"Roar" and the Search for Meaning
A Conversation About Prism and Katy Perry's Pantheistic Quest to Wear Your Skin Like a Suit
PAUL CONSTANT: Katy Perry has always been a singles artist. She really only hits home runs with her singles—you'd have to be a total dick to deny the appeal of "Firework" or "California Gurls." So why does "Roar" feel so deflated? Worse yet, why is "Roar" the best thing on this album?
CIENNA MADRID: Perhaps because Perry finally hit puberty? Now, instead of squirting whipped cream, her mechanical-nipple bras will squirt expired milk and tax forms. I actually like this song. Perry's voice is best when she's scream-singing—it's full-throated, it's husky, and it makes you want to scream-sing along. We don't get enough of that on this album.
PC: But it doesn't even have the abandon of her other full-throated songs. You listen to Katy Perry's singles for that wordless ejaculation at the end of the chorus: The "Make 'em go aaaaah aaaaaay aaaaaay" in "Firework" or that weird "aaieeau-eow-eow" in "California Gurls." Here, it's a more restrained "oooah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohheoh." It ends in a choke, not a bellow.
2. LEGENDARY LOVERS
CM: Really, her most egregious misstep is embracing ballads instead of the clubbier pop hits that made Teenage Dream so fantastic. Without a punchy beat behind her, it's more obvious that her pedantic lyrics—basically just clichés running together in a semi-coherent stream—don't even rhyme. Take the first two lines of "Legendary Lovers": "Under a silver moon, tropical temperature/I feel my lotus bloom, come closer." Later on in the song, she rhymes "legendary" with "legendary." This is what giving up sounds like.
PC: This song just makes me feel gross. All the all-you-can-worship-spirituality-buffet talk about auras and magic and karma and cleansing rivers and saying names like scriptures makes me feel like I'm listening to a Scientology indoctrination tape.
CM: Also, the sitar. Nothing screams cultural appropriation like sitar and lotus blooms.
CM: I do appreciate how Perry can walk the line of chaste flirt and sexy seductress. This song is all about birthday sex. "So let me get you in your birthday suit/It's time to bring out the big balloons/So let me get you in your birthday suit/It's time to bring out the big, big, big, big, big, big balloons" she croons. Meanwhile, while making the media rounds promoting Prism, she's been shaking her bobble-head sadly, blinking her great big blue eyes, and talking about what a shame it is that other pop starlets can't keep their clothes on. (This is the woman who posed nude in cotton-candy clouds on the cover of Teenage Dream AND is seemingly topless on the cover of Prism.) The thing is, she seems so very nice that you feel compelled to nod along to her polite hypocrisy.
PC: This is maybe the second-best song on the album, just because it has a nice Prince vibe to it. Unfortunately, it's post–Jehovah's Witness Prince.
4. WALKING ON AIR
CM: This song sounds like a drag-queen club anthem. It's not terrible, but again, it doesn't hold a candle to Perry's earlier club hits. I've listened to this song no less than 20 times, and it has never once gotten stuck in my head.
PC: "You're reading me like erotica" is a pretty good line for a pop song, but "Boy, you make me feel exotic yeah" is a terrible follow-through. The problem with Prism is that every song has like 30 to 45 good seconds in it—just enough to make a great soundtrack for a TV commercial, hint-hint!—but the other two or three minutes feel sloppy.
PC: Un-con-dish-SHAUN-ul! Un-con-dish-SHAUN-ul-lee!
CM: Katy Perry is teaching an entire generation how to pronounce words wrong. And for that, we give her millions. This country is fucked.
6. DARK HORSE (FEAT. JUICY J)
CM: It was during this song that I realized my overarching problem with this album: I'm not sure what its message is. I mean, this is supposed to be one of the "darker" songs—we know because it has the word "dark" in the title, and features heavy bass and Juicy J from Three 6 Mafia—but the theme's the same as most other songs: love 'n' sex.
PC: To be fair, Katy Perry has always been about mixed signals. "Firework," her supposed gay pride and anti-teen-suicide anthem, is about being beautiful for a second and then exploding into nothingness.
CM: There's no evolution. We're not looking at these entwined themes from different points of view, we're just dwelling on them with a new set of tortured metaphors. Instead of lotus blossoms and birthday balloons, this time we get forbidden magic, birds in a cage, a perfect storm, the requisite dark horse, a Jeffrey Dahmer dinner, pie, a knight in shining armor, drugs, and a roller coaster. (What, no kitchen sink?) ALL OF THAT MELODRAMA STUFFED INTO ONE THREE-MINUTE SONG ABOUT LOVE. This buckshot tactic makes it hard to follow, let alone relate to, what she's singing about.
7. THIS IS HOW WE DO
PC: It's no secret that I'm a Ke$ha man. And part of Ke$ha's appeal, to me, is that she seems to wallow in her lifestyle and image, in the same way that punk musicians lived their lyrics, back when punk still mattered. Unlike Madonna or Lady Gaga, who are always putting on and taking off images, Ke$ha is all about one continuous legend, which feels refreshingly authentic. "This Is How We Do" is the trashy Ke$ha-style party track on this album, and I just don't buy it. In the middle of the song, Perry gives a shout-out to "all you kids buying bottle service with your rent money." I expected the next line to be something about blowing your trust fund on a new scooter. It just feels like the Christian high schooler wearing a fake nose ring to give off a renegade air. The pre-chorus refrain, "It's no big deal/It's no big deal/It's no big deal/This is no big deal," reeks of desperation, like someone trying to convince herself that going to breakfast in last night's dress isn't going to be a mark on her permanent record. Katy Perry is about as sleazy as an autoclave at a cancer research lab.
CM: I suppose this tune is refreshing and different because it's about partying, not love 'n' sex. I just wish it were executed better. The song feels like a Miley Cyrus rip-off—as if someone reminded Perry that she's about to turn 30, and that's about double the age of her fans, so she should scramble to relate to them before they start counting the lines on her face like rings on a tree.
PC: I'm also unhappy with the line "gettin' my nails did all Japanese-y." Considering Perry is on the record as wanting to tear the skin off a Japanese person and then wear it "like Versace".
8. INTERNATIONAL SMILE
CM: The beat is up-tempo and catchy (at least relative to the other songs on this album) but it sounds more like generic filler for Teenage Dream than a fresh hit. That said, I'd listen to it on repeat if I had to undergo minor dental surgery. Much like getting punched in the stomach distracts your attention away from a headache, this song might lessen the pain of a root canal by comparison.
PC: Let's see what other cultures we can murder and eat! How about all of them? Let's just eat all of them.
PC: I know we sound like haters, so let me just say that I loved Perry's concert documentary Part of Me and I'd recommend it to anyone. It's maybe the most successful multimedia promotion of a singer since Madonna's big Sex push back in the early '90s. This song feels like brand maintenance. It acknowledges Perry's divorce from Russell Brand ("You sent a text" is obviously a callback to how Brand reportedly divorced her), and it pushes her personal story. Personally, I just can't be bothered to give a shit. Part of Me was the perfect mix of entertainment and emotion. This album is too much of the latter and not enough of the former.
10. LOVE ME
CM: This song is one of the most cohesive and honest on Prism. It's probably about John Mayer; nevertheless, the message is relatable and affirming. "Sometimes I wish my skin was a costume/That I could just unzip, and strip/But who I am is who I'm meant to be/And it's who you are in love, in love with/So now, I don't negotiate with the insecurities/It's gonna have to take a back seat/I know I have to love myself/The way I want you to." I think the message would sing stronger if every song weren't about cajoling or seducing a man into loving you, but still: It's better than most on this album.
PC: Again with pulling off and wearing skin! Someone's a Silence of the Lambs fan.
11. THIS MOMENT
PC: Is this song more like a fart in an elevator or a warm spot in a public pool?
12. DOUBLE RAINBOW
PC: Of all the many plodding ballads on this album, I guess this is my favorite. But that's not saying much; an '80s synth-pop show-dragger inspired by a wildly popular YouTube video starring a weeping hippie is at best an amusing oddity.
13. BY THE GRACE OF GOD
CM: There's been a lot of speculation that Perry is getting back to her Christian roots and shrewdly remaking herself as a more modest pop icon (someone Christian parents can approve of), in contrast to the twerkers out there. Perhaps that's so. However, this song, much like "Love Me," is clearly another autobiographical autopsy of Perry's crumbled marriage. The lyrics "by the grace of God" feel more like using common vernacular as a reaffirmation of personal strength than a pledge of allegiance to a white Sky King.
PC: Yeah, the autobiographical songs are the worst. You know what Ke$ha's autobiographical songs are about? Having sex with motherfucking ghosts in haunted hotel rooms. I know which story I'd rather hear. And I refuse to believe Perry would tie herself down to one religion. She's nothing if not ambitious. That's why this album worships at least 230 individual gods and demigods at various points in its lyrical journey; she doesn't want to alienate anyone.
CM: Likewise, "spiritual" is all about sex on an altar, so I doubt it was penned to pander to Christian parents. Also, it invokes witchcraft. So.
PC: Dear Wiccans: You are a valuable demographic, and I look forward to seeing you represented on future earnings reports.
Regards, Katy Perry
15. IT TAKES TWO
CM: This is the best song on Prism. It thunders in like a rock anthem and it's all about taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. This song gives me hope that Perry will be able to pump out satisfying hits in the future, instead of the perfunctory turds that overwhelm this album.
PC: I just don't buy it. Maybe as a single I'd be able to appreciate this song, but after the monotony of the rest of Prism, I'm kind of numb. I sincerely wonder if I'll ever be able to love Perry in the same way ever again.
16. CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES
PC: I have nothing to say about this song.
CM: Overwrought. She should've ended on "It Takes Two."
PC: I met this person online who earnestly thinks that Perry, a vocal Obama supporter, named her album Prism in order to obfuscate the Google searches of people who might want to learn more about PRISM, the NSA's once-secret blanket wiretapping program. He believes that Katy Perry's album was named as part of a counterintelligence strike against government overreach. I think that's sort of symbolic of the way most people look at Perry: Everyone wants to give her more meaning than she puts into the work. Everyone wants to find something hidden underneath, some agenda that puts everything in perspective, when really, she probably just picked "prism" because it's a pretty word that sounds nice.