Don’t get Katy Perry twisted: She absolutely loves being pop’s quirky poster girl, the wild child who doesn’t censor herself and causes raised eyebrows with songs like Ur So Gay and I Kissed a Girl. But for all her success over the last year, Perry is hoping that songs like her most recent No. 1, Hot n Cold, show she has more to offer than kitsch and controversy.
“It’s my personality, which is up and down and sassy and cheeky,” says Perry, who recently became a Grammy nominee. “You’re gonna see me with all kinds of different things. Maybe you won’t expect it, but that’s what I like to do — keep people on their toes.” Offering the unexpected was a key factor in Perry becoming one of pop’s breakout stars this year. While Ur So Gay — a taunting song to an ex-lover more enamored with flatirons and skinny jeans than his ex-girlfriend — became an underground talker, it was her equally ear-catching song I Kissed a Girl, about girl-on-girl experimentation, that resonated with mainstream music fans, becoming a No. 1 summer smash.
“She’s not scared to rattle some people’s cages lyrically, and say some risque stuff,” says singer-songwriter Butch Walker, who collaborated with Perry on some of the tracks on her debut album, One of the Boys. “She brings a little bit of the underground, a little bit of the hipster and underground culture to the mainstream, and that’s what sells her … as different.” And that’s what Perry hoped her role in pop music would be. The 24-year-old, who was raised by ministers and dabbled in Christian music before heading to Los Angeles as a 17-year-old aspiring artist, found most of pop’s princesses to be manufactured and boring.
“I was a bit let down by maybe their personality or their delivery or their consistency,” says Perry during an interview at her Capitol Records label offices. “They were so like careful with everything.” “Well, what’s the point of being in pop or rock ’n’ roll music if you’re going to be a windup doll?” Perry says. “Use your own wheels and bolts, even if they break, do it yourself.” But Perry found that a colorful personality, strong voice and well-crafted songs didn’t guarantee her pop stardom, or even an album. Though she worked with top producers such as Glen Ballard and The Matrix, she bounced from label to label. (Blender magazine profiled her as one to watch in 2004.)
“She was signed and dropped like twice before the record came out,” says Walker. “I was afraid that her career and those songs were never gonna see the light of day.” Even Perry wondered whether she should just give up. But her competition gave her hope.
“Every time I thought maybe there was a girl that would take my place, I would watch her and I would kind of sit back and say, ‘Almost! No no no, there’s still a void!’” she recalls.
Now that she’s come along to fill it, Perry looks back on her struggles as a badge of honor. “It’s like training,” she says.
And she has this advice for those hoping to be the next Katy Perry: Find your own identity.
“When I first started at 17 in Los Angeles, the hit song was Complicated, and everyone wanted me to write a Complicated,” she says of Avril Lavigne’s early hit. “I’m like, ‘Look that’s her, this is me. Everybody loves that song — hopefully everyone will love my song.’”
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