Katy Perry performed the halftime show at yesterday’s Super Bowl. From what I’ve seen online, she was fairly well-received for the grand flamboyance of the show. At the Super Bowl party I was a part of, though, the general feeling was that the halftime show wasn’t going to be worth watching. Not everyone felt that way, but I’d gauge that more than half of the folks planned to use halftime to check out the food situation and maybe grab a smoke. (Notably, once her show began, people began watching.)
Someone I know posted on Facebook that their partner had asked, “Who is Katy Perry?” I admit to reading between the lines, both at that question and at some of the subsequent comments, but my sense was that not knowing who Katy Perry is was something to be proud of. And I wondered, first, how likely it was that someone wouldn't know who Katy Perry is.
I went to everyone’s favorite research site, Wikipedia, where I found the following information about Perry, some of which I knew, some of which I was aware of in a general sense, and a lot of specifics that were new to me:
Her 2010 album Teenage Dream “became the first by a female artist to produce five number-one Billboard Hot 100 songs”.
“[I]n songs such as ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’ she stresses themes of self-empowerment and self-esteem.”
“Perry has received many awards, including three Guinness World Records, and been included in the Forbes list of "Top-Earning Women In Music" for 2011, 2012, and 2013. … She ranked fifth on their 2014 list with $40 million. … Throughout her career, she has sold 11 million albums and 81 million singles worldwide, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time.”
“Throughout her career, Perry has won five American Music Awards, five MTV Video Music Awards, fourteen People's Choice Awards, and three Guinness World Records.In September 2012, Billboard dubbed her the ‘Woman of the Year’.From May 2010 to September 2011, she spent a record-breaking total of 69 consecutive weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100…Perry was declared the Top Global Female Recording Artist of 2013 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).She has accumulated a total of nine number-one singles on the Hot 100, her most recent being ‘Dark Horse’. According to Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Perry is the best-selling digital singles artist in the United States, with certified sales of 72 million digital singles including on-demand streaming.”
I admit that I don’t know a lot about Katy Perry. I like a couple of her songs, and enjoy the “Roar” video. I am also aware that, as is true for many/most top pop stars, there is substantial interest in Perry from culture critics. I don’t think she has reached the level of someone like Madonna, who inspired what was only half-jokingly called “Madonna Studies” as an academic discipline. But it is interesting to think about the level of Perry’s fame, and what that might say about today’s cultural milieu.
My job here isn’t to elaborate on the place of Katy Perry in the world of cultural criticism … I read some of it, I know it’s out there, but in 2015, there is always too much to read and see and experience … we are all, all of us, behind.
Nor am I here to cast aspersions on people who don’t know who Katy Perry is. As I say, it’s 2015 … no one can keep up with everything. Many of us become specialists … when it comes to female pop stars, I’m partial to Pink … I go to her concerts and buy her albums … I know a lot about Pink, and it’s not that she’s a stand-in for all the other female pop stars, but I devote the majority of my pop-star energy to her. There are also people, plenty of us, who throw our hands up and admit we just can’t follow everything. We don’t have a favorite female pop star, because we can’t know about everything. Not knowing of Katy Perry signifies nothing, other than that you have other things on your mind. The number of things I don’t know is pretty immense … I know little about opera, or ice hockey, or reality TV shows. I’m not immune to covering up my lack of knowledge with childish humor … whenever I hear opera, I start singing in ludicrously high and low voices, making fun of the very real talent of the singers because I don’t “get it”. And I definitely indulged in this kind of thinking a lot more when I was younger: if I didn’t know something, it wasn’t worth knowing. In my old age, I’ve hopefully come to realize that you can’t dismiss something until you have a modicum of understanding of that thing.
In general, Katy Perry is not highly regarded by pop critics. Rich Juzwiak’s review of her Super Bowl appearance, “Katy Perry: What Is She Good For?”, was an example of damning with faint praise:
Not that much could be expected of Perry. She is the most underwhelming person to occupy the space of Massively Popular, No-Brainer Hitmaking Pop Diva since Paula Abdul, and at least Paula Abdul could dance. There is no there there with Katy Perry. I don't know if a pop star has ever had less there, in fact. She is superlative at nothing. … If you believe the credits on her songs, she can write a catchy hook. She can carry a tune, sometimes with force. And she can show up to places and do her job without falling on her face or making some sort of career-negating blunder.
But these critics do appreciate that her enormous popularity makes Perry an important subject for examination, if nothing else. And I’m glad for their work, since, as I have noted, I don’t pay much attention to Katy Perry and am glad to have the opportunity to think about her through the eyes of more astute and knowledgeable critics.
Which takes me back to that Facebook exchange. Everything I’m saying falls apart if my “between the lines” reading is off-target, but that reading is based on past experiences. I once taught a course at UC Berkeley on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer … a common reaction was “that’s not worthy of a course at Cal” (when pressed, they would often admit that they had never actually seen the show). Something that has stuck in my mind for many years was an afternoon when I attended a WNBA game. The giveaway that day was a poster of … well, it was a long time ago and my memory is shot, but I think it was *NSYNC, although it might have been The Backstreet Boys. Anyway, most of the people I was with gave their posters away to kids who might have more interest, which was a generous move. But the gifts were punctuated with prideful statements that “I couldn’t name a single one of their songs”. I knew why they didn’t want the posters, understood that they might not know *NSYNC since they weren’t the target market for the band, but I didn’t get why their lack of knowledge was connected to feelings of pride.
And so, the Facebook post (yes, I’m off on lots of tangents). One of my favorite comments, because of its self-aware sense of humor, read “I miss when the half time shows were semi retired musicians from the 70s.” And I couldn't keep my mouth shut, so I posted the following: “Pop music may be the only place where otherwise intelligent people brag about not knowing something.”
The original poster replied, “I'm pretty sure popular TV falls in the same category. Like me, how many episodes of, say. Friends, have you ever watched?” And that got me inspired. I wrote:
The point isn't how many episodes of Friends you have seen, or whether you know who Katy Perry is. The point is that it's odd when people take pride in not knowing. I can't pass judgment on Friends because I haven't seen it. I can and do recognize it is important; I know what Friends is. I don't often connect with modern sitcoms, which is on me, not on the people who made Friends. But there is a difference between my not having seen an episode of Friends, and someone not knowing who Katy Perry is, just as there is a difference between saying Katy Perry isn't my cup of tea and saying I don't know who Katy Perry is, with a tone that suggests she isn't worth knowing. I'm not saying that everyone should like Katy Perry. I'm saying it's odd to brag about not knowing who she is. It's the pop culture equivalent of saying I don't know who Toni Morrison is, and it doesn't matter anyway.
The reply to that was, “If you're going to compare Toni Morrison to Katy Perry, I'm going to bed. “ (Emoticon approximation.)
That was a good line, and I was asking for it, to be sure. But it wasn't just a good line, as I indicated in my reply: “That statement makes my point better than any more blathering of my own.”
And indeed, the comments ended there. But, being a blather junkie, I came to my blog to jabber some more.
Many of the people in the discussion are or were teachers, myself included. We have all had to deal with students who state (with some pride, it must be added) that they never read books. Maybe they read the occasional book, but only current best-sellers. If we assign, say, The Great Gatsby (or, more appropriately here, Beloved), we will always have students who state with confidence that there is nothing in those books that could possibly matter to them. I’ve done the same thing as a student … with a degree in American Studies, looking for a doctorate in English that focused on American Literature, I regularly complained about the requirement that I take a course in Shakespeare or the 18th-century English novel. What could I possibly learn from Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded?
How is this different from saying, “I don’t know who Katy Perry is, and how could she possibly matter?” There is no shame in not knowing. There is no reason why we should seek out every piece of information in the world, even if that was possible, which it is not. It is sufficient to say, “I don’t know anything about The Real Housewives of Orange County”, just as it’s fine when a student says, “I don’t know anything about Toni Morrison”. That student has an entire semester to learn about the author. They’ve only failed if they dismiss Morrison before they have read her. It’s fine if you don’t know who Katy Perry is, interesting if you do know who she is but don’t like her. And there is every reason, in this age of information glut, to admit that you don’t have time to examine Katy Perry, so you’ll be moving on to something you like. You’ve only failed if you dismiss Katy Perry before you know her.