"Everybody's so naked," Katy Perry told NPR's Scott Simon in an interview that aired earlier this week. "It's like, put it away."
She was referring to other female pop stars—"all of them"—and acknowledged her own guilt: "We know you've got it. I got it too. I've taken it off for—I've taken it out here and there."
"Here and there" includes, of course, the cover for Teenage Dream, one of the most successful pop albums of all time:
And if you extrapolate Perry's comments to include other forms of sex-centric imagery, there's also the video for "California Gurls," which portrayed whipped cream firing from Perry's bra.
You could get mad at this instance of hypocrisy. You could applaud her for calling out American culture's shallowness and misogyny. But you should do either while being impressed at Perry's marketing savvy. Her comments may help explain the surprising blandness of her recently released fourth album, Prism. It appears that Perry, like any good business person, has identified an unmet need in the marketplace—for G-rated, big-budget dance pop.
Teenage Dream may have received accusations of "blandness" as well, but it actually was a perfectly distinctive, career-defining product. The album presented one deserved smash hit after another—propulsive, catchy, light, and loudly depicting Perry as a playful, big-hearted flirt. If you believe that pop should make the world more delightful, you can appreciate Perry and her team of songwriters and producers for serving some of the most well-executed audio escapism in years.
Prism, though, largely forgoes the traces of personality that had run through Perry's work before—think tacky but memorable giggling about partying in Vegas and Friday-night streaking. The only innuendo it offers are the barfy "I feel my lotus bloom" (on the Asian-studies nightmare "Legendary Lover") and "I want to see you in your birthday suit, time to bring out the big balloons" (on "Birthday," which makes literal the last album's Perry-as-dessert-item visuals). As far as partying goes, almost all we get is the inevitable smash "This Is How We Do," during which she praises kids buying bottle service with rent money.
Even those examples are tamer than what Perry's done before, centered on committed romance, not flirtation—no ménage à trois references on Track 2 this time. For most of the rest of Prism, she's providing platitudes about spirituality and true love with lyrics that are so underwritten that she ends up seeming less like Enlightened Katy Perry and more like nobody at all. Gawker's Rich Juzwiak rounded up all 266 cliches on Prism—that's a lot, even for the genre—and correctly called her "the most flavorless pop diva to hold such a post in immediate memory."
(There's another problem, separate from the lyrics: The songs just aren't as good as they were on Teenage Dream, for whatever reason. Still, expect a few more of them to become as inescapable as lead single "Roar" now is.)
Listening to the album at first, and thinking about pop culture, this all seems like a mistake on Perry's part. The music industry and increasingly tribal pop fans, conventional wisdom goes, rewards performers with clearly set identities, even if they're artificial ones: Lady Gaga as the weirdo visionary and Justin Bieber as the maturing heartthrob and Miley Cyrus as the wilding-out child star and Rihanna as the self-consciously tragic sex symbol. Perry never had the flashiest act out the bunch, but she did have one—a former Christian singer turned modern-day Betty Boop, crossing innocence and raunch.
But pop also rewards smart reinvention. And Perry wants to reinvent herself as a dance-pop alternative—the antidote to the fleshy freak show of Gaga, Cyrus, Rihanna, Kesha, Britney Spears, etc. She made that clear in the NPR interview, where she took a stock question about being "so big among kids" into a chance to set herself apart from other artists: "I do see myself becoming this, whatever, inspiration out of default right now, 'cause it's such a strange world. Like females in pop—everybody's getting naked."
The thing is, she's right: Mainstream pop does offer up a lot of images of scantily clad women, perhaps more now than ever. And plenty of people are unhappy about it; that's what much (not all) of the reaction to Miley Cyrus's VMAs stunt and "Wrecking Ball" video was about. More-clothed musicians like Taylor Swift and Adele get praised for their relative wholesomeness, but they're (usually) not making Dr. Luke-assisted new-wave tracks aimed at the club. And when a truly infectious and squeaky-clean dance song does come along, it becomes a zeitgeist-defining sensation—or at least it did with "Call Me Maybe."
With Gaga's forthcoming art-porn album cover and twerking-Miley's sudden ubiquity, Perry's competition seems to just be getting more scandalous. So she's moving the other direction. That wouldn't necessarily have to mean putting out flavorless music, but she's so established that the music matters less than what it signifies so long as the hooks are there. On Prism, she has sanded away anything that could offend sexualization-conscious parents, and with these comments, she's indicating that her concerts and music videos may do the same. This might be an authentic correction based on genuinely felt attitudes. It might just be a calculation. Either way, it may well help ensure Perry's continued reign.