Seated on psychedelic Rings of Saturn beneath an arena night sky strewn with planets, stars and galaxies, and herself kitted out in glittering silver wig with matching boots, gown, and guitar, Katy Perry hovered forty feet above a roiling sea of phone-wielding fans when she came to a halt yesterday evening in the Music City, Nashville, Tennessee, like a pop Queen of the Night locked in the death grip of a malevolent tractor beam.
Was it Russian hackers in league with on-and-off-again blonde bête noire, Taylor Swift, who stalled her sometime rival’s traverse of the climate-controlled heavens? Was it a covert cyber mission orchestrated from the West Wing and/or Trump Tower that lamed the lamé-clad Clintonite? Or was it a climate-conscious Al Gore, worried that the mass spectacle underway in Bridgestone Arena would drain power from the same grid that services the fashionable Belle Meade enclave of Nashville less then ten miles away where he occasionally darkens the door of his bright white 10,000 square-foot plantation-style mansion, a dwelling so green that it consumes only 22,619 kilowatts in a single summer month—twice the energy used by an average American family in an entire year?
Or was it—as seems ever-so-not-unlikely—a false flag operation carried out by the Perry team itself hoping to inject a spark of apparent spontaneity into her month-old Witness world tour, one that will migrate across North America through February of 2018, and conclude next August in Auckland, New Zealand. The thinking in the Witness war room might well be that nagging reports of slack sales and falling ticket prices need to be combatted with incident, if not accident, so as to ignite the buzz and blather on which pop and Perry feed. There are times when the hyper-control and hyper-reality of a stadium show need even more hyper-control and hyper-reality to impart that special human touch.
“This is the first time I’ve been stuck in space,” quipped the dangling diva, not quite nervously enough.
After more precarious “adlibbing,” Perry and Saturn began finally to move downward, if slowly, until at last the singer could safely rise up on her platform and dive gently into the safe sea of devotees—a divinity touched down to earth in human form, held aloft by her adoring fans towards the heights from which she had just descended. The scene had the archetypal quality of ritual with a dash of improvised club mayhem. The communion wafer had been accidently dropped in the wine. It had to be planned. For all her bad-girl talk, she was again the good-girl incarnate among her people, some paying as little as ten bucks a ticket for admission to these rites.
Now the worshippers could verify that the goddess was made flesh. A few select apostles could bear Witness that Perry was not just hyper-real but really-real. They had grabbed her butt.
All those high hands on her body brought to mind the viral video of her hit, Bon Appétit, released in April a few weeks in advance of Witness, Perry’s fifth studio album.
Witness went right to the top of the Billboard charts. But on its release, Bon Appétit only just broke into the top 100 among singles. Four months on the video has amassed third-of a-billion hits. That’s only half of the two-thirds-of-billion racked up by the aforementioned Swift’s Look What You made Me Do that has been out only since the last days of August.
Witness sold 162,000 copies and was streamed 19 million times in its first week. The current Perry tour just decamped from Nashville hopes to buttress those impressive numbers. But as on Wall Street, success even of this scope is relative. Growth is required to prevent share prices from plummeting. The Grim Reaper of financial decline and incipient old age (Perry is 32) threaten. Could Perry’s Nashville landing presage a future crash from the pop firmament? Is revolutionary rethinking required?
Adding to this supposed uncertainty are the many reviews that have pillorying Perry for serving up her what some see as her weakest, least creative, least energetic effort to date with an album and show that are overproduced and undernourished by imagination.
Perry has even taken flack from supporters disappointed in the lack of political bite in the product, especially after the singer’s promised at February’s Grammy Awards that her forthcoming album would represent “purposeful pop”—a self-negating oxymoron if ever there were one. These followers expected something more overtly political from their heroine in the aftermath of Trump’s victory over Perry’s Clinton. How strange these admirers failed to see that Perry’s genius is in exploring superficiality as the ultimate form of sincerity. Stranger still is how the infinitely malleable meanings of the words and images of a video like Bon Appétit have been treated so humorlessly.
For even on the surface this pop tale does more than simply serve up visual and poetic doubles entendres—excesses that several critics have chided her chorus for:
Cause I’m all that you want, boyAll that you can have boyGot me spread like a buffetBon a, bon appétit, baby.
Perry is the main course. At the video’s start she is defrosted in a microwave from which she is pushed by knife-wielding chefs into a bed of flour as welcoming as all those hands of last night in Tennessee. She is then dusted and kneaded and stretched like a piece of dough—an image that was doubtless brought to life in Nashville for those similarly allowed to grapple with her form. Encased in flesh-tone one-piece, Perry is then made to bathe in a court bouillon as if it were a Malibu hot tub as the chefs sample the brew and she self-bastes. Challah-like braids are chopped from her head and her scalp is massaged and otherwise prepped for baking. A blowtorch sears her tongue—the most disturbing image in the video.
The music is as gleamingly antiseptic as a five-star kitchen ready for the health inspector. The sound bounces off the studio’s stainless fridges and ovens, every last grain of human texture swept from every scrubbed surface. The sterilized Electronic Dance Music oscillates between two chords a half-step apart like a robot sous-chef busy at his repetitive task with carbon steel blade.
Roasted and dressed, the pièce de résistance is wheeled into a private dinner club in which are seated tuxedoed Weinsteins and Trumps along with their unappetizing women. They only have eyes and appetites for Perry.
The diva’s guest musicians, the hip-hop trio Migos, who had hailed Perry in the song’s first words, now get their screen time. From their booth they comment on the proceedings in far raunchier figurative language than that used by Perry: “I grab her legs and now divide, aight / Make her do a donut when she ride, aight.”
Just as the one-percent banqueters are about to tuck in (spoiler alert!), a pole rises up from between main course’s legs (where a cluster of grapes had been previously seen to nestle) and Perry springs upright to her battle station in full floorshow mode. The commando chefs bind and blindfold the diners, and then carve them up for a simple meat pie, blood splattering in the blue club-light on white chef’s smocks.
Thus Perry has her Kobe beef and eats it, too. She’s consumer product that consumes others. The revolution is no tea party: it’s a gastro-pop, gastro-porn orgy.
Until the culinary uprising, Bon Appétit had been over-the-top women-as-meat right out of one of those scathing allegorical watercolors of the debaucheries of Weimar Germany by Georg Grosz. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night also echoed in the EDM reverb: “If music be the food of love, play on.” That speaker, Duke Orsino, goes on to express his need to overdo it so as to curb his desire. “Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
The difference is that with viral pop there never is enough, and if Perry is a buffet, she’s one far deadlier than salmonella.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)