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
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.
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?
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?