In Katy Perry’s haphazard and controversial rebranding as a woke pop star, she seems ready to admit she’s often out of her depth. These days only three words now comprise her Twitter bio: “i know nothing.”
It’s a refreshing dose of humility from a celebrity who seems constantly torn between her good intentions and ego. Most of us are, of course, but Perry is staging that struggle before millions of people. The resulting spectacle isn’t about what’s righteous. Perry’s gestures of solidarity instead seem all too often about her spiritual crisis of piecing together her own fragmented identity.
When she spent last weekend live streaming her life for 96 hours to promote her new album Witness, a tearful session with a therapist revealed that the 32-year-old feels like her emotional and psychological growth stalled as an adolescent.
Katheryn Hudson, the “dorky” evangelical Christian singer, had to bury herself deep inside the persona of bombshell performer Katy Perry in order for them to both reap fame and fortune. And during that rise to stardom, Perry also happened to reject the feminist label before tepidly embracing it, arguably trafficked in homophobia, and sparked outrage with racially insensitive performances and costumes. The pain Perry feels as a result of her split identity is palpable: she craves validation, authenticity, and to have a greater purpose.
“I’m really strong as Katy Perry, but sometimes I’m not as strong as Katheryn Hudson … I so badly want to be Katheryn Hudson that I don’t even want to look like Katy Perry anymore sometimes,” she said, sobbing. “And that is, like, a little bit of why I cut my hair, is because I really want to be my authentic self, like a hundred percent, and so it hurts, you know, when I don’t feel like I can.”
Plenty of troubled pop stars before Perry have put on a similar show on in public before: Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and so on. We cheer them when their journey is intense but not too tortured. We mock them when they lose control. But none have tried to wrestle with their own demons and simultaneously exorcise patriarchy and white supremacy from their consciousness.
Being forced to learn about and confront one’s own white supremacy for the first time in public is an experience that social justice facilitator adrienne maree brown wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. (Brown styles her name using lowercase letters.)
“White supremacy is really ugly, and to have that pulled out of you in public is really ugly.”
“I wish she didnt have to learn this in public,” says brown, author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. “White supremacy is really ugly, and to have that pulled out of you in public is really ugly.”
Whether Perry is driven to do so because of a marketing strategy to reach a new audience with what she calls “purposeful pop,” or a reflection of her deep-seated desire to use her platform for good, or some misguided combination of both, the aftermath actually holds more than just lessons for white pop stars curious about rebranding themselves as allies.
Her celebrity aside, Perry is in some ways a stand-in for white women newly eager to stand up for social justice but still painfully unaware of the scale of oppression others have endured. Perry’s chief failures of continuing to make the same mistakes and frequently portraying activism as about her own personal journey are the same missteps that new converts to activism often make. She’s also not the only person or brand trying to leverage their fame for social change or even make a buck off the #resistance. (We see you, Kendall Jenner and Pepsi).
For those just finding their way, Perry’s mess of contradictions probably feels highly relatable. She praises herself as exceedingly “curious” about the world and ready to absorb people’s stories and viewpoints.
Yet, she’s made several grotesque displays of cultural appropriation over the years, including dressing up as a Japanese geisha, and sporting cornrows, both in 2013, and earlier this year, posting an image to Instagram of the Hindu goddess Kali. Perry’s only commentary consisted of “current mood.”
When Perry spoke to the activist DeRay Mckesson during her live stream, he pushed her to take responsibility for such transgressions. Amazingly, she confessed that she’d only just learned the difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating it, even though critics had been pointing it out to her for years.
“I think in my intention to admire a culture and appreciate, I actually appropriated,” she said. “I actually made a mistake, because I didnt educate myself … I didn’t know that I did it wrong until I heard people saying I did it wrong.”
Perry also pleaded for people to call her out with “love” and “compassion” instead of “clapbacks.”
Brown is sympathetic to the request, but it strikes her as disingenuous coming from Perry.
“That’s asking us to believe you never saw the feedback … We’re supposed to believe somehow you missed all of that, and now, somehow televised and live streamed, that youre having this awakening,” she says. “Don’t ask us to have a bunch of time or patience for it.”
It doesn’t help that Perry’s social consciousness often comes across as her means of feeling worthy and important. When Mckesson asked why she’d energetically backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, Perry didn’t focus on critical issues like police violence, paid family leave, or college affordability. Instead, she rhapsodized about how Clinton helped Perry discover an elusive part of her identity.
“I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that even though it seems like I had so much to sing and say … there was still something missing.”
“It was a real growth spurt for me,” she told Mckesson. “Listen, Ive always had a voice ’cause I can sing, but I almost created this character out of protection, because I wasn’t really happy with being my birth name, Katheryn Hudson. I didn’t think it was enough. I didn’t think it was sparkly. I didn’t think it was great. So I created Katy Perry … I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that, like, you know, even though it seems like I had so much to sing and say … there was still something missing … inside of me to really know that I had a real voice that mattered, that was enough. I think it started really being activated when I got to stand alongside Hillary … In a way I felt, you know, empowered. She gave me that power that I was looking for.”
Perhaps the same question framed in another way would have prompted an answer from Perry about the people and causes she wants to elevate. She has, after all, posted Twitter and Instagram messages of solidarity for various causes, including climate change, police brutality, Dakota Access Pipeline water protectors, Planned Parenthood, and the Women’s March. And when SNL actress Leslie Jones was attacked online last year after a hacker published nude images of her, Perry name-checked the strain of misogyny so often aimed at black women and tweeted, “Do not give your eyeballs to this racist, hate-filled misogynoir crime.”
Do not give your eyeballs to this racist, hate-filled, misogynoir crime. I #StandWithLeslie
KATY PERRY (@katyperry) August 24, 2016
But Perry also has a habit of putting herself at the heart of the story, even when the world is literally on fire around her. In May, a giddy Perry Instagrammed the front page of The New York Times because it included a picture of her appearance at the Met Gala. What she didn’t notice or care to address was the main image of a French police officer engulfed in flames after being struck by a Molotov cocktail thrown by a May Day protestor.
One user summed up the dissonance perfectly with the comment “fake woke.”
The same thing could be said of Witness. The album doesn’t offer anything particularly risky or political. The song “Chained to the Rhythm”would have the listener believe we’re all “So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble / So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble.” That oblivion may be new to Perry and some of her fans, but millions of people have known injustice their whole lives.
The ironically titled “Bigger Than Me” actually isn’t about much more than Perry’s own non-specific awakening: “Can’t go with the flow, got to make waves / Even though I look at the sand, and I’m just one grain.”
Witness makes no attempt to shine a light, as Perry is fond of saying, on any particular social ill. There’s nothing like Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” or Beyonc’s “Freedom.” And while you could argue that Tupac and Beyonc were uniquely positioned to write such anthems, white artists have powerfully commented on social issues before. Tupac’s “Changes” sampled Bruce Hornsby’s hit “The Way It Is,” which tackled racism and poverty. Even Phil Collins managed to write a song about homelessness with his hit 1989 track “Another Day in Paradise.”
Such earnestness may not top the charts these days. But had Perry not set expectations that Witness would get political, there’d be no need to wonder why it’s so lacking in detail and conviction.
Perry knows well that she’s failed and will continue to make mistakes; it was a constant refrain when she spoke to Mckesson. At times that looks like taking responsibility upfront, but in other moments it seems like she’s eager to give herself easy outs by blaming the media for taking her words out of context, bemoaning the difficulty of living under a “microscope,” and pointing out the burden of her childhood “conditioning.”
“Just do the right thing. It doesnt have to be for an audience or anything.”
That readiness to see her own hardships first before seeing the pain she’s caused others or even the pain others experience as a result of institutional injustice is what enrages many of her critics. And it’s a tough habit to break for anyone who is new to being an ally of marginalized people and communities.
Brown believes Perry should think about making this period of growth a private one, adding that she might also consider, if she hasn’t already, working with an initiative like the Catalyst Project, which helps teach white people how to fight racism.
“I do feel the good intention,” says brown. “[Her] timing makes it suspect. Whats the motivation? So often people are doing things to look like they’re doing the right things just do the right thing. It doesnt have to be for an audience or anything.”
And that may be the crux of it for Perry and anyone else who sees their wokeness as a journey centered around their own personal validation and growth. The sooner that Perry can disentangle her impulse to use her platform for good and her need to feel authentic and worthy, the more genuine her gestures will seem.
That moment, for Perry and those watching, can’t come soon enough.
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