It’s nearly impossible to write a review of a Katy Perry show and not somehow call it, or her, a teenage dream. But even if the struggle to avoid that is awkward (as it surely is here), it has to be noted, because it speaks to the marketing genius that is the Katy Perry phenomenon: you can’t talk about what she’s selling without helping her sell what she’s talking about.
For me, who knew about four of her songs definitively going into this (“Teenage Dream,” “Firework” and “Last Friday Night,” which were each brought into my life by Glee; and “I Kissed a Girl” who was brought in my life by virtue of being queer and appalled), I really had no idea what to expect. But I had 20 hours in London, and the trip really needed to be about something other than curry and grocery shopping.
So, at the last minute (like, sitting in the Zurich airport last minute), I bought a ticket to the Katy Perry show. Assuming my plane landed on time, I could get to my hotel, shower, change, go to Picadilly to pick the ticket up, and head out to the 02. Half of my Twitter friends said it would be no problem, and half of them cackled at the thought of me trying to dodge crowds in central London on a Saturday in those weird hours no one knows whether to call afternoon or evening.
It was, shall we say, an ordeal. And if I never have to set foot in the Trocadero again, it will be too soon. The Seatwave people were very nice though, and dear lord, for the cheapest seat I could get at the last minute, it was perfect: dead center, lower tier (the 107 block for those who know the 02), just slightly higher than the stage. I saw David Bowie on the Glass Spider tour at Madison Square Garden with seats like that with my mom when I was in high school, and sure, everything was really far away, but for scale and the sense of how bizarre it must be to perform for an arena, it couldn’t be beat. This was exactly the same.
So, here’s my teenage dream: as a teenager, I was really obsessed with London. Anglophilia, boring, I know. But most of the music I listened to was British, and I bought expensive magazines about British music and dreamed of the all-night night life there without parents to sneak away from. When I got older, it wasn’t that important anymore, but it still twinged in my heart a little when friends would come back from trips and talk about all sorts of not entirely appropriate things they did stay awake at dance parties lasting not until 4am or 6am, but 9am or noon.
Even in a mess of trips to London in the last year or so (five now) and with the Anglophilia still going embarrassingly strong (even if it’s more Doctor Who than the club scene now), I’ve still never been dancing there. To be frank, I’m probably just a little (okay, a lot) intimidated.
But one of Perry’s opening acts on this tour is a DJ, and watching the huge floor crowd move together, arms in the air, I knew that whether it was travel exhaustion, missing Patty, or just memories of the girl I wanted to be when I was fourteen (I wrote to a boy from the pen pal section of one of those music magazines, because we liked all the same bands; he was 18 and in the military, and when the letter came from whatever British base he was stationed at, I got in a world of trouble because he didn’t care about music, my parents said, and I wasn’t allowed to have British music magazines after that), this show was somehow going to hit all my emotional buttons.
After an introductory video narrative that was seven parts fairy tale, two parts Alice in Wonderland and 1 part Sweeney Todd that later wound loosely through the entire show, Perry opened with “Teenage Dream.” To say I wasn’t ready for the glitter-drenched dancers who weren’t doing much more than the Warblers’ step-touching (don’t worry, they redeemed themselves later) and parading around a Candyland set as Katy
fell down the rabbit hole crawled through her flat’s cat-door in search of her missing Kitty (we’ll get back to Kitty, so hold that thought), would be vastly understating the case. I laughed my head off. It was delightful. And weird.
And I kept laughing, even if it was sometimes deeply awkward. “Peacock” was already a dirty song, but Perry in a remote controlled tail that could pop up and down and her and a bunch of dancers really, really, bobbing their heads over their microphones in a move that did, remarkably, read quite clearly as fellatio all the way to the back of the arena, made it a really dirty song, and I was sitting next to a nine-year-old and her really bored dad. The kid kept sneaking glances at me, wondering, I guess, either why I was there alone, or if I knew what the song was about. Oh yes, honey, I so do.
But really, when “Peacock” isn’t the most absurd moment of the night, you’re onto something. At various points the stage show also involved assaultive mimes; a slot machine named Slot (“Slot not Slut!”); girls spinning on circus contraptions in a manner that was oddly evocative of a Victoria’s Secret ad; giant slabs of cartoon meat; and the return of Kitty (after Kitty was found, then blended with Katy into Kitty Perry, then unblended with Katy and rescued) as a dancer in a full fur suit.
With all that weirdness (and with Perry floating over the crowd on a tiny, tiny cloud named Cloudy at one point), it would be easy to actually avoid talking about the particular sexuality Perry was selling, but when “I Kissed a Girl” was a sultry and angry followup to her inviting a shirtless boy on stage, critiquing his figure, distracting him so she could plant a kiss on his cheek without him going for her lips and then shoving him off-stage, I got interested fast.
Because sure, sex is just as much a product as Katy Perry herselves (that’s Perry the character in the performance narrative as well as Perry the public persona of the performer in question). But the degree to which the sexuality wasn’t unintelligent, excessively coy (oh, it was coy, all right, but with a delighted eye-roll from her) or about her being at anyone’s mercy was startling.
I won’t say it was empowering, because when it comes to the lives of women and talking about how we feel about sex, the phrase is so overplayed I’m no longer sure what it means. But I will say I found it hot, because it seemed like it was happening entirely for her own amusement and that our amusement was merely a secondary good. I think it was how I was supposed to feel about Madonna in the 80s but didn’t; and despite all the glitter and fluffy short skirts, on Saturday night all I could think was (is this blasphemy?) Annie Lennox.
Audience participation wasn’t limited to the boys, either. At another point in the show, a hoard of people were dragged up on stage. They ranged in age from young, young girls (like aged six), to a mixed-gender group of folks in their teens and 20s. It was hard to feel like my heart wasn’t bursting for them, because it doesn’t mean anything, but they’ll ride that high, and that story, for a long time. What a way to get chosen.
When they were chased off the stage at the end of the song, Perry held one girl behind and asked if she had a camera. The girl, it turned out, didn’t speak English, but with pantomime they figured it out, and Perry snapped a picture of them together (so it really happened!). Then, as it was time for her to go, her purse up-ended! So there Perry was, down on the floor with this girl in front of 15,000 people, laughing and helping her pick up her money.
It turns out, of course, that I knew more Perry songs than I realized, including “Hot and Cold,” which I’ve always really liked, and “California Gurls,” which closed the show as Perry sprayed the crowd with an incredibly phallic looking candy-cane striped water-gun as a kick-line of gingerbread men danced behind her (she’d found her true love, Baker’s Boy, you see) and beach balls bounced around the audience.
But the show’s emotional highlight, perhaps predictably, was “Firework,” which, truthfully, is one of those songs I don’t want to love, but apparently excites my brain’s pattern recognition systems in a way that means I can’t resist it. Of course, I had a nine-year-old on one side of me and some teen girls in hijab on the other and a group of gay men in their 40s in front of me and we were all singing along, as loud as we could, staring straight ahead, lost in what seemed very private, if perhaps, non-specific moments. Yes, there were tears, and no, they did not belong to the nine-year-old.
So was I a Katy Perry fan walking into this? No, I was bored and felt like doing something ridiculous. And I’m not sure I walked out one either; I don’t enjoy her ballads, and I thought the narrative that strung the show together (and allowed for her constant awesome costume changes) was too incoherent.
Certainly, “I Kissed a Girl” still annoys me, even if the tonality of it at Saturday’s performance nearly changed my feelings about it and involved some lesbian tango action. In fact, as a side note, I can’t stop being interested in what happens to Perry’s songs when they are performed as if they are something other than vapid pop; Darren Criss’s weird, melancholy live version of “Teenage Dream” certainly hasn’t stopped fascinating me, and I think there’s a certain richness that could probably be added to a lot of Perry’s songs (and, okay, really any random pop if we’re being fair) with some deftly applied emotion and tempo changes.
But, one thing I am sure of, is that I am now a huge fan of the Katy Perry experience, from the large number of fans cosplaying as her in both the “to find your true love wear the blue wig” and the “Last Friday Night” 80s teen with head-gear versions, to the intensely diverse audience that I can’t blame just on London.
All of it put me in mind, more than once, of Absolute Beginners, which is a very weird 80s movie musical about racial strife and the construction of the teenager as a marketing demographic in late 50s London. It features David Bowie as an evil ad executive tap-dancing on a giant typewriter. It’s both amazing and awful, but more than that, is just weird (and, like Perry’s show, it’s the weird that makes it work).
Anyway, Katy Perry — I’d go again in a second. And if her music even faintly amuses you, you might want to too.