Katy Perry (Cartoon)

[ Original artwork by Janice Vogt. ]

As part of my ongoing effort to savor the final days of the Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee, I discovered that tickets to Katy Perry’s concert last month could be had for as little as $11. 

Eager to indulge in a guilty pleasure and experience a big budget arena show, my lady and I proposed a family outing.

“Ugh. I don’t want to see fake woke Katy Perry,” replied our 12-year-old. Needless to say, we left the kids at home. (It was a school night anyway.)

When we arrived at the soon-to-be-demolished arena, the price of admission had reportedly dropped to $6. We also noticed a bunch of empty seats.

How could a superstar like Perry — owner of the most followed Twitter account — have fallen out of favor so swiftly? And what did our pre-teen mean by the phrase “fake woke”?

Who Am I Living For?

Before she became international pop icon Katy Perry, Kathryn Elizabeth Hudson was raised a Pentecostal Christian. Her parents ran a traveling ministry. The presence of God was absolute in young Hudson’s life. Her parents went so far as to forbid their children from eating Lucky Charms, because “luck was of Lucifer.” Not surprisingly, pop music was a non-starter. 

In the documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me, Hudson describes herself as someone who “always felt like I was never allowed to think for myself.” The initial crack in her worldview came via Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” Hudson was floored by the freedom of expression. This triggered her first awakening — the realization that she could have her own thoughts and feelings.

While still in her teens, Katy Hudson made a Christian record. As a result of her awakening — or “rebel phase,” as she described it at 19 — she shed her religious persona and adopted a pop-punk aesthetic. After moving to Los Angeles, it took her a few years to find a footing in the music industry. By 2008, she had a pair of radio hits under the moniker Katy Perry.

By 2011, Katy Perry was a household name. Five singles from her Teenage Dream record topped the Billboard Hot 100 — a feat matched only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Her next record — Prism (2013) — maintained Perry’s prominence with smash singles “Dark Horse” and “Roar.” The latter basically became the theme song to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. This connection ushered in Hudson’s second awakening — the realization that other people have thoughts and feelings too and some get treated worse than others.

Hudson’s embrace of progressive politics became apparent through Katy Perry’s social media activity — showing support for LGBTQ rights, resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Black Lives Matter. She went so far as to edit her Twitter bio to read “Artist.Activist.Conscious”.

Self Inflicted 

Critics were skeptical of Hudson's new identity from the jump. After all, nothing in her catalogue suggests she is a deep thinker who cares about the plight of humanity. “I Kissed A Girl” — her breakout hit — was criticized for fetishizing lesbian relationships. “Ur So Gay” didn’t go over well either. Perry has also been guilty of cultural appropriation — an all-too-common trend in pop music.

Two social media faux pas are cited along with the claim that Hudson has insincerely incorporated activism into her brand as part of a marketing strategy to sell her latest record.

On May 2, 2017, she posted a picture to Instagram of the New York Times front page that features a photo of her in an expensive dress at the Met Gala. The caption doesn’t acknowledge the larger photo above it of a French policeman on fire at a protest in Paris.

On December 23, 2016, she Tweeted a link to a website selling Black Lives Matter merchandise that read, “When your holiday shopping is woke af #blacklivesmatter.” (“Af” is shorthand for “as f*ck,” as in “a lot.”)

Mystic soul singer/musician Erykah Badu is credited with first using the term “woke” back in 2008. It can be understood as a synonym to “conscious” — someone who is educated, thinks for themselves, and is familiar with the many levers of injustice.

“Woke” gained popularity with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Tweets related to BLM are often tagged with “#staywoke”. The phrase reminds us to remain vigilant and aware of how systemic oppression threatens the lives of people of color.

Hudson’s “holiday shopping” Tweet clearly misses the point of “wokeness” — and activism in general. These sorts of missteps found the pop star on the defensive in the lead-up to the release of her 2017 album Witness.

To make a local reference, criticism of Katy Perry during this time was analogous to criticism of the Milwaukee Streetcar. Those on the left felt her political shift was self-serving and didn’t go far enough, while those on the right hated it to begin with.

As a result, Witness had little chance of matching the commercial and critical success of Perry’s previous records. The album was panned nearly across the board. Despite her claims to consciousness, Witness contains no Dylan-esque critiques of institutional power. Solange’s A Seat at the Table it is not. Nor does it contain the infectious poignancy of Sylvan Esso.

It turns out that Perry is not the titular witness, but is looking for one “to get me through this.” Perry admits that there is “something bigger than me,” but she can’t — or won’t — identify that thing.

Most songs on Witness find Perry — predictably — navigating her struggles with celebrity and failed relationships. As Chris Richards of the Washington Post put it, “At best, Perry sounds like she’s trapped in a purgatory, pantomiming progress, giving an endless pep talk to her own reflection. She wants to look out into the world, but she can’t look away from the mirror.”

As part of Perry’s rebranding, she described her new sound as “purposeful pop.” It seems that she was trying to create music that could be enjoyed by the masses at face value and on a deeper level — something like the film Get Out.

Chained to the Rhythm

Comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out is arguably the best film of 2017. It tells the story of a young black man who visits the exurban home of his white girlfriend’s parents and uncovers a sinister plot.

Get Out finds a spiritual facsimile in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant book Between The World and Me. Both are meticulously crafted works of art that express the everyday terror of being black in America. Both illuminate the reality that the black body is never truly safe in this country.

Jordan Peele is best known as one-half of the sketch comedy duo Key & Peele with Keegan-Michael Key. Their popular television series ran for five seasons on Comedy Central, winning multiple Primetime Emmys and a Peabody Award. Key & Peele’s smart, incisive writing suggested Peele would be capable of a leap to auteur filmmaking.

Get Out is described by Peele as a “social thriller” — taking inspiration from Night of the Living Dead and Candyman, among others — where “the monster at hand is society.” The film was conceived during the 2008 presidential campaign and developed throughout Obama’s Presidency.

"For a while, we had a black president and we were living in this post-racial lie — this whole idea that we're past it all, when black people know: No, no. There's racism. I experience it on an everyday basis," Peele told an audience at Sundance 2017.

"This movie was meant to reveal that there's this monster of racism lurking underneath some of these seemingly innocent conversations and situations."

With this aim in mind, it was essential that Get Out feature a coastal setting rather than be set in the south — allowing Peele and company to explore covert racism rather than the well-trodden territory of overt racism. 

In this way, the film takes a sharp stab at the good-natured liberal elite. Get Out makes the case that liberal sentiments and gestures don’t necessarily translate to empathy and action, but are too often mired by indifference and complicity.

Get Out was produced by Blumhouse Productions, an outfit known for low-budget, high-performing films. But Get Out was a box office phenomenon — it is the highest grossing original debut ever.

A number of factors contributed to the success of Get Out.

The film is presented from the point-of-view of a black protagonist — British actor Daniel Kaluuya in a star-making turn as photographer Chris Washington. The paranoia black people feel when navigating white spaces is adeptly portrayed.

Get Out features outstanding supporting performances from Keith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, Allison Williams, Stephen Root, and a scene-stealing tour de force by Betty Gabriel.

A party sequence contains some of Get Out’s best textual material — including an Asian man with a thick accent who asks Chris, “Do you find that being African-American has more advantage or disadvantage in the modern world?”

The Asian character’s question is particularly insightful. From an outsider perspective, America appears to love black culture. But reports of police shootings and acquittals suggests the opposite is true.

The use of cell phone cameras as a weapon for good in Get Out cleverly points to the way cell phone footage has helped shed light on the epidemic of police brutality in America.

In fact, it is Chris’ power of observation — his ability to “stay woke” — that ultimately saves him. Peele admits that he originally envisioned a darker fate for Chris. However, the rise of the alt-right and the election of Donald Trump precipitated the need for a hero.

Get Out is an ingenious film that dramatizes the horrifying legacy of American slavery. Peele’s expertly crafted twists and turns — and jokes — also remind us of the pleasure of watching a movie in a theater with other humans, despite our increasing appetite for on-demand streaming services.

Circle the Drain

For the first time in almost two decades, no white men have been nominated for Album or Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards — unless you count Justin Bieber’s feature on “Despacito.”

Among the Record of the Year nominees is a psychedelic soul jam called “Redbone” by Childish Gambino. The track features the lyrics “stay woke...now don’t you close your eyes.” It plays over the opening credit sequence of Get Out — the perfect theme song.

Despite her massive commercial success, Katy Perry has never won a Grammy. Witness did not earn her a single nomination. Granted, critics seemed to have made their mind up before the record was even released.

The naysayers do have a point when they say Perry’s previous music served a purpose — albeit not the political one she was apparently going for on Witness.

Pop music — no matter how vacuous — can provide a respite from this cold world. While occasionally problematic, when you consider the uplifting aspects of Perry’s oeuvre, she has arguably done less harm than good. And let’s be honest — it could’ve been worse. Perry could’ve become a mouthpiece for the alt-right.

You may fault her for only recently realizing the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation, but ignorance is not exactly malice. Granted, ignorance can breed malice. But given Perry’s sheltered upbringing, I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt.

To make a global reference, critiques of Katy Perry circa 2017 are somewhat analogous to critiques of the 2017 Women’s March.

Power

On January 21, 2017, an estimated five million people took to the streets to show their opposition to the inauguration of Donald Trump. The demonstrations started in D.C., but quickly spread to cities across the country and around the world.

A strong sense of solidarity was felt at the marches. Be that as it may, the most memorable image — at least for me — was a viral photo of a woman of color named Angela Peoples holding a poster that read “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.”  

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Angela Peoples at Women's March

Detractors like Peoples were dismissed by some as haters hurting the movement, but their critiques deserve attention. It remains true that a 53% majority of white women who went to the polls voted for Trump, compared to 94% of black women who voted for Hillary Clinton.

That the marches went off without a hitch — no riot police, no tear gas, no batons, no arrests — speaks directly to the fact that the crowds were overwhelmingly white, and thus, beneficiaries of white privilege.

For many attendees, the Women’s March was their first protest. This did not sit well with some activists who have been on the front lines for years — those who have put their lives on the line, rather than merrily march while taking pictures with and giving high-fives to police officers in pink "pussy hats."

Critiques of the Women’s March echo longstanding concerns about mainstream feminism. Women of color take umbrage with a “sugarcoated feminism” that seeks to unite people by choosing to ignore their differences. Instead, they advocate for intersectional feminist thought.

“Intersectionality” means that having overlapping marginalized identities — such as your gender, race, class, ethnicity, orientation, age, ability, and religion — can impact how you experience discrimination.

For example, the wage gap between women and men is often cited as 79 cents on the dollar. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. When we look closer at the data, we learn that white women make 82 cents on the dollar, while black women only make 67 cents.

White women — like Katy Perry — and men, for that matter, are not expected to have known all this before attending an anti-Trump rally. But if we aspire to “wokeness,” then educating ourselves and understanding our privilege are the first steps.

In an interview with USA Today, Peoples suggested that if white women (and men) want to help the movement, we should start in our own communities. This means having uncomfortable conversations with our friends and family members. It means calling people out for being xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and the like.

Peoples added that white allies are welcome at protests, but should make sure to check their privilege. She also echoed the Women’s March organizers in encouraging participants to stay engaged throughout the year.

With Black History Month around the corner, it is imperative not to fall victim to what I call “the Rosa Parks syndrome.” By this I mean the false assumption that change results from singular acts of heroism, rather than sustained collective action.

Rosa Parks was not just some tired, old, fed up black woman — she was a committed activist in the larger struggle for Civil Rights. Parks attended meetings, protests and boycotts before refusing to give up her bus seat on December 1, 1955.

Wide Awake

Back at the Bradley Center on December 4, 2017, a giant eye-shaped screen looms above the stage. As expected, my lady and I are in for a spectacle of the highest order, designed by the one and only Es Devlin. (The British creative director also collaborated with Perry on her 2017 Grammy performance.)

That we were able to acquire lower-level seats for cheap and that many were left empty is a direct result of the trouble Katy Perry found herself in last year. I suspect some right-wing parents keen on Perry’s activism kept their kids from attending. It is also likely that some fans stayed home due to their disappointment with Witness.

As it turned out, not only did she play the hits, but the outspoken activist version of Katy Perry was nowhere to be seen that night. If you paid attention to the evolution of her Twitter bio, you may have seen this coming. It went from “Artist.Activist.Conscious” to “I know nothing” to literally nothing

Perry must have learned somewhere along the way that, for a pop star, social justice is bad for business. She may have gleaned this from her frenemy Taylor Swift — the owner of 2017’s top-selling record and the main target of Perry’s ire on Witness.

With the exception of an Instagram post encouraging people to vote and a Tweet supporting the Women’s March, Swift has kept her distance from politics. Some think she is a closeted conservative — a theory buoyed by the fact that she is beloved by factions of the alt-right.

Most people just figure Swift is looking out for her bank account. In that regard, she is doing exceedingly well — between her best-selling record and her stadium-sized world tour, Swift’s net worth is double that of Perry. But is that more important?

Katy Perry may not be wide awake, but at least she took a side.

Not to mention, she puts on one hell of a show. 

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