Katy Perry’s Panopticon of Fun and Tears

On camera for 96 hours, the pop star takes reality TV’s uncanny appeal to a hypnotic extreme.


As I type this, Katy Perry is asleep on a circular mattress, a teacup poodle named Nugget nestled next to her head. Outside her bedroom, chefs are preparing pancakes in the shape of her face as depicted on the cover of her new album Witness. Soon, a gospel choir will wake her up, singing a song of hers as selected by voters in online poll. Next to the YouTube pane where this is all viewable from five different camera angles, comments are streaming: “WAKE UP KATYYYY.” “Taylor probably wrote an entire album by now while lazy perry is sleeping.” “Guys who want to date me, find my profile on this website …”

Perry is in the final stretch of a herculean publicity stunt, broadcasting for 96 hours from a Big Brother-style house with nine rooms and 41 cameras. The spectacle surely will, one day, be the subject of a dissertation, or maybe a few of them. Pick your interpretation. Perry is satirizing the social-media panopticon. She is commenting on the demands of fame. She is peeling back the veneer of pop stardom. She is getting me to write about her album twice.

In concept, the livestream is tedious and dystopian. In practice, it is also that, and yet nevertheless makes for good content—the kind of thing that you can’t quite find the will to hit “close tab” on. Right now, Perry is eating eggs and greens while peering into the camera of an iPad, livestreaming within the livestream. (There have been many such meta instances; earlier, you could watch her watch her own music videos at length.) She announced minutes ago that she was about to set her intention for the day. I find myself unable to look away until she does so.

Perry’s schedule has been packed with activities and celebrities: yoga with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, charades with RuPaul, a dinner party attended by Sia and Anna Kendrick. There have been socially conscious segments including an electrifying slam-poetry recitation by Zariya Allen and an interview with DeRay McKesson during which Perry expressed regrets about the racial insensitivity of some of her previous performances. In one headline-making moment, during a chat with Arianna Huffington, Perry extended an olive branch to Taylor Swift. In another, James Cordon made her rank the sexual performance of three of her famous exes (John Mayer, Perry said, was a better lay than Orlando Bloom or Diplo).

Breaking: Her intention for the day is “to be present in gratitude.”

On camera, Perry is earnestly moony and insistently goofy; sometimes she seems almost manic with giddiness. In a therapy session on camera, she said that the personality of Kathryn Hudson—a.k.a. the person she was born as, rather than the Katy Perry stage-name superstar she invented—is childlike, arrested forever at age 11. That sort of seems right: If she has a superpower, it is an inability to feel embarrassment. A few minutes ago she was ostentatiously chomping at a pancake in the shape of Josh Groban. Currently I’m watching her struggle to maintain her balance while executing leg raises in a group workout led by the fitness guru Tracy Anderson.

The most telling viral moment of the ordeal so far came during the aforementioned therapy session, an hour-long conversation with the rising TV doctor Siri Sat Nam Singh. Within moments of sitting down with him, she was nearly in tears. By minute 10 she was in full cry mode, telling Singh that her recent decision to get a pixie cut had existential implications: “I so badly want to be Kathryn Hudson that I don’t even want to look like Katy Perry anymore sometimes. That is a little bit of why I cut my hair. Because I really want to be my authentic self. One hundred percent.” Later in the session, she mentioned that two years ago she pulled an angel card—a fortunetelling tool, like a tarot card—that changed her life. It said “authenticity.”

It’s clear that a primary branding objective for the livestream is to give the world a deeper sense of the real human being Perry refers to. It’s also impossible not to think that the pop star’s therapy breakdown, that sharable shedding of tears, may well have been preplanned. Ditto for every goofy pancake joke and funny face into the camera. The appeal of tuning in is a familiar one for this era: gawking at a supposed reality that’s only heightened by the suspicion of fakeness.