with that. Enough of my other favorite CCM acts had jumped ship on the industry over the years in favor of more individualistic expressions of themselves that this was hardly something to look down upon.
Fast forward a few years. Katy’s career had stalled out. New music was supposedly in the works, but nothing materialized. Her biggest claim to fame at the time was dating Matt Thiessen, lead singer of Relient K (fittingly, a band also on the verge of mainstream exposure). That ended, and I pretty much forgot about her. Finally, in mid-2008, not having listened to a mainstream radio station voluntarily in years, I stumbled across a banner ad somewhere on the web promoting a song called “I Kissed a Girl”, sung by none other than Katy Perry. Oh. THAT Katy Perry. I can imagine that one didn’t go over well with her former audience. A quick check on Wikipedia revealed another single, tellingly titled “Ur So Gay”, and an album called One of the Boys that had somehow slipped in under my admittedly short-range radar. Oh, wow, I thought. This is gonna be BAD. I’ve gotta hear this for myself!
Now I should make it clear why I expect Katy Perry’s music to suck at this point. It isn’t because of some sort of outrage that Katy was no longer making “Christian music”. That would be hypocritical when I’ve celebrated several other artists for saying “Thanks, but no thanks” to the CCM industry’s stringent guidelines for what makes acceptable radio fare and earns you Dove Award eligibility. And it isn’t because I’m homophobic or a prude. (A homophobe would have objected to Vienna Teng‘s exquisite “City Hall”; a prude couldn’t have possibly made it through so many Dave Matthews Band albums and lived to tell about it.) It’s simply because – seriously – how much maturity can possibly be expressed in a song called “I Kissed a Girl” or “Ur So Gay”? Listening to those songs verified that they were as dumb as I had feared – songs that didn’t necessarily offend me, but that I could easily expect to offend someone who was actually gay. And the remainder of her songs, which largely deal with your garden-variety heterosexual relationships, are just about as shallow. When they’re not, they’re mostly just dull – and many are as ridiculously oversung as the songs of Katy Hudson were seven years ago. All in all, it’s a bit of a train wreck that nevertheless packs a punch due to the massive hooks that the writers and producers of this record have infused it with. In a way, that makes Katy Perry’s success more disturbing than some of the world’s most vulgar rappers or (supposedly) Satanic death metal bands. In another way, it just makes the whole thing laughable.
The crux of my criticism is really that Katy Perry’s admittedly catchy concoction of pop and rock and bad-girl attitude doesn’t come across as the work of a genuine artist. It comes across as an act of desperation designed to sell a rebellious personality for the sake of listeners who want to stick it to the man, the ex-boyfriend, the parents, the Church, the institution, whatever. Behind the “I am woman, hear me roar” facade is a much meeker voice saying, “I can misbehave, watch me!” It makes me feel sorry for her, in a way – this album leaves the impression that someone taught her this is what you’ve gotta do to sell records, and she bought it, and proved them right. As noted above, I don’t know Katy personally, and I’d really have to give her the benefit of the doubt and not assume her attitude in real life is as shallow as the attitude portrayed by her songs. But whether it’s a constructed persona or the real Katy, it comes across as rather petty. I’m not sure what’s worse in this case – faking that you’re so self-absorbed, or really being it. That’s not to say that “goodie-two-shoes CCM singer” was necessarily an accurate representation of her, either, but this album definitely feels like the effort of someone trying a little too hard to prove that she’s successfully put an unpopular past behind her.
1. One of the Boys
I wanna be a flower, not a dirty weed
And I wanna smell like roses, not a baseball team…
Now you might be expecting the critical onslaught to start from the first second of the record given the intro I wrote, but honestly, the title track on this record ain’t bad. It’s a fun, upbeat number that finds Katy wrestling with some gender identity issues, admitting in her sweeter, more girlish tone of voice that she enjoys being a tomboy, belching the alphabet and all that good stuff, but then telling us in a rapsy-throated, rocky chorus that she still wants to be seen as a girl. She goes onto explain that this entails dressing to kill and wanting to make guys want to make out with her and all that. And the part where she repeats “make out” like four times is kind of an annoying blip in the song, as is the way she stutters in the middle of the word “bo-o-o-o-oys” during the chorus. Those missteps are forgivable – Katy’s biggest gaffe here is that she’s setting up a bit of a double standard, which doesn’t really come clear until several songs later. Taken all by itself, I can’t really argue with anything she’s got to say here.
2. I Kissed a Girl
No, I don’t even know your name
It doesn’t matter
You’re my experimental game
Just human nature…
Along comes big controversial hit single #1, with its slinky, minimal, tarted-up dance beat, sauntering into the club in 6/8 time and locking its gaze on whatever the hottest target in the room happens to be. You might think that this is just a salacious song about lesbian lovers – but Katy makes it clear that her little make-out session on the dance floor has nothing whatsoever to do with romance. It’s really just a bit of experimentation and a plot to make her boyfriend jealous. And that’s what makes this song wrong on so many levels. It’s basically about using one person to get the attention of another. Look, I could care less about the lesbian thing (though if Katy’s boyfriend is like a lot of other guys, he probably doesn’t mind watching the girl-on-girl action at all. I’m just sayin’.) It could just as easily be called “I Kissed a Boy” and I’d be similarly disgusted, because really, that’s kind of a petty way to deal with whatever issues you and your significant other happen to have. I figure that because of this, the massive numbers of people who apparently like this song either (a) don’t pay attention to lyrics, (b) don’t realize how blatantly offensive it probably is to actual lesbians, (c) don’t care how offensive it is because that’s just how their sense of humor works, or (d) are strippers who think this would make the perfect soundtrack to a pole dance. Given how infectious the beat is and how I find myself singing the melody in my head and then having to mentally smack myself out of it, I can see why (a) is a huge possibility for a lot of people. Seriously, this thing is insidious.
3. Waking Up in Vegas
Why are these lights so bright?
Did we get hitched last night?
Dressed up like Elvis
And why am I wearing your class ring?
Oh, ho hum. The “blinging” sound of a slot machine brings us into a rather typical pop/rock track (think Michelle Branch or Alanis Morissette, but whinier) where Katy p!sses and moans about waking up with a guy in Vegas, realizing they’ve blown all their cash, and basically blaming him for the mess that they’re in. The obvious joke here is that they got hitched and don’t remember doing it. Hearty. Frickin’. Har. Har. Seriously, this sounds like a weak attempt at a soundtrack tie-in for that What Happens in Vegas movie that came out a few months back, which I totally didn’t see.
4. Thinking of You
How do I get better once I’ve had the best
You said there’s tons of fish in the water
So the waters I will test…
Katy’s vocals can get a bit shrill and overbearing at times, but when singing a ballad, she’s got more of a brassy, alternative-pop sort of quality that I find sort of endearing. So while this one sounds like your typical pop/rock slow-dance fare, and is probably destined to be played during a climactic scene on the new 90210 remake (which I totally don’t watch), it ain’t bad. Well, until you pay attention to the lyrics, anyway. Then you realize that this sweet ode to a lost love is really being sung from the perspective of a girl trapped in a ho-hum relationship with a guy who can’t even hold a candle to the hunka burning love she apparently used to date. She’s basically contradicting herself by saying he’s the best she’ll ever get, but at the same time figuring she might as well take whatever scraps she can get while she’s helplessly pining away over the guy she really wants, which I guess explains the bozo she’s sleeping with. I realize that a lot of people probably rebound like this in real life, but Katy’s description of the situation does nothing to make me sympathize. If that’s how you feel, Katy, then you should seriously just dump the guy and hold out for someone who actually gets you halfway excited. Basically she’s justifying the stereotype that you’re worthless if you’re not in a relationship.
I wanna hit you just to see if you cry
Keep holdin’ on, hopin’ there’s a real boy inside…
This track was supposedly recorded “live” – it still sounds to me like it was done in a studio and not before a live audience, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt about it being done in a single take and not heavily produced and overdubbed like most of the rest of her stuff. It’s Katy and a lone acoustic guitar, and since I first heard her sing her songs in this sort of format seven years ago, it’s not a stretch to believe that she actually can play an instrument. It’s a nice change of pace, giving this lament over another loser boyfriend a bit more of a vulnerable feel. Honestly, the accusation that “You’re not a man, you’re just a mannequin” is still pretty nasty when you get down to it, but the fact that she sounds kind of sad when singing it, instead of turning this into another sneering rocker, sort of makes me feel her pain. She makes good enough use of her chosen metaphor, so even while I have the same knee-jerk reaction that I did to some of Alanis Morissette’s early man-bashing songs, I can give her a pass on this one. I’ll be much less charitable on the next track, though, because it just so happens to be…
6. Ur So Gay
You’re so sad, maybe you should buy a Happy Meal
You’re so skinny, you should really Super Size the deal
Secretly, you’re so amused that nobody understands you…
“Ur So Gay”? Really? Katy, why didn’t you just go the whole nine yards and title this one “OMGWTFBBQ Ur So Gay N00B!!!!111!11!!1”, because that’s about the intelligence level implied by your chosen spelling, as if you had nothing better to do than hurl the kind of insults that kids half your age are regularly texting each other with. I’ve always hated the use of the word “gay” as an insult, since it almost always refers to something that has nothing to whatsoever with sexuality, so it’s basically two unrelated statements: “You’re really lame, and by the way, I’m homophobic”. Katy’s trying to be clever by taking it literally here, telling her sad sack of a boyfriend (OMG srsly, where do U find deez guyz, Kat-E?) that he’s so effeminate that he’d be better off dating dudes. Is anyone offended yet? I am, and I don’t even like boys. I like the idea that there’s a wider range of expression among boys than just the typical “macho manly man” thing; apparently Katy sees the need to belittle any guy who doesn’t measure up to her personal standard of it. Here’s where the double standard comes in – she wants to have her cake and eat it too, to be a tomboy and yet to be the gorgeous homecoming queen who all the guys drool over. Fine, I have no problem with that. But telling guys that they’re homo pansies just because they happen to have a feminine side is just… ugh. Oh, did I mention that this song has like, music and stuff? It’s basically the instrumental version of a big, long sneer, as if the song were sticking its tongue out at you, going “Nyah nyah, nyah nyah nyah!” like an annoying little sister as it lopes along on its lazy, trashy beat. (She even feels the need to interject the word “penis!” right at the end of the song, in one of those self-conscious moves to make sure we all know what a bad girl she is.) I’ll admit to being amused by some of Katy’s cleverly worded insults, particularly the “Happy Meal” line. If this song were just about those without any rude implications about the guy’s sexuality, I might be able to stomach it.
7. Hot ‘N Cold
Someone call the doctor
Got a case of the love bipolar
Stuck on a rollercoaster
Can’t get off this ride…
Katy goes the more typical dance-pop route on yet another song that involves chewing out a guy for being wishy-washy. Much like “I Kissed a Girl”, but this time with a much more straightforward boom-cha sort of feel, it’s got the type of infectious hook that I can’t get out of my head even though I really wish I could. I suppose it’s tolerable – I can understand being frustrated over someone who plays the “Now I love you, now I don’t” game and leaves you hanging, but snotty comments like, “You PMS like a b!tch, I should know” just serve to further illustrate Katy’s double standard. So essentially what you’re saying is, it’s OK to insult a guy by implying that he’s acting like a girl. Has it not occurred to you that you just said something that is basically sexist against your own sex? This isn’t how “girl power” is supposed to work, Katy.
8. If You Can Afford Me
If you want me, then stop begging
I don’t put out for charity
If you want me, there’s no discount price tonight…
You can probably predict where this superficial song is gonna go just from its title, but I’ll give Katy a small morsel of credit, since this song turns out to be a metaphor and not just a statement that she expects a guy to be a sugar daddy and spend a lot of money on her. (Though she spends enough time on the face-value aspect of it that I’m sure that little perk doesn’t bother her.) The song’s got a breezy pop/rock feel to it, making sure it’s the kind of song you’d want to blast while driving down the highway, if only the lyrics weren’t so seriously botched. Even if you can get past the total hubris of the way she describes herself – “The pick of the peck, the creme de la crop”, you’re bound to be baffled by the mixed metaphor when she proclaims, “Nothing’s free except loving me”, only to then remind us that “I can be bought, but you’ll pay the cost.” I’m sure her intended metaphor has nothing to do with dollar bills and everything to do with effort – i.e. don’t expect me to fall all over you if you’re just a lazy-@$$ who sits around and does nothing but whine about not getting laid. I can see a writer with a better grasp of humor or irony getting a good amount of mileage out of such an idea, but in Katy’s hands, such an idea just comes across as if she’s a really expensive street-walker. (I’m not saying she is. I’m just saying this is an extremely poorly written song.)
My mother says I should come back home
But I can’t find the way, ’cause the way is gone
So if I pray, am I just sending words into outer space?
The album’s most serious and transparent moment is also one of its most telling – I’m not sure whether Katy wrote this one from personal experience or if she’s just riffing on celebrities like Britney Spears who seem to have it all but then go through some sort of a massive meltdown. But she’s singing about that meltdown in the first person, having all of the fame and fortune and late-night parties and high-class friends a girl could ever want, but realizing at the end of the day (or rather, the beginning of the next) that it’s a lonely endeavor. There’s an ever-so-vague hint of the person Katy used to be in the verse where she talks about her mother wanting her to come home (her parents have been rather outspoken about not approving of the direction her music has taken) and about doubting whether God still hears her prayers. If this is really Katy’s life, then this song makes me really sad for her. If it’s not, then I’ve got to give Katy credit for a keen ability to project what such a lonely life must feel like. The little production touches – the bells and the melodic background vocals – help to add color amidst the weariness, and honestly, I think this is the record’s best song. There are a few weak spots where I think she got lazy for the sake of a rhyme, but the song makes me feel something. I’ll give credit where credit is due.
10. Self Inflicted
Young love’s like jumping out of an airplane
Riding a tidal wave on an ocean of emotion
My heart rips me wide open…
Katy’s ad hoc band gets things revved back up with some bratty electric guitar riffs for a defiant little song about being in love with one of those “bad boy” types who keeps hurting you and yet you can’t seem to let him go. She’s gleeful in the reckless abandon, not minding all of the emotional cuts and bruises because hey, this is fun on some level. One the one hand, I can appreciate the ode to illogical love and plunging into a relationship without overthinking the consequences, but on the other hand, there’s a fine line between cute lovey-dovey foolishness and pure masochistic idiocy. I’ll leave it to you to decide which describes this song better.
11. I’m Still Breathing
The clock is ticking, and I’ll be giving my two weeks
Your favorite shade of black, you’d best prepare a speech
Say something funny, say something sweet
But don’t say that you loved me…
Speaking of masochism, Katy takes a darker turn that expected on this, possibly her most “alternative” sounding song due to the quirky vocals, and basically advocates committing suicide due to being despondent over a guy. Maybe the suicide’s just a metaphor for letting the relationship finally die. Maybe a lot of things on this album are just metaphors and I’m taking it too seriously. But this is the kind of thing that seems unsavory even to joke about. I couldn’t give Katy’s ex-boyfriend a pass for writing a tongue-in-cheek suicide song, so unfortunately, I have to grade Katy’s song by the same standard.
$7.75 isn’t worth an hour of my hard work and time
When you cant afford half the sh!t they advertise…
This is the last of a few pop/punk-flavored moments on this record where it’s starting to feel like Katy wants to be a little less Britney and a little more Avril. By that I mean, she wants to sound all rebellious and anti-establishment, but is too unaware of the kiddie pool she’s splashing around in. So off we go, with Katy whining about society being a bunch of sheep and having to work yourself to death just to get paid, and basically all of the ills of society that we’ve heard rehashed so often that most of us know the suits at the record labels are just selling us a line even if it tells us we’re supposed to hate them. Katy’s like, bold and stuff here, because she actually says the s-word – and they censor it, which for some reason I find unintentionally hilarious. Hey kids, this oughta tick off your parents! Hey parents, it’s safe for your teenage kids, because I didn’t actually enunciate the “i”! (Alright, so I censor swear words when I quote them in my review. It’s only because I’m too lazy to use HTML tricks to get around the Epinions censor, alright?) Katy’s solution to society’s cardboard malaise is – surprise! – to do something different, to leave her mark on the world. “I wanna break the mold, break the stereotype.” Katy, if that’s what you’ve set out to do, then I hate to be the one to inform you that this album is an EPIC FAIL.
I’ll say this much for Katy Perry – she’s inadvertently provided a fascinating piece of social commentary on issues of sexuality, gender, and the successful marketing of youthful rebellion. I suppose I owe her at least two stars for accomplishing that much, as accidental as it may have been.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
One of the Boys $1
I Kissed a Girl -$.50
Waking Up in Vegas $0
Thinking of You $0
Ur So Gay -$.50
Hot ‘N Cold $1
If You Can Afford Me $0
Self Inflicted $.50
I’m Still Breathing $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.