"Sometimes I feel like a big strawberry with a face on it."
That's Katy Perry in a 2010 interview with Nylon, a cover girl before she was a CoverGirl. Her 2010 album, Teenage Dream -- a veritable hit machine that spawned five No. 1 singles, California Gurls, Teenage Dream and Firework among them -- was a few months away yet. She was talking about wanting to avoid the girlishness of 2008's One of the Boys, the record that contained her breakout hit/ode to lipstick (sorry -- cherry Chapstick) lesbianism for the male gaze, I Kissed a Girl. Teenage Dream was to be a bit more grown-up.
Still, there's always been something cartoonish about Katy Perry. She's like a Saturday morning cereal-box character, all big eyes and bright colours and sugar highs. She's Betty Boop. She's Minnie Mouse.
In other words, there's always been something young about Katy Perry; listening to Teenage Dream or One of the Boys, one imagines that her confessional lyrics about crushes and makeout sessions and shaving her legs and her desire to melt your Popsicle were ripped from the pages of a spiral-bound Lisa Frank notebook, covered in rainbows and unicorns, then spun into pink, cotton-candy earworms.
At best, Perry serves as a reminder for grown-up listeners about what it's like to exist in that thrilling, fraught space between girlhood and womanhood. At worst? Well, the optics aren't great. Especially when you consider her sizable fan base of school-agers. While Perry is an adult ostensibly making music for other adults, no one should be shocked that young girls are glomming on to a pop star straight out of Candyland.
Trading in sexualized girlishness isn't new, and in a culture that infantilizes women and sexualizes girls to often damaging ends, Perry's now-infamous whipped-cream ejaculating cupcake bra was problematic. She was often photographed in poses that made her look uncannily like a blow-up doll (lips in full O-shape, eyes wide).
"Perry has always played a dual role in the culture: at once a full-on male fantasy and a symbol of empowerment who inspires young girls," writes GQ's Amy Wallace, who also refers to Perry elsewhere as a "cleavage-bot." "No other artist has so seamlessly blended teenage dreams and grown-up misadventures, singing about hickeys and crushes, yes, but also threesomes, blackouts and strangers in your bed."
But playing the role of the Sexy Bad Girl Next Door gets tiring, even for a person who's made millions of dollars doing it. Perry's latest album, 2013's Prism, sees her embrace her station as empowerment symbol -- inspired, in part, by the end of her marriage to comedian Russell Brand in 2010. On single Roar -- a song with a great chorus that only suffers from a tiny bit of tired yearbook sloganeering ("I stood for nothing/So I fell for everything") -- she emerges like a ferocious tigress.
A friend of mine was concerned about the fact that her four-year-old had taken a shine to the song (along with the rest of the world) and wanted to dress up like Katy Perry for Halloween. And there's the rub; while the song is empowering, the fact that it makes a four-year-old girl want to wear a bikini is less so. And for every Roar, there is an equal and opposite Birthday.
But while Perry's certainly had problems when it comes to her public image -- she, like every other pop star these days, seems to have also missed the memo that cultures are not costumes -- there's something about her that's just so... likeable. She's funny in interviews and she doesn't wear the diva designation like her contemporaries. Perry always seems like she's winking at the camera, a sly smile on her lips that acknowledges the ridiculous artifice of it all. It's all an act -- and we're all in on it. Does that mean Katy Perry is a meta-commentary on Katy Perry? Maybe.