Why Katy Perry's Teenage Dream is the answer to our American Nightmare
Years ago, before Donald Trump sent an avian assault in the form of 59 tomahawk missiles towards Syria’s Al Shayrat Airbase, before he dropped the surprise “Mother of All Bombs” on an underground ISIS Maze, before he displayed clear and unprecedented aggression towards North Korea’s nuclear tests - Katy Perry, Raven-haired and sparkling in a red two-piece uniform, stood up to Snoop Dogg's Army of Gummy Bears in her famous “California Gurls” video. Two cotton-candy haired generals who were flanking her hand over the weapons of mass destruction - not white phosphorus, no, but two cans of whipped cream, almost bursting with pressure. And it is so, that Commander Perry rained down her punishment on that chewy infantry with thick white streams of terrifying hell-goo laying waste to her multi-colored enemies. Her war face would forever be etched into the soul of the fallen and the minds of teenage boys everywhere.
Those were simpler times, but we always remember older times as simpler. New anxieties simply turn into old anxieties.
Today, Katy Perry’s jet black locks are gone. Now she works a blonde pixie cut and makes so-called “purposeful pop” while her fans debate the politics of this new era for her. Her lead single “Chained to the Rhythm” from her as of yet untitled album took on the complicit and complacent mindset of millennials. Oh yeah there were lyrics about living our lives through a lens. Oh yeah there were references to 1984. Oh yeah it was co-written by SIA. The song so subtly screams #RESIST. Yet for all its insight and daring, the song mostly received lukewarm reception from fans - and as I write this, the song is still descending the billboard hot 100, while motherfucking “closer” by the Chainsmokers is moving back up. White people don’t sleep. Maybe her song will fare better in the summer.
Let’s rewind back to summer 2010, when she dropped the song "Teenage Dream". In those days, climate change didn’t cause every summer to have record-setting heat. It was a simple song about falling in love during the season of warm weather. Not too deep, but not insubstantial. It was just nice. It captured the hopeless infatuation people my age were and are prone to. Looking back at the accompanying video - urban outfitter kids slow Mo dancing in old cars on beaches and parking lots and in Calvin Klein jeans with an Amaro filter over it - my initial instinct is to scoff. Where’s the Bernie 2016 sticker? How come they used a light-skinned black girl instead of a darker one? But then I feel a little sadness. When that video came out I didn’t watch it ironically. I dreamed of a life where I was as attractive, fit, and able to drive as the teens in that video.
Today’s teenage DREAMERS are undocumented immigrants brought to America as minors. I like to imagine some of them watching the video around the same time I did, absorbing Americana in its purest form. Perhaps for them, the sun bathed freedom of Katy Perry and her cadre of model not-teens was their American dream. These days those DREAMERS have a high risk of being deported if they encounter police, despite Trumps promises to be empathetic towards them.
In the fall of 2010, I entered high school when she dropped “Firework”. I had just moved into the neighborhood. I had no style, friends, or healthy amount of self-esteem. But baby, I was a fucking firework. I’ll be honest with you - I hate that song. I think it’s mixed poorly and has weak lyrics even by 2011 standards (do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind? #WhatDoYouMean? And also how many members of your target demographic have seen American Beauty???)
But it was the perfect song for a nation still a little high off the optimism Obama's election brought. That same month, Katy Perry married Russell Brand, a match made in … not sure? I’m sure it worked out though.
Speaking of love, this past Valentine's Day I went on a date with - myself. It seems that these days guys jerk off to their own isolation, literally and figuratively. We spend our Valentine's Day in a masturbatory dialogue in the groupchat about how single we are and how much we love/hate it. Point is: we now have a great sense of humor about it, but somehow for me it feels dirty. I remember my days as a high school freshman, when I started developing my pretentious sad boy persona. I would cry alone on my striped comforter because I didn’t have a valentine. Now that I’m in college, me and my contemporaries channel all that angst into memes. Whatever happened to the doe-eyed pursuit of love? Did all this talk of bad bitches and lyin niggas with trust issues kill romance? Or did comic sans?
During the Month of our Lord February 2011, Katy Perry dropped “E.T”, which was her techno-future single about being emotionally abducted by her lover and wanting to “be there when [he] vibrates”, whatever the actual fuck that means. She even had a version of the song that featured Kanye in one of his rare post-MBDTF sellout moments. “I want to dip my AA in your milky way” he talk-raps in a sleazy auto tune. “Imma disrobe you, then imma probe you” says he during the bridge. I’ll cut him some slack. There are worse lyrics on The Life of Pablo.
Mistake me not, I love that song. You can’t hear it and not chant along with the “KISS. ME. K-K-KISS ME” like a scorned sex robot. And I love extra-terrestrials. AKA Aliens. Like illegal aliens. Like the ones being deported as we speak. I’m reaching now.
If you’re still reading at this point, I commend you for sticking through with my agonizing about the bright and beautiful past. I know there was some shit going on in Iran and also other places back then, but 14 year old me didn’t know any of that was happening so it might as well not have. Thus far, I’ve done a mediocre job observing current events through my vague recollection of whatever was going on between 2010 and 2011, but I doubt any of you will waste your time fact checking me. And yet, it’s also that lack of truth-seeking that made Trump president? So suck my dick.
It is with great pride that I arrive at Katy Perry’s fifth and final number one single from her Teenage Dream Album. It’s also what I consider to be one of the greatest pop songs of all time. “Last Friday Night (TGIF)”.
There's a stranger in my bed
There's a pounding in my head
Glitter all over the room
Pink flamingos in the pool
I smell like a minibar
DJ's passed out in the yard
Barbies on the barbecue
Is this a hickey or a bruise?
You didn’t need rap genius to decode those lyrics. They were simple, fresh, debauched, and had an aa bb rhyme scheme that made me a bedroom superstar. I’m not embarrassed to say that. This is a safe space. That song has fueled every one of my Friday nights since its release. The events she describes in this song are what I aspire to every weekend. It is my dream.
So I won’t look to the past to reflect on this song. I’ll just look at what I did last Friday night.
I went to a wine and cheese party at a close friend's place. A mostly white affair, I awkwardly mingled through a group of mismatched people - offering poor conversation and bad jokes, stifled laughter and judgmental glances. I drank cheap wine amongst well-meaning acquaintances. I was sweaty in my orange polo and thick pants.
An hour or so later, an almost-friend of mine invited me to a party at his place.
James’, my almost-friend, house is big, renovated, and unfortunately located near the Athens projects, whose threat looms over the rent but never really actualizes into any danger. There are more people at this party and there’s a dangerous ever clear punch calling my name. Throughout the night I drink and shout obnoxiously, make forced jokes about meth to shock people into laughter, throw my hat in the bonfire out back, hang precariously off the edge of the deck, and try (and fail) to pick up people in my arms so I can show off my strength. Near the end of the night I get high in a friends room and suddenly feel like I’m being judged. Everyone there is more attractive than me. Everyone there is cooler than me. What a high school thing to think.
So I leave. My friends and I walk a mile or two to the car, and along the way I bitch and moan about how uncomfortable I was both mentally and physically. My friend Kaitlyn listens intently. Her major is social work. We get food at Cookout, where I feel like everyone is judging me. I eat my food quickly and awkwardly. I get back home, fall asleep, and wake up without a hangover. I listen to last Friday night, and pretend that the story that song tells is how my night went. You see, all my Fridays are like that.
Maybe that’s the solution to the nightmare we’re living right now. Socialism is in vogue right now with the young people, but back when Teenage Dream was released, we embraced the capitalist machine that made nice pop music that was palatable to everyone. We adored Katy Perry’s no-non-nonsense cool girl persona. We consumed her kitschy, happy-go-lucky sound without a drop of irony. Or maybe we didn’t. I don’t remember.
What I do know is that every day my phone greets me with an alarm and news about how Trump is tearing my future apart little by little. Everything now feels so urgent. Being bombarded with all this information is, for the lack of a more nuanced word, hard. No other generation experiences it the same way I do, the way we do.
So I look to the past, which grows more distant by the second. We were all still plugged in as fuck, but not as plugged in as we are now. Critics still had the final say on c-u-l-t-u-r-e. Middle East unrest was the prequel to ISIS, and prequel memes didn’t exist yet. I was a fourteen year old able to admit he didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. They weren’t necessarily the best of times, but they certainly weren’t the worst of times; and it feels like they were better than our current times. They were the Hillary Clinton of times.
And for the longest time I dreamed of the world Katy Perry made with those five chart topping singles. I lived in that world. A world where manufactured pop wasn’t met with as much skepticism and derision as it is now. A world where sad girl/boy droning wasn’t our medicine. Where we all air-soloed that sax part from Last Friday Night together and gave no fucks about it. A world where “PC” foremost meant “pop culture” and not “politically correct”. A world where Obama was president and his hair was mostly black. That world helped me to keep going. It was pop music that wasn’t trying to be ironic, or make a point, or be edgy. It was fun. A world of candy-colored bliss and nothingness. Not liberal snowflakes vs Alt-right nationalists. Just a dream of Katy Perry vs. Snoop Dogg and his army of gummy bears.
And then I woke up.