Saturday, August 28, 2010

Katy Perry: Multi-Hit Wonder

Katy Perry has done pretty well for herself. She’s had five top ten singles in the past three years. Just this summer, she’s had two hit songs, one of which joins the remarkably long list of musical tributes to California. In short, she’s a pop music force to be reckoned with. It’s a familiar story, this rise to pop stardom. But back in 2008, it seemed to me that Katy Perry was destined to follow another all-too-familiar path, that of the one hit wonder.

One hit wonders come in a few different types. There are the indie bands and singer/songwriters that break into the mainstream for a song before falling back under the radar, often carrying with them a couple hundred new fans. Then there are the “buzzworthy” new artists that turn out to be not-so-worthy of buzz: their first single charts, their second single flops, and no one cares when they release their sophomore album a decade later. Then there are the people who never had any business being musicians to begin with, people with money or connections who can pay a producer to let them lay down a cheesy pop song and have their voices auto-tuned — you know the type, socialites who want to be famous for something other than being famous and young television actresses who want it all.

But the most conspicuous one-hit-wonder personality is the artist who comes out with some silly, outrageously literal song that is so catchy and ridiculous that the world has no choice but to love it — and play it over and over again for all eternity. I hardly went to a bat mitzvah in middle school where they didn’t play Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back” even though the song came out a cool decade before my tween years. When I heard Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” for the first time, I thought, this is the new “Baby Got Back,” this is the new “Because I Got High,” this is the new “I’m Too Sexy,” this is the new “The Thong Song” or the new “Stacy’s Mom.” What made these songs hits was the cultural poignancy they achieved from comically and candidly dealing with socially taboo (or at least musically taboo) issues. And what made the artists behind them one hit wonders was the impossibility of matching the iconic status achieved by their original hits.

But I was wrong about Katy Perry. I thought, how could she possibly follow a song that forever changed the way people think of cherry chapstick? But she did. Her second single “Hot n’ Cold” was still silly and catchy and ridiculous, inspiring covers like this one, and it could have left its own legacy had it belonged to a different artist. (After all, not all the one-hits are socially monumental — they also include your “Who Let The Dogs Out,” your “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” and your “Ice Ice Baby.”) This summer’s “California Gurls” was equally fun and ridiculous and inescapable. In fact, Katy Perry has turned the traits that one usually associates with one hit wonders into a consistent style that permeates all her music. She embodies the silliness and ridiculousness and candidness that all those other artists could achieve in one moment of clarity and honesty but could never repeat. She’s a new brand of musician, a “multi-hit wonder.” That doesn’t mean she’ll ever escape the interview questions about kissing girls, but that's not so bad, is it?

—Mary Ibrahim

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