Katy Perry: The New Bette Midler? Say What?

Katy Perry: candy-coated pop perfection at Nokia
August 6th, 2011, 6:00 pm
posted by BEN WENER

Katy Perry gets a bad rap from people who think all pop stars produce the same fluff ”“ as if Ke$ha’s aggressively mediocre rip-offs compare to Madonna’s meticulous marvels. Kitschy art or total trash, doesn’t matter ”“ none of it is serious music, the haters (and most critics) complain.

Savvy she may be, and funny too, but to them Perry ”“ who was simply terrific Friday night in a two-hour extravaganza at Nokia Theatre, her first of three sold-out shows there this weekend ”“ is nothing more than the latest pinup reaping millions off easy hooks and eye-grabbing cleavage.

What such harrumphing ignorantly overlooks is the sheer talent Perry packs as a performer, and the attention to every last detail in her saucy Candyland fantasy that she has developed alongside her record-setting string of chart-topping hits. (About that: She’s far and away one of the most downloaded artists of the new millennium. She’s also the first woman to score five No. 1 singles from the same album, and the first to ever keep a tune alive in the Top 10 for an entire year. Those are profoundly impressive feats in such attention-deficit times.)

Never mind the brains it takes to wield sex appeal without turning into a cheap tart, a tightrope Perry has deftly navigated since she first told the world she liked kissing a girl. Where Ke$ha blandly embodies your average party tramp, Katy scores by staying mildly risqué, deploying double entendres like naughty smart bombs and wrapping them in suggestive props and guises. Note the spinning peppermint pinwheels affixed to her knockers on the first of several outfits she donned amid this glossy explosion of color puppets and dancers and lasers.

And get a load of her sleight-of-hand: without leaving the stage, she transformed from a poufy purple-blue mini-skirt for “Ur So Gay” to a showgirl bodice with tail-feathers for “Peacock” (an innately filthy word she milks for all it’s worth) and finally a slender flapper gown for a sultry lead-in before “I Kissed a Girl.” As if that weren’t trick enough, she upped the ante during “Hot N Cold,” her outfits almost magically changing colors via rapid removal of layers as she strutted about the stage.

She’s nothing if not a head-turner, whether in her silvery Katy’s Kisses outfit for “California Gurls” or shimmering in strangely padded tights that don’t entirely flatter her legs. Her show comes laced with cat-suits, straight-jacket straps, cream-shooting water-guns and other bits of playful allure that still don’t venture beyond PG-13 fare ”“ and it’s such ridiculously giddy fun that it’s hard to look away, and harder still not to smile.

Yet Perry isn’t as inch-deep as all that seems. For starters, she’s no dope when it comes to her music, which manages to bridge dance-pop and light-rock in ways few other performers have pulled off in the past decade. Swedish star Robyn, who opened with an energetic, superbly received set, is another who can do it and reach the sort of KCRW cool-kids crowd that rebukes Katy.

What they dismiss is the considerable skill that goes into crafting ditties as irresistible as “Teenage Dream” and “Firework” and “Waking Up in Vegas,” all of which Perry principally wrote (like every other song she’s ever recorded). She merits her recent Rolling Stone cover for more than just popularity.

Toward the end of her Nokia set she reminded of her songbird roots by momentarily scaling down (and rising up) in such a large setting. Strumming a blindingly sparkly acoustic guitar, she sang “Thinking of You” to her most rabid fans while hovering over them atop a Pepto-Bismal-colored cloud yanked across the theater by pulleys, until it nearly reached the balcony. She also got back to basics with a slightly silly bit of “Katy-oke” (her own karaoke) in an unplugged segment that found her vocally riffing on Rihanna, Jay-Z – and O.C. YouTube sensation Rebecca Black, who sauntered out for a a chorus of her viral hit “Friday.”

Those were nice intimate touches. But it was more impressive how smashes like “E.T.” and “Hot N Cold,” ingratiating as their choruses may be, managed to flirt with electro and disco while never letting her stronger-than-you-think wail and affinity for cleanly crunchy guitars get consumed in dross. She’s a rocker chick at heart, yet she sings “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” better than Whitney can these days.

And she’s only scratching the surface of her potential: Not only is she already the new Cyndi Lauper ”“ a DayGlo idol for legions of 12-year-old girls with shtick clever enough to also attract adults ”“ but I’ve been insisting since her highly entertaining Wiltern show two years ago that Katy Perry is another Bette Midler in the making.

This California Dreams production, one of the most smoothly delivered pop spectacles of the past 20 years (nothing bogs down the fleeting pace), clearly proves that Perry is in league with Pink and Lady Gaga as the premier divas of the day, ones whose persona and vision have been all-encompassing and rapidly realized. Unlike those tougher broads, however, there’s a cutesy charm about Perry that makes her all the more appealing: sticky-sweet and delicious, she’s as effervescent as an ice-cold 7-Up at the end of a melting-hot Fourth of July.

No, she hasn’t deserved so many Grammy nominations, though you don’t need a Billboard analyst to figure out why Teenage Dream was up for album of the year next to weightier fare like The Suburbs and Relapse. Mere months old, it was already a commercial monster come balloting time. Artistic achievement may matter to Grammy voters, but success counts twice as much. (They’re just lucky Arcade Fire won. Kept ’em from having meringue on their faces.)

Whether Katy Perry’s music actually says anything ”“ don’t kid yourself that so much serious music really does, either ”“ ultimately matters very little. Her themes are emotional sources reliable for international pop hits: vulnerability, pettiness, empowerment, the desire to be loved, the infuriating behavior of boys. But how she packages those feelings feeds into the bigger Perry portfolio, which is fast branching out beyond music and videos. She’s a born entertainer, innately suited for both stage and screen; her future in screwy and/or romantic comedies seems destined, as does a midlife phase selling out months of shows in Vegas.

Just like Cher and Bette do now. But before you say it, let me: Yes, she’s not half the powerhouse Midler ever was, or still is. Perry’s “Pearl” is a fine step into balladry, but she’s a long way from “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and I’m not sure she’ll ever develop the maturity to pull off something like “From a Distance.”

Then again, Bette didn’t exactly explode onto the scene singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in cabaret clubs in the early ’70s. It took the better part of a decade for the Divine Miss M to start seeming like a superstar. Her music was critically hailed but didn’t sell in big numbers until her acting career took off in the ’80s ”“ and by the time Johnny Carson was signing off in the ’90s she was serenading him icon to icon. She’s one-of-a-kind.

Yet Perry, at 26, would appear to be following her trajectory, albeit on fast-forward.

She did her formative struggling in her teen years as a failed Christian pop wannabe, and since coming of age has broken out huge and in a hurry, leaping from showcases at the Hotel Café to a surefire showstopper at Staples Center (where she gives an encore performance Nov. 22) in less than five years. The trick to that, of course, doesn’t rest strictly in the strength of the star-maker machinery. It’s more so in the ability of said star to connect with her following in a lasting way.
And the overwhelming reaction at Nokia suggests Perry leads hers with the simpatico power of Willy Wonka and his Oompa-Loompas, enveloping fans in sugary excess and hypnotizing with calculatedly absurd showmanship.

Yeah, there’s a growing backlash against her, fueled, it seems, by people who really don’t care to pay attention anyway yet are bombarded by her very presence. I try to avoid TMZ and gossip rags at all times, and I still can’t get through a week without inadvertently stumbling upon another picture of her and hubby Russell Brand showing up somewhere all glammed-out and goofy. Omnipresent sensations always become loathed, even the good ones.

Katy ain’t had it half as bad as Madge ever did. She’s only beginning to learn how to pull the shades on the spotlight. What’s crucial is that she already knows so well how to operate within its glare.

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