Katy Perry‘s Teenage Dream (2010) was omnipresent for several years, yielding five No. 1 singles to tie Michael Jackson‘s record of No. 1 tracks from a single album (for Bad). Of course, that includes “Part of Me”, which was released alongside the Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection deluxe add-on in 2012. This title references the candy-coated original album cover and the music video for the monstrous lead single, “California Gurls”, featuring Snoop Dogg. In that initial artwork and throughout the “Girls” video, Perry lays naked in a cloud of cotton candy, staring seductively at the camera while wispy pink tendrils wrap around her. Her provocativeness—braggadocious, Americana-tinged sex appeal—made her a compelling cultural force throughout the 2010s.
Perry is not just a pop star; she’s an American pop star. Pop stars who hail from the US cultivate their identity either in opposition to the cultural conglomerate that produced them—as with post-Lemonade Beyoncé—or through the embodiment of America’s traditional presence in the modern world. For instance, early, country-tinged Taylor Swift created a blueprint for conservatives to digest contemporary fame. Perry falls into the latter category despite her overt sex appeal. She utilizes traditionally feminine expression as a foundation for a raunchy, cartoonish, and sexually uninhibited persona. Although Perry aims to appear that way, she isn’t a sex symbol filling a void of male desire. Covertly, she responds to patriarchal expectations for women to present themselves a certain way.
Like the presence of any public figure, Perry’s omnipresence stems from her ability to act as a canvas onto which a culture projects its desires. On the front of Teenage Dream, Perry performatively caters to male fantasies. The cartoonish cotton candy cloud—made of a stereotypical American cuisine—represents America itself, and Perry’s placement within it creates a link between American culture and the male gaze. Her ostentatious self-portrayal parodies the unabashedness of male desire that’s also made evident by the fact that Playboy was a cultural phenomenon. Perry asserts that all men dream of someone as cartoonishly sexual as she. She is the strongest proof for her argument: nine No. 1 singles later, her personality clearly has a place in the market.
Writing for the LA Times, Ann Powers concluded: “Katy Perry’s real subject is consumerism. . . . [She] is the living embodiment of what it means to be bought and sold”. Her self-awareness in this role helps sell her product: pop culture itself. On singles “Teenage Dream” and “The One That Got Away”, she commodified America’s collective nostalgia for young suburban love. The unabashed commercial nature of these songs made them compelling narratives.
Many pop songwriters use clichés. However, using them without knowing that they constitute bad writing causes a cliché-filled tune to become more than just another bad pop song produced by a Swedish guy. Instead, it becomes a referendum on the phrases that make it up: “The One That Got Away”, “Not Like The Movies”, etc. These songs comment on the homogenous nature of America’s collective memory of suburban youth. “Used to steal our parents’ liquor, and climb to the roof / Talk about our futures like we had a clue”, Perry sings in “The One That Got Away”. It’s a scene right out of a Disney Channel movie, a John Hughes movie, or maybe even the most recent iteration of Spider-Man. Yet, the song gains its meaning from its easy place in the pantheon of pop.
In their album review, Pitchfork surmised, “‘Teenage Dream’ brushes up against pop culture’s obsession with the barely legal”. When placed above Perry in a cloud of cotton candy, the title Teenage Dream evokes a dream that—presumably—a male would have. This implication creates taboo around Perry by linking her to something no one wants to think about: a teenage male fantasy.
By portraying herself as the object of this fantasy, Perry starts a conversation about the patriarchy’s expectation for women to express their sexuality performatively. This expectation causes young men to take sexual gratification for granted, which explains why men have proportionally worse reactions than women when they don’t receive it. Society plants the idea that men are entitled to sexual gratification in their heads at a young age. But, for fear of tainting the idealized image of youth, no one acknowledges that. Thus, the cycle keeps going.
The title of Perry’s first album as Katy Perry, 2008’s One of the Boys, also revises the innocence of male youth. Here, she acts as the archetype straight men seek: a partner who, while catering to a man’s sexual needs, also acts like a bro pack member when convenient for the bros. In 2022, we call this a “pick me girl”. This archetype satisfies a male’s sexual desire without challenging his preexisting understanding of gender or taking issue with toxic masculinity in a given bro pack. Furthermore, Perry’s cartoonish interpretation of this role disregards a traditional aspect of femininity defined by the patriarchy: restraint. Therefore, Perry’s embodiment puts her in direct contrast with another rising star circa 2008: Taylor Swift.
In 2019, Perry and Swift publicized a traditionally boring part of the catfight narrative: reconciliation. In Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video, where the duo reunite dressed as a hamburger and fries, Swift sings, “We see you over there on the internet / Comparing all the girls who are killing it.” Here, she addresses the internet troll culture that fueled her infamous feud with Perry. Swift’s criticism of double standards grew from the fact that American culture had looked to her and Perry as avatars for each side of that standard.
In 2008, Swift skyrocketed to fame as a foil to Perry. A country star, her image was decidedly virginal. She once sang, “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind” in the coming of age ballad “Fifteen”, leading to blogs calling her a “feminist’s nightmare”. However, as a star who embodied the patriarchal expectation for women not overtly to express their sexualities, Swift attracted sexist vitriol that would later define her direction as a feminist. When she mounted her incredibly successful official pop crossover, she rivaled Perry for the title of pop queen. The masses were hungry for conflict.
Vox’s Constance Grady once wrote: “Celebrities are bodies onto whom we as a culture project our fantasies, our fears, and our dreams.” Perry and Swift may have actually disagreed about the alleged source of their feud: backup dancers. “She basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour,” Swift said to Rolling Stone in 2014. Regardless, the public wanted to see them fight because Swift and Perry each represented a competing definition of femininity. Society needed to reconcile these definitions to expose the real enemy: the male gaze.
The patriarchy expects both Swift’s and Perry’s versions of femininity to exist simultaneously, expressed at the discretion of a man. Through the media obsession with this feud, the public reconciled that both versions of femininity are performative and derived to cater to contradictory male desires. Swift’s early virginal image caters to the expectation that women be sexless so that men don’t feel ashamed of their own feelings of attraction. Conversely, Perry’s sex appeal caters to the male desire that women express their sexualities when men do want gratification.
Female public figures often enact performative ruses to succeed in a culture that doesn’t want to take them seriously. Powers argued that a “constructed self has [long] been a feminine reality”, and Swift attested to this when—in 2019—she told Rolling Stone that “people don’t want to think of a woman in music who isn’t just a happy, talented accident”. Many women in the music industry use a Trojan Horse technique to succeed: they outwardly cater to society’s expectation that women have little agency in their own success while secretly masterminding their businesses. “If you’re too right-brained or left-brained,” Perry told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012, “you can lose the whole ship.”
On the eve of her big break, Perry elected to keep the publishing rights to her music, turning down a six-figure advance for the possibility of a bigger payday in the future, as well as increased legal control over her work. Here, Perry displayed not just a keen business instinct but also a public relations one. She knew that in a career as a public figure, the most important thing isn’t a paycheck or major label deal (although those things help). Instead, the most important thing was influence over the media narrative that surrounded her. Perry knew which cultural narratives to exploit to become compelling from the beginning.
It may have been Perry’s isolation from pop culture as a child that gave her a keen eye for exploiting marketable taboos. Raised by born-again Christian ministers and isolated from pop culture, she likely thought America’s so-called “Puritanical” culture must have seemed downright sex-crazed. Perry used her outsider perspective to zero in on topics that would capture the imaginations of millions.
Specifically, she described her breakout single, “I Kissed a Girl”, as follows: “It was zeitgeisty. It was me taking everybody’s conversation and funneling it into a song”. Perry has been frank about her agency in creating cultural commentary and growing her business. “One thing I’ve been able to do is know the power of having equity deals”, she explained to Forbes in 2015, “I don’t ever like to do things unless I’m really a part of them”. However, increased agency over her creative mission would eventually backfire.
A sense of humor is integral to Perry’s persona. However, she didn’t update the provocative humor of Teenage Dream as her career progressed. On her third and fourth albums, 2013’s Prism and 2017’s Witness, she was much more aware of her past self than her present one. During the release of Witness, on which she embraced “purposeful pop”, she said that she felt “liberated from things that don’t serve [her]”.
However, she probably needed some of those things to succeed. For example, the lead single for Witness, “Chained to the Rhythm”, didn’t feel chained to anything, let alone any iteration of Perry or the current moment to which it was attempting to respond. In 2017, Perry was a wild card, whereas Teenage Dream-era Perry acted as the cartoonishly sexual archetype that 2017’s newly elected American president became known for preying on.
With Witness, Perry had the sound intention of adapting her persona to the current moment. But no one would expect total seriousness from her, even during the Trump presidency. She had acted as a funnel for America’s collective nostalgia for teen years and teen desires. She is the antithesis of political correctness, and her “woke” era would have had to acknowledge that past self to succeed. It could have mourned her cartoonish self, which simultaneously would have also mourned the American “Teenage Dream” that Trump shattered. Ironically, going “woke” was tone-deaf for Perry.
The promotion for Witness wasn’t a masterclass in PR, either. On James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke”, she recounted the messy details of her feud with Swift, delving into the specifics of contract negotiations with backup dancers. Bor-ing. Then, she said, “God bless you on your journey” to Swift while promoting the “Swish Swish” single. You can guess who that’s about.
Overall, Perry’s story came across as contradictory and uninteresting. Swift’s cliché-laden “Bad Blood”, conspicuously absent of detail, effortlessly established the narrative of Swift’s victimhood in this fight. Contract negotiations don’t matter when people primarily consume the details of a public dispute via BuzzFeed. In 2017, on the same day that Perry released Witness, Swift rereleased her entire back catalog onto Spotify. It massively outperformed Perry’s new album, so the only thing Perry was witnessing was her own downfall.
In 2020, Perry released Smile, which—despite featuring better songs than Witness—also failed to engage with American culture in a meaningful way. While less obvious than those for Witness, an explanation for its shortcomings is that the best single of the Smile era, 2020’s “Never Worn White”, was left off the album. This song, released immediately preceding the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, channeled Perry’s cartoonish energy with genuine heart and depth. It was the character development the Teenage Dream caricature had been destined for all along.
In the music video, she stands still, covered by an arrangement of flowers. The excess of flowers represents the continuation of her cartoonish persona and implies that a new iteration of her is beginning to blossom. The viewer sees a new Katy Perry through the lens of the old one. “No, I’ve never worn white / But I really wanna say / I do,” she says. Any savvy pop culture consumer knows that Perry has been married before, but it doesn’t matter. Her best songs don’t rely on autobiography to succeed. Her persona exists in the place where a culture projects its most flowery and most illicit dreams.
Obviously, dreams don’t always come true.
This lack of autobiography may explain the near-constant comparisons between Perry and Swift, who chronicled similar teenage dreams but in different ways. In “Teardrops on My Guitar”, Swift depicts unrequited love in a high school, singing, “Drew looks at me / I fake a smile so he won’t see.” Her longing shows embodied nostalgia for the kind of teen romance that’s been a cultural fixation since the 1950s. Her songs also provide a feminine perspective on the type of yearning that society mainly romanticizes in men. In contrast, Perry embodied the object of that male yearning and through her satirization of it, opened up a dialogue about it.
Swift’s songs became American mythology, while Perry symbolizes that mythology itself. Unlike Swift, Perry doesn’t narrate her own life to you. Instead, she’s narrating your life to you. “As with any great ad campaign, uncanny familiarity is her greatest achievement,” Powers wrote of Teenage Dream. “The One That Got Away”, or any of Perry’s songs, could have taken place in the suburban landscape depicted in Swift’s music videos. Swift became relatable by showing millions of teenagers that, at one point, her life had been like theirs. On the other hand, Perry told them that life was worthy of great pomp and circumstance. Adults who had once lived that life wanted to hear that, too.
Although it was chiefly popular with a younger demographic, Teenage Dream was really made for those who forgot how to dream. Perry will dream your teenage dreams for you, even if you’ve forgotten the feverish rush and other aspects of young love that feel strange to think about in adulthood. She will be the scapegoat for all the teenage dreams you still harbor. She’s the complete confection: a rush of sweetness that, like an old-fashed candy, was crafted with tenderness and care yet nonetheless induces guilt. The art of those candies is in generating the greatest momentary rush. They know they’re temporary, but if you let yourself believe that rush of sweetness really means something, maybe your dreams can last forever.