Moment of Observation: Katy Perry’s “Firework”

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Have you ever encountered an earnest young co-ed who charmingly says, “If I had to pick a song that would be the soundtrack of my life, it would be “Don’t Stop Believin’”!”?

Yes?  No?  I have, more than a few times.  As I am innately jaded I have never been quite so optimistic, but I must admit there’s something really hopeful and sweet and unspoiled about this particular expression of unfettered idealism.  Which is why I was profoundly sad the other day when, trapped in an environment where I had to listen to top-40 radio, I realized Katy Perry’s “Firework” is the “Don’t Stop Believin’” of the new generation.

This song is everywhere.  It debuted in November, 2010 and has been all over the Billboard charts, spent four weeks at number one, is still charting on the Adult Contemporary charts, and recently won a VMA for Best Music Video.  The problem is, “Firework” sucks.  Make ‘em go oh, oh, oh as you shoot across the sky-y-aay.  Really?  Wake me when it’s over.

Right from the beginning of the song, during the opening bars of “Firework”, Katy Perry totally rips off Journey though, in holding true to the concept that it is a pale shadow of “Don’t Stop Believing”, the full, percussive sound of the piano and Steve Perry’s soaring vocals are replaced by a synthesizer/drum machine and Katy Perry’s singing-through-a-kazoo nasally flatness.  It is not a note-for-note ripoff but it’s similar enough for us to see clearly from where Perry gets her ideas.  Go ahead, have a listen.  I’ll wait.

I’ve always had precious little patience for Katy Perry, right from “I Kissed a Girl” onward.  And it’s not that I have a problem with her

Cletus: Jeff kissed a girl, and he liked it.

wanting to kiss a girl; go to, girlfriend.  But this song is simply a means to cash in on lesbian chic, and has become an anthem for all the drunk girls across America who want to kiss girls so that the boys will like them.  If it was a song about a moment of self-discovery I would be behind it.  When it’ s sung by a guy, it’s pretty funny (oh, Cletus Mergitroid, how you are missed!) (and I have it on good authority that it’s a viciously boring song to play guitar on, but now I’m digressing).  But sung by a chick who winkingly “hopes her boyfriend won’t mind it” removes any hope of honesty OR kitsch from the song, and leaves a vacuous plea to get noticed at the cost of co-opted and untruthful sexuality.

And it is that same sort of vacuous spotlight grab that Katy Perry brings to “Firework”.  Her lyrics are insipid (“Did you ever feel/like a plastic bag”) yet delivered cheerfully, and she maintains a theoretical positivity.  She makes up for these insipid lyrics with tight arrangements and swelling orchestration, and it’s got a great beat that you can dance to.  Sure, it’s hooky and perfunctorily pleasing, and on an entirely thought-free level I get its appeal.  But the song is also contradictory and not a little carelessly mean-spirited; in one verse she sings about feeling buried, “Six feet under screams/but no one seems to hear a thing”.  So the subject is depressed and the world is indifferent, yeah?  Two verses later she reprimands to subject, saying, “Maybe you’re the reason why all the doors are closed.”  Mmmmmmmkay.  Perhaps this is not the best approach to someone feeling “Like a house of cards/one blow from caving in” and while I certainly advocate for taking personal responsibility for your own happiness, “one blow from caving in” is the wrong time to offer the advice that they just snap out of it.  “Don’t Stop Believin‘” has a bit of a more realistic, grittier edge, admitting that things won’t always work out for the addressee of the song (Some will win/Some will lose/Some were born to sing the blues).  “Firework” is written to offer feel-good, non-edgy, yet imperial advice; you feel like this, you should do that, and it’s hard to write in that voice without sounding somewhat…megalomaniacal.  It’s not as though Katy Perry expresses any relationship with the concept she’s extolling, telling the listener, “I felt like that once, and this what I did, which is why you should relate to me.”  She doesn’t offer anything practical: “If you feel depressed/go see a doctor/maybe there’s an organic root/to your feelings…’Cause baby, you take a reasoned approach to problem-solving/Come on, eliminate all the variables while you search out what’s really affecting you/It’s probably doing to take a while and you’ll have to do a lot of digging/But in the end you’ll understand yourself so much better.”  Instead, she just tells the listener to…flame out.

Because the metaphor she’s chosen isn’t particularly healthy, either.

Think about it for a second…what do fireworks do?  They explode, make a tremendous noise, sparkle for a moment and then fade into oblivion, a literal manifestation of the idea of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Baby, it's a firework. Just one. Singularly.

Yes, they are beautiful, yes, people gather to watch them, yes people ooh and ahh.  But people also gather around burning houses and rubberneck at grisly accidents on the highway, so just because we collectively watch something doesn’t mean the thing we watch has intrinsic moral value, consider “Jersey Shore”.  And have you ever noticed what’s going on inside a firework?

Inside a firework.

So, in order to address my depressive state–which is apparently all my fault–Mrs. Russell Brand, I should chaotically belch fire and smoke for a few moments and then disappear into the night sky?  And people blamed Ozzy Osbourne for negatively impacting youth culture.  Unbelievable.  (Side note about Ozzy: the song “Suicide Solution” still exists and yet, no one’s claimed that kids have killed themselves because of it in years.  Is this because his song has lost its impact with time?  Or is it because the overpostured bloviating about this song in the ’80s was full of crap?  You decide.)  This isn’t long-term thinking, this is “solve your problems in 140 characters or less” Twitterlogic, which doesn’t leave much room for nuanced approach or extended internal contemplation.  In fact, “Firework” doesn’t involve innerwork at all, it just tells people to go blow up, which is faux empowerment at best.  Fireworks come to bad ends.  Every.  Single.  Time.

And when people start shooting fireworks in the video (see above), it’s not only unsettling, it looks suspiciously like a bunch of Battle Bots locked in combat.

I confess, I’m not much of a fan of anthemic songs; they’re usually boring and overdone.  I think “We Are the Champions” is Queen’s weakest effort (and I’m not entirely more kindly inclined toward “We Will Rock You“, but I’m as much a sucker for that “stomp stomp clap” hook as anyone).  Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” makes me want to burst my own eardrums.  And as much as I agree with the sentiment–I know I’m going to hear it about this–I think “Give Peace A Chance” is a great lullaby, because it will lull you to sleep with its uninteresting structure.  For me, the Beastie Boys “Fight for Your Right (To Party)” is the most alluring rallying cry I need to hear about.  I begrudgingly admit that I like “Don’t Stop Believin’” at all, which is largely why I’m so disappointed that another song has arisen that will take its place.  Can’t we just have one angsty-positive anthem and be done with the genre?

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24 responses »

  1. I’ll never speak so harshly of Journey again… thought I’m more than a little surprised at the praise you’ve lavished on them, to wit: “…Katy Perry totally rips off Journey though, in holding true to the concept that it is a pale shadow of “Don’t Stop Believing”, the full, percussive sound of the piano and Steve Perry’s soaring vocals…” Have another listen with the good headphones. It’s MIDI piano, but I digress…

    As is customary with my ever-so-charmed life, I’d previously heard “Firework” a grand total of one time (and IMMEDIATELY recognized “The Science of Popular Music” formula ;)… I can name that rip-off in one measure!). The song is the standard-bearer all all that is vile and contemptuous in processed, homogenized, mainstream “music”. But then, people have willingly eaten Cheez Whiz for decades now. Nothin’ new under the sun to hate here… move along people.

    “Don’t Stop Believin’”… has never sounded better.

    • I leave it to geeks like you to listen through the good headphones. :) I know I don’t often lavish praise upon Journey, but I did make it clear that I begrudgingly felt this way about “Don’t Stop Believin’”, didn’t I? The thing is, I get that people want anthemic songs…I just want them to be BETTER songs than “Firework”.

  2. **This song is everywhere.**
    Gah. I really do live in a cave. I suppose I’ll click, just so I can register an opinion. Or perhaps I am better off enjoying not having that in my brain awhile longer.

    Two things:

    There really are people who say in earnest that “Don’t Stop Believing” is the soundtrack of their life? It must be generational. Not that it’s a bad song (it def passes the “sing-it-along-with-the-car-radio” test), but I always feel that I’m enjoying it through a heavy dose of post-modern irony.

    I pretty much agree with your summation of the anthems you listed, but I submit “Tubthumping” as a runner-up to “Fight for your right etc.” (what do you know, same basic message). Personally, I wish that “Quinn the Eskimo” would catch on with those kids today (the ones who won’t get off my lawn) but that’s just me.

  3. Addendum:
    You know, I hardly know who Katy Perry is, but from now on she’ll always be “the chick on the balcony with tinsel hanging from her tits.”

  4. Well. Of course, intellectual assessment of a Katy Perry song is like washing an oily pan with water. Smarts just don’t apply. Whenever I hear that trite meaningless opening line, I just think, “so you (or your assistant songwriter person) ripped that sentiment from the plastic bag scene in American Beauty? because otherwise, who would get plastic bag message?”I actually thankfully didn’t realize people found the song “inspirational” (I didn’t want to believe it but it must be true). I thought it was nothing but a total ear assault every time I was in a compromised position and couldn’t flip the dial fast enough (sometimes it’s on 3 stations at once)…UNTIL one day my 2 year old started singing Oh oh oh in a stuttered way, which I thought couldn’t POSSIBLY be THAT song, but then the next time it came on, sure enough, I heard “Oh oh oh!” from the back seat-during the opening part! Like my 2 year old knew it was coming! sad. that. she. knows. that. song. So. I give it five thumbs down, but do admit it’s OK for two year olds experimenting with stutter sounds.
    Um, and the video? Exploding chest packs? Boys kissing at clubs? (ooooh! edgy!) an how does the cancer patient just “blow up and conquer” exactly? Like the girl jumping in the pool at the “thin party”? (I googled video for 2 year old) um. yeah. not so genius. I also didn’t know “I kissed a girl” was hers…had no idea she’s been around that long.
    ps A few Beastie Boys tracks WAY out inspire these said anthems (but I’ve ALWAYS loved Don’t Stop Believing). Great post! :)

    • I know…to steal a line from “Clueless”, it’s like trying to find meaning in a Pauly Shore movie. And yeah, it’s supposed to be “inspirational”; take a look at the link to the VMA article, she said something obnoxiously self-aggrandizing in it, like “I feel like I’m doing something good when I sing this song”, or something to that sentiment. Blech. It’s like she took her husband’s self-important “Aldous Snow” character and thought he was serious. Which is so…weird. And I’m not sure how the cancer patient was supposed to conquer, unless it was by taking possession of the body of the infant he was watching being born.

  5. ***And I’m not sure how the cancer patient was supposed to conquer, unless it was by taking possession of the body of the infant he was watching being born.***

    Zombie Katie Perry? “Baby braaaiiins…and TINSEL!!!”

  6. After much consideration over the last few hours, if I had to pick an “anthem” for my particular span of our generation… it would have to be “Another Brick in the Wall”. Cheery thought, aye? :)

  7. Katy Perry is totally signed up to the music industry’s ‘agenda’. Her videos and TV spots are absolutely in line with everything the corporate ‘culture creation industry’ is trying to promote at the moment. Her videos are stuffed full of all the usual symbolism and themes that are put into all the other videos by similar big name acts (check out the link below for numerous articles demonstrating this).

    The total hypocrisy of “Firework” with it’s messages of ‘looks don’t matter’ and ‘love the real you inside and be confident with who you are’ seems to have gone right over the heads of most people.

    But wait a minute….. Perry used to be a (commercially unsuccessful) gospel singer who even admits to have completely sold out to the music industry in return for fame. She gave up being singer/ songwriter Katy Perry to become Super Plastic Sex Doll Katy Perry – all in return for fame.

    She allowed the industry to portray her as as a sex object, singing songs about wanting to be f*cked by men (or women) all day long (what else are young women good for right?) and she allowed her oversexed image to be used by the industry to flog all manner of products and media services.

    Would the industry have been remotely interested in her as an ‘artist’ if she didn’t fit the ‘sex doll’ mold and wasn’t willing to be portrayed in such a cheap, trashy way? Of course not!

    The sick entertainment industry that conceived, wrote, choreographed, costumed, filmed and produced “Firework” is the same industry responsible for giving girls (and now boys) all around the world body image issues, eating disorders, mental health problems and a totally materialistic, dumbed down world view. Such psychological warfare just happens to make people into PERFECT CONSUMERS – ie neurotic, self obsessed, materially fixated, image obsessed and with a need to buy endless mass marketed products in order to feel ‘special’ …… (or just to stop feeling so wretched and hollow for a a few hours).

    But although the music may be dreadful and contrived, learning about how the industry in controlled and the kinds of messages they are trying to push onto the youth is a fascinating subject. :)

    • The music industry is carnivorous–look at the kids who danced in that weird Brittney Spears tribute at the VMAs; it will absolutely eat its own young. But even aside from that, I couldn’t ignore just how superficially pleasing/internally unstable this song is, and how very wrong its anthemic status is. What you say about the issues of image–needing to be a sex object, creating eating disorders and material fixations and other varied neuroses, etc, etc–is an entirely valid concern that merits more than just a comment at the end of this post. The more I read about media bombardment and mindless consumerism, the more I both want to know/don’t want to know what else is going on. Thanks for the link, I’ll be sure to check it out.

      • “….The more I read about media bombardment and mindless consumerism, the more I both want to know/don’t want to know what else is going on…..”

        I hear you! Unfortunately most people don’t want to know at all. And most people are trapped by a very simple yet devastatingly wrong assumption:

        That cavorting in videos in your underwear singing about sex and cars and money etc is the opposite of censorship.

        It is not!!!! This is exactly how western culture IS censored and restricted.

        In the ‘free’ west our censorship is the opposite of how it would be in, say, China. In the west we obviously are more free to share ideas, communicate freely and express ourselves. So they can’t restrict our information via direct control of it all ….but they can only dilute (and pollute) it with endless trash.

        The results are still censorship though! In the west we are being starved, and yet there are tables and tables full of ‘party food’ – sweets, cakes, chocolate biscuits, jelly and ice cream, sodas… and there are balloons and streamers and lights and loud music. It is all defined as a culture of freedom, liberation and fun, but really it is pure demoralization.

        The arguments about censorship/ freedom of expression always focus on ‘morality’ which is a red herring. Sexual content or violence or whatever isn’t necessarily ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’…. what’s so negative and destructive is when these subjects are portrayed in a totally INAUTHENTIC way.

        For example: depicting being a sex slave as ‘empowering’, depicting military conflict as ‘sexy’, depicting being stupid as ‘cool’, depicting being a plagiarizing, narcissistic, industry sell out as ‘the height of originality and artistry’ ……..

        Having this kind of inauthentic culture makes it much easier to depict freedom as slavery and war as peace.

      • Regarding inauthentic living…one thing I’ve found, when having a legitimate (engaged, thoughtful) conversation with people, is if they spout something you know to be patently wrong and you stop them and say, “Really? REALLLLY? Do you REALLY believe/think/promote/embrace that?”…they don’t. Or at least, for a moment, they say they don’t. Ron Paul never took any major campaign contributions! REALLY? Katy Perry is a true artist! REALLY? Universal health care is a mistake! REALLY?? It’s stupidly simple, and people don’t necessarily adhere to whatever temporary moment of discovery they stumbled upon when debating the legitimacy of REALLY, but at least for a moment I feel like someone had to think about something.

        I recently left a job I was unhappy in and in these last few weeks, have noticed a side effect of leaving that job is that I watch so much less TV. But I’ve been writing more and focusing on my studies, so I don’t need to be bombarded by noise so I’m distracted from my hollow, dysfunctional misery. I’m happier. I’m nicer. I’m less moody. And I’m not special, so how many other people feel the same way, and buy into the culture at large to escape their own dysfunctional misery? And this leads back to the point that the surface appeal of a song like “Firework” is so strong (who doesn’t want to feel like a glamorous sparkly attention-grabbing thing?) but on closer look, is entirely disingenuous.

  8. WOW, Abandonculture harmoniously resonated with my own thoughts as I was reading through all the wonderful comments.
    She was created by the industrial complex of sound fabrication to be a spokeswoman for the current MTV generation’s ( I do know that MTV is not the sole perpetrator, however they are the mot influential ) materialistic and sexually aggressive commercials, and “real life”. I have loathed the constant stream of audio/visual fecal matter on screens wherever I go. I feel deep contempt for the industry that keeps real artists and musicians starving while the soulless grays are being catapulted to the financial success of super stardom; automatons for the record industry.

    I find that most popular music of today is trite and uninteresting. ( I am talking POPULAR music ). Rarely do I hear a song on the radio that makes my skin tingle with goosebumps. I gotta say, I still get goosebumps hearing Don’t Stop Believin’. For me, the melody and key of the piano, and Steve Perry’s delivery of a modern tale of teen alieniation spoke to me when that album was released. I am a fan, they wrote some classic songs in the golden age of FM RADIO. It was not force fed to me via visual seizures. Something about the song resonated with me. It is an anthem for the ages. I don’t get that feeling with any music of pop culture today. However, outside the synthetic curtain of pop culture, ( where awards shows reward “artists” for mediocrity and banality, there is great music to found; innovative and thought provoking.

  9. Inauthentic living, bloviating over-paid celebrity style: Just last week Jon Stewart got Bill O’Reilly to admit that he (Bill-O) wasn’t REALLY going to quit his job if his tax rates went up. Nahh. He just said that on his show to further inflame the misinformed passions of the mouth-breathing idiots who take him at his word.

    And I suppose that the fact that the best investigative journalists on television are two comedians speaks volumes about the looking-glass bizarro world our culture has become.

  10. @beyondpaisley (replying down here because we used up all the reply buttons above)

    Yes, I agree. Asking the ‘repeaters’ – REALLY?? – is such a great tactic.

    Also, I find rather than argue ‘against’ what people say, it can be more powerful to just say “How interesting….. and what do you think about X?”

    “Black Swan was the best film ever!”

    Option 1
    “No it wasn’t. It was a ridiculous, cheap and trashy film”

    Option 2
    “How interesting …. and what do you think about its references to trauma based mind control, not only with the mental sate of Portman’s character, but the insinuation of abuse by her mother and the specific MK Ultra symbolism such as shattered mirrors, birdcages, butterflies and so on?”

    “..huh?”

    Although we definitely ARE being dumbed down, the music/ movie industry is still a very sophisticated science (just like advertising is). I used to be more ‘negative’ towards our mainstream ‘culture’ but having done some more research I am no less appalled by it, but I am equally fascinated by it, too. I think this approach is more healthy too :)

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