Katy Perry's a good girl gone better
Katy Perry’s career was going nowhere until she wisely ditched Christian pop for songs about girl-on-girl action
Katy Perry could be forgiven for arguing that her life isn’t nearly as charmed as it might seem. It’s just days into 2009 when pop music’s current It Girl phones the Georgia Straight, and, as anyone with a Perezhilton.com addiction knows, there’s been a hiccup in her Cinderella story.
The New Year started off with her boyfriend, Gym Class Heroes singer Travis McCoy, announcing on his blog that the couple had decided to split. That the end of an eight-month relationship was big news everywhere from MTV to Us Weekly magazine is a sign that life as Perry once knew it is officially over. The 24-year-old singer has been gunning for stardom since she was 17. With her years-in-the-making breakthrough disc, One of the Boys, turning her into an overnight success after its release last June, she’s got exactly what she asked for.
There’s a downside to that. As everyone from Madonna to Angelina Jolie to Britney Spears has discovered before her, keeping up with the personal dramas of the rich and famous has become the favourite pastime of the Net-fixated masses. And although the royalty cheques that will make her rich are only now starting to trickle in, Perry is indeed—thanks to the inescapable smash “I Kissed a Girl”—now famous. Eight years ago, the raven-haired singer, whose parents are evangelical preachers, was a going-nowhere, fresh-faced hopeful working the Christian-pop circuit. These days, to the horror of upstanding churchgoers, she’s not only making faux lesbianism sound like the best thing since cherry ChapStick, she’s on The Howard Stern Show happily recounting how she lost her virginity outside a construction site.
Her mother hasn’t been impressed, going so far as to tell any tabloid reporter who will listen that her daughter has been led astray by Hollywood and that “I Kissed a Girl” is “shameful and disgusting”. But if the past few months have taught Perry anything, it’s that to get what you want, sacrifices sometimes have to be made, whether it’s having your mom turn against you, putting up with perverted shock jocks grilling you about the size of your boobs, or having OK! magazine pick through the wreckage of your failed relationships. And, yes, she’s perfectly at peace with that.
“Nobody gets a free ticket,” the husky-voiced singer says, sounding downright chipper on the line from her home base of Los Angeles. “It’s funny, you walk around the street and you get people going, ”˜Hey! I kissed a girl too!’ Your first reaction is you wanna say, ”˜Uh, excuse me, sir, I just want to let you know that I’ve heard that before.’ But it’s one of those things where it’s like you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, ever, because I’m being fed and I’m very happy.”
No doubt. At a time when the record industry is on life support, Perry’s One of the Boys is proof that someone out there still buys old-fashioned CDs. Seemingly arriving out of nowhere, with none of the tastemaking blog hype that signals the impending arrival of the next big thing in this digital age, the album is closing in on platinum in North America, a major achievement when everything is available for free on the Net two weeks before it hits the shelves. The maddeningly overexposed, thumpingly robotic “I Kissed a Girl” led Perry’s assault on the mainstream, eventually tying no less than the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as the all-time longest-running number-one single on the rock charts.
At first, Perry seemed destined to join Blu Cantrell, Crazy Town, and Baha Men on a future one-hit-wonders-of-the-2000s compilation. After all, once you got beyond the hot-and-bothered vocals and dance-floor-detonating chorus, “I Kissed a Girl” smelled vaguely like a novelty coldly calculated to do one thing: confirm what every horny heterosexual man desperately wants to believe—namely, that all chicks will go girl-on-girl after a couple of Jí¤ger shots. Surprisingly, though, One of the Boys offers up more than a catchy single and 11 throwaways that make you wonder why you didn’t wait for Big Shiny Tunes 15. “Hot N Cold” is a clubtastic banger that Madonna (who is a professed fan) would trade her 1935 Auburn Speedster for, and “Mannequin” channels the spirit of indie rock with razor-rash guitars and frenetic drum fills. Neon-lit synths mesh with acoustic six-string on the chill-out pop of “If You Can Afford Me”, while “Ur So Gay” is a genre-bending crash of trip-hop beats, old-school scratching, and Sgt. Pepper horn flourishes. All of which is another way of saying that One of the Boys is hardly the work of a one-hit pony.
Perry contends she never dreamed that “I Kissed a Girl” would go stratospheric. But she definitely ensured that she’d be positioned to make the most of whatever break came her way.
“I knew that I had put my best foot forward,” Perry says of One of the Boys. “It was kind of like I had put all of my money on black, and either I was going to win and be the luckiest person ever or I was going to fail. I knew that I was taking a chance, because it was the last chance that I had.
“I knew what I was doing, coming out with something like ”˜I Kissed a Girl’,” she continues. “That song was going to open the door so that I could try lots of different other things. I knew that I had a lot of other sides to me. Even now, I’m not running around pacing and saying, ”˜I wish people could see those other sides.’ I think they will come out in time, and they already have been. ”˜Hot N Cold’ has been doing well, and I’m just putting out my next single, ”˜Thinking of You’, and it’s already had really great response.”
What makes this doubly sweet is that by her early 20s, Perry was starting to worry that she was never going to get her shot. Moving to Los Angeles from her hometown of Santa Barbara immediately after graduation, she released an eponymous Christian-pop debut album in 2001 under her real name, Katy Hudson. Not wanting to be confused with the spawn of Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson, she adopted her mother’s maiden name and decided that working with heavyweights like Glen Ballard and the Matrix was a better ticket to stardom than praying for a showcase spot on The 700 Club. That helped her land a couple of record deals, but things fell apart every time she got close to releasing an album. For that reason, she didn’t even allow herself to get excited about completing One of the Boys.
“I think when it got to the point of a week before it was going to be released, I was almost like, ”˜Oh, my God, it’s really happening, and there’s nothing that I can do to mess it up anymore,’ ” she notes. “I’d gotten so close before, being told, ”˜No, your record’s not coming out,’ or ”˜You’re dropped,’ or blah, blah, blah. After going through a couple of those hoops, I really didn’t believe anything anyone said. I would walk around going, ”˜Sure, great, I’ll believe you when it’s on the shelf.’ ”
Even after having major-label deals yanked out from beneath her earlier this decade, she never allowed herself to get to a place where she had to reach for the Paxil. That she was able to keep on the sunny side is perhaps not surprising, given that she spent her formative years singing and performing in the church run by her mother and father.
Perry’s parents weren’t exactly Billy Graham and Mother Teresa in their younger years. Her mom briefly dated Jimi Hendrix while living in Spain. Perry has said that her dad not only hung out with Timothy Leary, he dealt acid as a minor player in the San Francisco rock scene. If they instilled anything in their daughter, it’s that you don’t stop believing. So even though she was well aware that every restaurant and bar in Los Angeles is staffed by wannabe actors and rock stars waiting for their big break, Perry never lost faith.
“It was hard sometimes,” she admits. “There were definitely dark days. There’s a lot of people in Los Angeles who are definitely in the same boat. They’re floating and kind of waiting to hit that golden island. I had a lot of friends trying to make it, and some of them did. At the end of the day, you have to believe in yourself, because everybody else has their own agenda. I think that’s what kept me going. I really believed that I filled a niche, that there was a void to be filled.”
The opening, in this case, was for a savvy, Vargas Girls–fixated pop tart determined to be much more than the flavour of the minute. In other words, as much as the ’50s-pinup look is working for Perry at the moment, don’t expect her to be rocking the retro hot pants and polka-dotted halter tops two years from now. Or, for that matter, hitting the stage with nothing to offer but a stale novelty that was big when Barack Obama looked like a dark horse for the American presidency.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to be someone who just had one big song,” she says bluntly. Which explains why there was no fallback plan for Perry and why she’ll happily deal with the downside of fame, whether that means not being able to walk down the street without hearing some crack about kissing a girl or watching former flames make blog breakup announcements like “My Laptop is my new bitch. LOYAL. LISTENS. and NEVER LET’S [sic] ME DOWN.” Perry is fully aware that shooting for stardom is a lottery—and that she’s made a monster payoff.
“I was always swinging at the fences, and always seeing if 20 dollars was going to last me the whole week,” she says with a laugh. “If I could get rides from friends, or get into the studio by being around creative people, that’s what I did. I didn’t really have anything else. But I didn’t feel that I had to become this big”¦”
Perry pauses, and then continues: “I just wanted to release a record. But this has been like the cherry on top. And if you’re giving it to me, it’s like ”˜Great—I’ll take it.’ ”
Katy Perry plays a sold-out Commodore on Sunday (January 25).