Katy Perry is set to return to Des Moines this December for a one-night only performance at Wells Fargo Arena.
But Craig Owens was thinking about Perry’s last stop in Des Moines — stumping for failed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
That event left the Drake University English professor scratching his head.
“If millennial and younger voters weren’t turning to Hillary, I don’t understand how the path to reaching them runs through Katy Perry,” Owens said over coffee recently. “I don’t see how Katy Perry changes your mind about who to vote for.”
It may just be another sign that Clinton is a smart, accomplished woman who was a terrible campaigner. Yet Owens, as English professors often do, sees a deeper meaning.
This fall, Owens is teaching a writing seminar that focuses on female pop music stars such as Perry, Adele, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and, my personal favorite, Taylor Swift.
Owens wants students to look at how these women are written and talked about in both traditional media (magazines and newspaper articles) and web-based media (blogs and social media).
The professor sees patterns in the way the stars are presented and discussed. Perry, for example, is often described in terms of “surfaces,” while Swift’s image is predicated on being “nice,” and Lady Gaga calls her fans “monsters.”
In previous stage incarnations, Perry often wore skin-tight latex dresses and a variety of colorful wigs.
“It invites her fans and consumers to focus on her body but never actually go beyond that,” Owens said. “Her lyrics are similar. They are almost childlike in their simplicity.”
For example, Perry’s hit “Roar” repeats the cliché “I got the eye of the tiger” and “I’m a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar, louder, louder than a lion” in the chorus.
This is low-grade middle school poetry, but it is also tremendously successful. Perry has sold 11 million records, played the Super Bowl halftime show and has an estimated net worth of nearly $300 million.
Owens doesn’t seek to critique Perry or any of the other pop stars’ musical talents or writing abilities, but rather dig into how popular culture and marketing flattens the images of people into one or two easily digestible packages.
Lady Gaga, for example, cultivates an image of avant-garde weirdness. Her song lyrics often speak to the disenfranchised people, including her hit “Born this Way,” which includes the lyric:
“No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I’m on the right track baby, I was born to survive. No matter black, white or beige, Chola or orient made, I’m on the right track baby, I was born to be brave.”
Katy Perry performs onstage during 102.7 KIIS FM’s 2017 Wango Tango at StubHub Center on May 13, 2017 in Carson, California. (Photo: Rich Fury, Getty Images)
Lada Gaga also stumped for Hillary Clinton.
In an appearance in North Carolina, the singer appeared wooden and largely repeated the standard lines of the Clinton campaign: “Stronger Together” and “I’m With Her.”
Original thinking seemed to be in short supply.
Lady Gaga “sells herself as someone who stands up for LGBTQ and racial equality, but when she’s asked to speak on those things extemporaneously, she’s often very bad at it,” Owens said.
While I’ve picked out a couple of examples here that are both critical and political, as Register columnists often do, Owens promises his class is far more broad-based.
He wants students to challenge the concepts of women in the media and popular culture.
“It’s important to know that while we think ‘nice’ when we think about Taylor Swift, none of us really know what Taylor Swift is like,” Owens said. “These are whole, complex people, and we only see a side that is presented to us.”
And often that side is carefully crafted by marketing machines. Rarely does anyone get a glimpse behind the glamour.
A few years ago, Russell Brand, who was then married to Perry, posted a picture of her without makeup to Twitter. It was quickly deleted, but nothing ever fully disappears from the internet.
Around the same time, an unretouched photo of Perry used for a Rolling Stone cover shoot leaked onto the web.
Though the unaltered photo hardly showed Perry in a poor light, it did show her body shape as different than a picture that had been worked up in Photoshop.
“That’s interesting,” Owens said. “It’s another example of a surface interaction with Katy Perry.”
Just how deeply Owens and his students are able to delve into the real meaning of female pop music stars in today’s culture will be determined in the fall.
But, like seats in the arenas these women play, his class is already full.
Daniel P. Finney, the Register’s Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @newsmanone.
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