Katy Perry’s Super Bowl: Anxious Americana
For our latest instalment of collaborative semiotic snacks, the semiotics team have been watching Katy Perry’s Super Bowl performance and pretending that it’s work. Hit it, semiotics team (there are some words that have probably never been uttered before):
ALFIE: There’s a parallel with what we noticed about Nicki Minaj. Well, it’s an interesting comparison. Because this is spectacle. But you have to ask yourself what kind of spectacle. It strikes me that though it resembles to a kind of hyper-kitschy postmodern mash-up thing, it’s actually much more anxious than that. There’s a pathological attempt for Katy to own her own representation: a recurring obsession with literalisation, with moving things from the metaphor to the literal, with placing bodies in suits that are a digital recreation of the body; so that the systems of representation get owned by the individual. What you’re seeing is the spectacle of an anxiety about how to have any power as a young woman, power over representations of you…
CECILY: I think it’s interesting that most of her backing dancers were dressed so you couldn’t see their face. We joked while we were watching about Missy Elliot being really badly lit and still managing to upstage Katy Perry, but… I think there’s something in the way she was really badly lit. Like a reaching for power, for dominance, from Katy.
KATHARINE: Yeah. Kravitz in his sunglasses. [Laughter]
DUNSTAN: It feels like a very American anxiety as well, paralleling American national anxieties. Running through from a straightforwards kind of triumphalism in something like Roar, through a cutesy 1950s Americana, through sexual liberalisation, and a racial undermining, through to this kind of rather camp Assumption at the end. Not only how Katy Perry can own her own representation, but… how can America.
Probably my favourite image to ever appear on the blog.
JAMES: Something I noticed was just how anodyne she deliberately made herself. How so much of it was about making threatening things non-threatening. So sharks are made into cartoons. Or I Kissed A Girl – oh, we have to get a man to sing it with her!
CECILY: That’s always been the thing with that song. That completely emptied-out performance of lesbian desire. It’s…not something I can necessarily get on board with. [laughter]
ALFIE: Sexuality as marketing ploy.
CECILY: But not even! It’s too anxious even for that. It’s not even doing the fake lesbian porn trope. Usually when you get performances of queer female desire that are actually all about men, they at least bother to have more than one woman there.
JAMES: Yeah. After Dark Horse, the only even vaguely aggressive song, and I Kissed A Girl, the subversively sexual one, she ends up on her knees, literally begging for forgiveness. And then she gets reborn as a kind of cartoon virgin.
ALFIE: And it’s in the context of the Super Bowl, the moment that capitalist America pats itself on the back: look what we can afford, look what we do for you. So potential transgressions are completely re-appropriated and validated by the system. What’s interesting is… Katy Perry was already sort of doing that. I Kissed A Girl was already sort of doing that. So when you put her in the Super Bowl, what’s new? And I don’t know about you but I just felt like they were trying way too hard.
CECILY: I think she was trying really hard to be the ultimate modern female performer, the only spectacle you need. She borrows from loads of other modern female pop icons – those dancers in the second segment were very Gaga – and she blocks everyone else out. Saturated with references to other modern female performers, but not honouring other women. It reminds me of that Rihanna song – you make me feel like the only girl in the world. That’s a very odd ideology. True love is like being isolated in the world. To be separated from anyone like you.
SIMI: It’s interesting that, because she’s introducing Missy Elliot. There’s a focus on the dominance of the individual co-existing with a reliance on people from the history of music. But specifically the history, not the now – is Missy unthreatening precisely because she’s of the past? She’s not direct competition in that way.
JAMES: The only other women you see (and the only sense of Katy as within a communality) are also situated in the past: the 1950s girls in California Girls.
KATHARINE: Yeah it’s not just Missy, it’s broadly interesting how she uses the past. Because the whole thing feels remarkably passé actually. Even the bit where the sharks are dancing, what’s clearly meant to be the ‘Miley Cyrus moment’, pop kitsch, that ends up looking like a SEGA computer game. You’ve got Katy Perry, Lenny Kravitz, who I think is basically like a poor man’s Pharrell, and then Missy. All engineered around these slightly outdated cultural references. But to me it feels like a very anxious, underconfident referencing of the past. It’s a very ‘value-for-money’ Super Bowl. A little bit of this there, a little bit of that here, you’re even getting a kind of quasi- Daft Punk reference over here. And I think largely it’s a success. Except… With all that referencing of the past, all I’m really thinking is ‘wow, yeah, the past was much better, musically’. She doesn’t come off well historically.
ALFIE: That’s interesting though, because what you’re pointing towards there is kind of the Katy Perry cultural machine, constant pastiching, constant cartooning – which requires a past which it constantly eats, until it’s got no more past to eat. Maybe you could say, ‘she’s done quite well at Katy Perry-ing’; but are we seeing ‘Katy Perry-ing’ losing its newness – losing the coal that keeps the fire stoked? Like, where else can she go? She could go Wild West? Maybe she’s done that already.
JAMES: I think she has.
CECILY: Maybe it’s a symptom of that anxiousness. Incredibly accelerated pastiche. It’s so fragmented because there’s nothing she’s prepared to stick with and stand by.
ALFIE: I love the way – we noticed a failure of communality, and also a cultural logic of pastiching. It’s like, she is the American suburbs. That isolation –
KATHARINE: – yeah, a reaching out to larger epicentres –
ALFIE: – yes – combined with the sense of living inside a dream, inside an idealised image that’s already played itself out.
CECILY: Yeah she is a cartoon character, right. She dresses like one. I’ve always thought the lyrics to Teenage Dream are interesting in this context. “This is real”, very repeatedly, very anxiously. Like, no really, this is real.
JAMES: And her big moment was that chain of songs that referenced Russell Brand. Trying to tie her back into something actual, using reality as a counterpoint to the anxieties of over-performance, over-simulation. “But this one’s clearly about my divorce!”
ALFIE: That’s interesting! So, basically, Katy Perry has a reality problem. And that’s where we see all of these anxiously regurgitated representations. Trying to capture that originary moment: I actually kissed a boy!
JAMES: And she finishes by literally becoming a firework. Going into full metaphor.
CECILY: Like Roar at the beginning. The linguistic breakdown – I must replace the signifier with the signified. To actually roar. “No, guys, you are actually going to hear me roar.”
KATHARINE: I’m glad they didn’t do that with Dark Horse. [laughter]
CECILY: There is a really weird use of metaphor and idiom in dark horse. Language isn’t working very well as a system of representation. Like, you can’t come at someone like a dark horse.
ALFIE: A sort of death of language thing. If you go back to the suburb, you have isolation, combined with that historical dependency on the old urban centre where meaning is actually produced. A logic of deceleration, where meaning is being eaten up. Possibilities are being eaten up.
KATHARINE: That’s so interesting, because that’s why when you bring Missy Elliot onstage, we feast on her, right – because she means so much.
ALFIE: Well, she’s urban, right. Literally.
KATHARINE: She’s actually got truth and authenticity. It’s really dangerous for Katy Perry to put her up there because Missy completely supersedes her. Missy is so full of meaning, and so much of what Katy does is thieve meanings from other people. I mean she really feels like she’s stealing from other performers. When she’s on the big tiger, it’s like, well you’re just cribbing that from Beyoncé.
DUNSTAN: It’s funny, this weird sense of thievery and lack, at what should be the most communal event in the American calendar. We’re all anchored around this spectacle that actually doesn’t mean anything.
JAMES: Maybe it’s like, I’ll mean anything you want me to mean, baby. [laughter]
CECILY: So commercial, right? She’ll mean anything the market dictates.
JAMES: In Firework, it’s show ‘what you’re worth’. What you cost.
CECILY: She’s a total empty vessel for signification. Coming full circle, maybe that’s why she’s so unconvincing as a lesbian. Wrongly, but we conceptualise straight female sexuality as a vessel, a lack, an emptiness – but to be a queer woman you have to communicate a presence of female desire.
ALFIE: Yeah. And that also means she’s unconvincing as everything, right? Katy Perry as total ersatz.
Post by Flamingo Semiotics