The Soapbox: Katy Perry’s Halftime Show Was Everything It Should Have Been
The annual Super Bowl is an homage to all things American, like male athleticism, geographically-based loyalty, bar food and corporate sponsors. The event also bookends one of the musical events of the year, the halftime show to end all halftime shows. The show is always a spectacle, speaking to both the limitless budget of the NFL and our endless need to be wowed. Every year’s show is headlined by either a superstar or a group of superstars, and they play their hits amidst grand theatrics and special effects, and everyone goes home happy. So why then, is everyone so mad at Katy Perry for giving us exactly what we wanted.
The show began with the 30-year-old pop princess clad in a dress of flames, riding a robotic-looking lion across the field, wielding said big cat with a giant gold chain for her single “Roar.” She then danced onto a digital chess board for “Dark Horse,” where she evaded life-size game pieces. Next, Lenny Kravitz surprised the audience, appearing for a fiery rendition of “I Kissed A Girl.” Then Perry popped into her second outfit (complete with beach ball breasts) and bopped onto a new set, an animated beach world where everything dances, for both “Teenage Dream” and “California Girls” (which may or may not have featured backup dancers meant to mock Taylor Swift). We then got maybe the best guest spot ever, the triumphant return of the untouchable Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliot. Katy joined Missy in a third outfit, some rhinestoned oversized hoodie thing, and hype-manned while Missy performed a medley of “Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It” and “Lose Control.” Katy rounded out the 12-minute show in a star-studded gown, soaring over the arena in her own suspended firework, while fireworks shot all around her for “Firework” (duh). She also, pre-recorded or not, gave a great vocal performance with altered phrasing to make it very clear that it wasn’t just Katy Perry-oke.
All of that was just laid out in glorious detail to illustrate one crucial point, Katy Perry put on one hell of a show. In recent days she has been criticized for being lackluster, cartoony and offensive, to make her a triple threat of an enigma. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times referenced the singer as “a queen of our deflated pop times.” How though, is Perry so symbolic of pop cultural mediocrity, when all she ever does is push things over the top? And furthermore, how can she be so banal and controversial at the same time as she’s been criticized constantly for cultural appropriation, racism, and not being enough of a feminist?
The cultural appropriation of her past is irrelevant in discussing her halftime show, as Perry kept it as Pepsi as possible. Regardless, some still found her performance both racist and antifeminist. The main argument in the latter department revolves around Perry’s inclusion of “I Kissed A Girl,” particularly the fact that she sang the song with Kravitz while writhing around him. First off, if you’re making an argument that “I Kissed A Girl” is any kind of anthem at all, you’re reaching. If you’re arguing that it speaks to any kind of queer politics on top of that, you’re in outer space. The song was a contrived pop hit that capitalized on America’s fascination and commodification of sexuality, and that’s all it ever will be. Yes, Perry got on her knees and rubbed her butt on Lenny’s groin (who wouldn’t want to?), but it read more as her indulgence in a power-guitar rock moment (a stark contrast to her usual sugary routines) and paying homage to the song that made her. The argument also that Perry’s hyper-sexualized image is “internalized sexism” is just a few words shy of slut shaming, and entirely ignorant of pop culture.
As for cries of racism, it seems Perry would have been damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. Even the think pieces that celebrated the halftime show as “the greatest halftime show of all time,” still granted that “every day Katy does something not racist is a wonderful day.” On the other hand, others thought that Katy dancing with Missy and her hip-hop backup dancers was another instance of cultural appropriation, which is a tired argument after Miley, and also just ludicrous in the sheer suggestion that Perry shouldn’t be allowed to dance with her guest performer during her own damn Super Bowl halftime show. Then there are others that thought that the fact that Perry had two black artists as guest stars was racist, because she, a white woman, was still the center of the show. In reality, Perry picked two black guest stars, when they could have easily been white. She also completely turned the stage over to one of said guest starts for three songs. Beyonce didn’t even have a guest star in 2013, other than a quick pop in from former co-members of Destiny’s Child as backup dancers/singers.
Today’s pop stars seem to fall into at least three categories defined by their business acumen, their vocal talent and their ability to entertain. Taylor Swift is more of a calculating power-player, whereas Ariana Grande tends to let her voice eclipse her personality. Then you have the more Charli XCX/Lorde/Tove Lo version of pop that seems to be more stylized in both sound and aesthetic like Perry’s. The latter, the more gimmicky pop stars, are much more more prevalent than world dominators like Swift and vocal talents like Grande, and yet Perry seems to take all of the heat for the whole group. When Perry is bold, she’s racist. When she’s singing with dancing sharks, she’s trendy. Maybe Perry’s outlandish cultural hacks and celebration of bandwagon trends are actually a brilliant commitment to maintaining the cartoon cheese she’s always been accused of. Regardless, she absolutely earned the “XLIX” inked on her finger after the game.