Deep Play: Katy Perry and the Revenge of the Candy Ravers by Brian Donovan

{Brian Donovan is a cultural and historical sociologist, author of White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-Vice Activism, 1887-1917, and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas.}

Cultural sociologists theorize that musical likes and dislikes tells us more about the listeners than anything inherent in the music. The music we adore mirrors and creates a lifestyle, or habitus, that we share with others and experience individually. Likewise, hating certain types of music and specific performing artists allows us to draw a boundary against groups or individuals that represent threats to our way of life and social position. A new wave of female recording artists (including Britney Spears, Ke$ha, and Lady Gaga) have remade the pop landscape and have helped album sales grow for the first time in seven years. Responses to Katy Perry, in particular, epitomize this cultural moment.

Katy Perry is the first artist to spend an entire year in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. She has a sold out 2011 summer concert tour, her own line of perfume (Purr), two hit albums, and legions of devoted fans. But critics love to hate Katy Perry.  Matthew Cole decries Perry’s Teenage Dream album as “maladjusted sleaze,” “a raunchy pop nightmare,” and “remarkably shitty.” Cole lamented that “pop music in 2010 already looks like a trainwreck of over-produced bad-girl debauchery, and Teenage Dream only adds to the pileup.” Greg Kot criticizes Teenage Dream’s “Frankenstein-like productions” and criticizes the hit single “California Gurls” as “relentlessly mechanical” with vocals “like a series of syllables digitally stitched together.” Eric Danton described the song as “piled high with buzzing synthesizers and relentless drum-machine beats” and he concluded that “that neither Perry nor her collaborators had much to say that was meaningful, or even particularly interesting.”

Critics’ rejection of popular music is unremarkable, but the terms of their criticism can tell us something about the contemporary cultural moment and the failure of a rock-and-roll aesthetic to make sense of it. This is why the criticism of Katy Perry by (largely) male music critics seems so off-key, like football referees judging a flower show. The main criticisms of Katy Perry represent and reproduce anxieties about dance music generally, its core audience (preteens, women, gays, African American, and Latinos), and the recent ascendency of dance music elements in popular music generally.

Critics typically launch two criticisms against Katy Perry: her music is overproduced (and therefore it’s not really her music) and her style is inauthentic (too derivative, too synthetic, too sexual, and/or too unserious). The critique of her music as overproduced emerges in reviewers’ discussion of her production team as “hired guns.” Kot, for instance, derisively refers to her “squadron of high-dollar song doctors.” The focus on music’s production clings to old notions of authenticity long discredited in electronic dance music culture. In fact, the term “overproduced” has no valance in dance music because it presupposes we should care about the production of music (at all). Simply put, who cares if Katy Perry (or Britney Spears, or Rihanna) uses auto-tune, a vocoder, or special effects? To followers of dance music, rock music critics who point to post-production practices as impure have already lost the argument.

Critics make a similar argument against her style, finding it derivative of past and contemporary female music icons like Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morissette, Spice Girls, Pink, Fergie, Debbie Gibson, and Tiffany. Perry also reflects the Deco styles of the 1920s and ‘30s, and the Old Hollywood glamour of Louise Brooks, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo. A third (and overlooked) component of Katy Perry’s style comes from dance music culture itself, particularly the “candy ravers” of the early-mid 1990’s. So-called candy ravers (also referred to as “kandi ravers”) embraced a childlike look replete with furry animal backpacks, multicolored sneakers, cartoon T-shirts, candied necklaces, and lollipop rings. As a group, candy ravers had an especially short patience for the production and authenticity arguments made against dance music and they often gravitated toward the “happy hardcore” subgenre of dance music known for its blip and bleep video game noises and its relentless 140+ beats-per-minute pulse. Candy ravers share a family resemblance with the costume-play (cos play) Japanese streetfashion scene and its kawii aesthetic. Taken together, Katy Perry exemplifies a postmodern style marked by pastiche, eclecticism, and the fluidity of identity. Reports from her 2011 “California Dreams” tour indicate that Perry’s fans not only appreciate her cos play ethos but actively take part in it. Rolling Stone noted that a Katy Perry show “resembled not so much a pop concert as the largest bachelorette party in the world.” Like 1990s club kids and their day-glo makeup and plastic Hello Kitty! jewelry, today’s Katycats revive a sense of play and jouissance characteristic of legendary clubs like the Paradise Garage, but rarely found in the hyper-masculine social spaces of rock and roll.

In the mid-1990s, marketers attempted to hybridize rock-and -roll with dance music to create “electronica,” but they only managed to combine the worst aspects of both species (see, for example, the Chemical Brothers). As a former participant inChicago’s rave and club scenes, I experience warm nostalgia listening to today’s Top 40 pop music. It’s all there: the four-to-the-floor beats, the anthems, the hooks, the ear candy, the diva vocals, and the hallowed-out sounds of the Roland TR-808 synthesizer. Who knew that – twenty years later – the 808s would blast out of the radios instead of abandoned warehouses? Who could have predicted that the syncopated sounds of speed garage and two-step garage would reappear 10-15 years later as “dub step?” What was once underground is now, simply, ground. Pop artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga, along with music producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin, have successfully harnessed house music to make it their own. Unlike early electronica experiments, artists and producers have revived the spirit of house music by embracing, instead of running from, club culture’s sense of play, its purposeful rejection of authenticity, and its postmodernist bricolage. Instead of reproducing the ignorance and latent misogyny of the rock-and-roll curmudgeons, we should embrace Katy Perry and her newfangled candy ravers with open arms.

4 thoughts on “Deep Play: Katy Perry and the Revenge of the Candy Ravers by Brian Donovan

  1. Today there are half a dozen major electronic music production platforms and each one suffers from option overload.Another great advantage to the current era of electronica music production is the best “try before you buy” scenario one could ever dream of.

  2. @ ryan Part of me think I should credit Geertz in some way, but the phrase seemed public domainish. Maybe I could play off of Katy’s “Peacock” & Balinese cockfight somehow.
    @nalysale — totes! And there are so many free high-quality mixes out there. I’m a big fan of 5 Magazine, doddiblog.com, & Mark Farina’s monthly podcasts.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. I am particularly drawn to Kelly Rowland’s collaboration with David Guetta in “When Love Takes Over”, Beyonce’s collaboration with Diplo and sampling of Major Lazer in “Run The World (Girls)”, and M.I.A.’s extensive work with Major Lazer. These songs particularly seem to be instances of the iconic songstress shining a light on the otherwise behind-the-scenes talents of music production. There really are interesting things going on with race, gender, and sexuality when we observe the adoption of House music elements in the music of major label artists.

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