For the better part of a decade, Katy Perry filled a historic role in American culture: the national sexy ditz. Like Marilyn Monroe, Suzanne Somers, and Jenny McCarthy before her, she discovered the colossal upside to being dumb, beautiful, and at least somewhat talented: prodigious fame and wealth, secular-goddess status. That each of these personalities came across as vacuous was central to their popularity. For a pop idol (unlike, say, for a political figure), to be brainless is to be harmless. The misspelling of Perry’s 2010 single “California Gurls” was one of many ways she disarmed potential haters: Who could be jealous of such a daft, sweet-tempered pet? When, in her adorable and ridiculous 2013 video “Roar” (the tenth-most-viewed YouTube clip of all time, according to Wikipedia), she vamped in a leopard-print bustier with a pet tiger wearing a necklace labeling her “Kitty Purry,” she cemented her status as our sex kitten without equal.
This Katy Perry, the Katy Perry we loved, was sexy, delightfully dumb, and associated with insanely catchy records (created for her by middle-aged white guys; they’re well-paid, don’t feel sorry for them).
Perry had already worn out her welcome on the right, what with her incessant rah-rah for Hillary Clinton. That campaign hurt her more broadly than she realizes. Her support of Barack Obama in the 2012 race didn’t faze many fans, as Obama is what passes for young and cool in politics. Perry’s sexy-ditz routine is, however, the aesthetic opposite of Hillary Clinton’s Nurse Ratched Goes to Washington personality. Last winter at the Grammys, Perry, in a white pantsuit, comfortable shoes, and angry-looking hair, did a disastrous introduction of her ghastly single “Chained to the Rhythm,” an attack on the picket-fence bourgeoisie for declining to join the anti-Trump mob; she performed it with a “Persist” armband and (for some reason) an image of the Constitution projected behind her.
Discarding the lubricious, healthy California-girl look and her bouncy shampoo-commercial hair, Perry looks like a German New Wave lesbian vampire with an eyeball between her lips on the cover of her new album Wokeness — sorry, I mean Witness. Released last week, the album is blurping techno-pop garbage. And even the progressive posturing in the lyrics is bombing with lefty journos. They’re huffing that Perry is insincere, shallow, and too obviously trying to hitch her sparkly wagon of lip gloss and whipped cream to the urgent train of activist history. Among many pathetic marketing stunts she pulled was the Wokeathon in which she livestreamed her life for 96 punishing hours. At one point she invited the pope of urban outrage, Deray Mckesson, to come over and hear her tearful confession of cultural appropriation from blacks. The Left didn’t buy it.
“‘California Gurls’ and fluffy stuff would be completely inauthentic to who I am now and what I’ve learned,” Perry told Vogue. The video for “Chained to the Rhythm” takes place in a theme park called “Oblivia” where, according to Vogue’s Perry profile, “the rides are metaphors for such contemporary concerns as the mortgage and loan crises, the poisoned-water catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, and . . . ” Sorry. I couldn’t make it to the end of that sentence.
Perry has broken her end of the sexy-ditz contract. Sexy ditzes are supposed to be breezy, not tiresome. Carefree, not careworn. Childlike simplicity was one of Perry’s main assets, and one of the reasons children love her so much. The last thing we want to hear about from sexy ditzes is problems. I’m not saying you forever forfeit your right to discuss the Flint water crisis the minute you film a video wearing a whipped-cream bra, but as a pundit Katy Perry has about as much appeal as George Will does in a halter top. Perry calls her engaged new style “purposeful pop.” Here’s an example of what that means, from “Chained to the Rhythm”: “So comfortable, we live in a bubble-bubble / So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble-trouble.”
Perry has broken her end of the contract: Sexy ditzes are supposed to be breezy, not tiresome.
Marketing-wise, ditching the vast audience of normals in hopes of winning plaudits from a small cohort of the bristling woke is proving to be a loser for Perry. It’s hard to win with professional lunatics. Jezebel razzed her under the headline, “The More Katy Perry Talks about Being Woke, the More Asleep She Sounds,” expressing offense that, while Perry danced with drag queens on Saturday Night Live (hurrah!), she also danced with the black rap trio Migos, who stand suspected of homophobia (boo!). Being straight, white, and American means any aesthetic experimentation she does, such as wearing cornrows, is subject to denunciation as “cultural appropriation.” (Is Beyoncé culturally appropriating the look of white women when she appears in pin-straight hair? Just asking.)
There is just no winning with those people. Come back to us, Katy. Ditch the “I’m with her” button and be with America. Rustle up those Old Glory mini-dresses. Boogie with an out-of-step shark. Sing about Fourth of July fireworks instead of ennui. Let Deray Mckesson do what he does. The only thing you can really do is what we want you to do — be our national princess of fun.
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.