Thursday night, Katy Perry provided the soundtrack to a monumental moment in American history, performing just before Hillary Clinton became the first woman to accept the presidential nomination of a major political party. Somehow, though, this is not even the most high-pressure gig Perry has had recently. Consider that in the span of just 18 months, the 31-year-old pop star will have headlined the Super Bowl halftime show, performed at the Democratic National Convention, and voiced the (NBC) anthem of the goddamn Olympics. This feat is all the more fascinating given that Katy Perry has not released a new album in almost three years; her lukewarm but hit-producing Prism came out in October 2013. Most stars take these kinds of high-profile gigs when they have something to promote — a new record, a world tour, or, in our increasingly bizarre pop marketplace, perhaps a personalized set of emoji. But in the past few years, Perry has rebranded herself as someone who is not selling albums or iTunes downloads so much as universal, feel-good concepts: uplift! Triumph over very vaguely defined adversity! VICTORY!!!!!
It’s a subtle, savvy, and, I think, necessary pivot. Two summers ago, I saw Perry’s Prismatic World Tour, and thought it a (neon-streaked, emoji-encrusted) portrait of an artist at an awkward crossroads in her career. Perry was about to turn 30, while her audience members, a significant portion of which were dressed like tiny princesses, were some of the youngest I’d seen at a pop concert in ages. In her banter between songs especially, Perry seemed more than a little hemmed in by this disconnect between her gradually maturing self and her audience. In a write-up of the show the next day, my former colleague very accurately compared her to “a tentative first-year kindergarten teacher wondering if this is what she really wants to do with her life.”
There’s always been a great tension between the artist that Katy Perry wants to be and the kind of artist the world wants Katy Perry to be, and she’s achieved her staggering success (still the world’s most-followed person on Twitter) by leaning hard into the latter identity. As anyone who’s seen the tour documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me can tell you, the girl born Katheryn Hudson started out wanting to be a kind of Christian-rock Alanis Morissette, then — after she distanced herself from her religious upbringing and her pastor father — a regular ol’ Alanis Morissette, followed by a brief stint as a sassy pop-punk frontwoman. It’s easy to forget now that one of her first major gigs was the 2008 Warped Tour.
While her contemporaries like Beyoncé and world-tour-back-up-thief Taylor Swift build their fan-bases through idiosyncratically defined personas and artfully disclosed personal details, Perry is at her best when she’s at her most universal — when she fashions herself little more than an empty vessel for the highly relatable emotions evoked by anthems like “Firework,” “Roar,” and “Teenage Dream.” This is part of the reason her songs are so ubiquitous. It’s safe, one-size-fits-all empowerment: She does not have to change up the set list when she performs at a sporting event or a political convention. But there’s an unfortunate flip side: Whenever Perry tries to “be herself” or show a little personality, we get awkward fare like the mawkish Prism ballad “By the Grace of God,” or, worse, the lazy provocation of “Ur So Gay.” There’s an odd pathos to the fact that Katy Perry only really succeeds by stepping out of the way of her songs.
Which is maybe why I found her (admittedly clumsy) performance Thursday night kind of endearing. Sure, she made the predictable mistake of performing her tepid new Olympic anthem “Rise” — a song that’s more moody than uplifting, a subpar “Frozen” that should have been a “Ray of Light.” She seemed thrown off by sound issues throughout the performance, and the transition into the more wisely chosen “Roar” wasn’t as seamless as it should have been. She made a few hammy jokes about her oh-so-zany outfits that fell deafeningly flat, although I’m sure this guy laughed.
But you know what? This appearance felt like the greatest risk Katy Perry’s taken in ages — underscored by the fact that so few other contemporary pop stars have yet spoken out about what will probably end up being the most important election of our time. Taylor Swift makes a lot of noise about supporting strong women in positions of power, but when it comes to the country’s first viable female presidential candidate, she’s been weirdly silent. And after some recent comments about the election, Blake Shelton took to Twitter on Thursday to say, “I haven’t enforced ANYBODY for president”… uh, his words, not mine. So in a pop-scape otherwise barren of electoral comment, you have to at least give Perry credit for putting herself out there. Sure, the whole thing was a little bit awkward, but that made it seem all the more genuine. Katy Perry (like her fellow pop-art patriot, Lady Gaga) is currently, and very publicly, trying to figure out how to transition into the second, more “respectable” phase of her career. What we got last night wasn’t exactly Katy Perry 2.0, but at least Katy Perry 1.5.
Besides, if ever there were a night for those unifying, one-size-fits-all anthems, it was the closing night of a particularly cathartic DNC, during which the main theme was uniting to fight a common enemy. The only explanation I have for the convention’s continued use of Rachel Platten’s infernal “Fight Song” was to make “Firework” sound that much brighter when it finally popped off. The juxtaposition between the two showed the subtle, underappreciated craftsmanship of Katy Perry’s anthems: Anybody can write a fight song, but only the best pack a punch.