RetroPop: Jolting "Wide Awake" With Katy Perry, Maya Angelou, and Sylvia Plath
Welcome once again to RetroPop! You know, the guest blog where I take various Top 40 pop ladies’ songs and perform a bit of compare/contrast action of their tunes with works from great female artists of the past. My aim is to elevate general appreciation of what’s on the radio today by viewing it through the lens of “established artistry” (because, like it or not, these radio songs are commercially and culturally powerful stuff) and also to have a bit of fun with canonical woman writers. Whoopee!
Until this point in the blog, I’ve been writing about what I consider to be fun and accessible comparisons. I’ve been loving the comments and conversations resulting from the RetroPop posts and I really do hope that readers have been enjoying this as a space to visit and engage. Today, though, the mash-ups that came to mind are a tiny smidge more controversial than usual, but all I mean to do is share some works that I believe have echoes of each other and start a discussion. Just a bit of a Tuesday shakeup. Are you ready for some shaking? Shukka shukka, here we go!
Behind door number one, let’s soulfully croon to Katy Perry’s fabulous breakup ballad, “Wide Awake,” lyrics here and video below.
Behind door number two, let’s take a peep at Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” full poem here.
And behind door number three, let’s resurrect the words of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”
I will restrain myself from adding a door number four of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. For now. Mainly because I want to save it for another day. *Brianna rubs hands together with excitement*
So, yes, Maya Angelou. What is her amazing poem of perseverance and empowerment, obviously woven with many beautiful threads of racial and socio-cultural critique, doing up against a vacuous pop song from Katy Perry? Brianna, have you lost it? Angelou belongs to another category entirely.
Yes, Imagined Reader With Many Questions, I do realize that Angelou is doing a whole lot more of a critique in her lovely piece than Perry’s pop song can or ever could. They can’t compete in terms of politics, layering, all that stuff. But you know what? I don’t want to stick Angelou in a category and not be able to touch her unless we’re talking about those more specific cultural critiques. I want us to be able to examine certain impulses and comments within her poem that do have similarities to Perry’s tune which, by the way, has been in the top ten of AT40 for the past six weeks. Not insignificant.
Now that we’ve cleared that shamozzle, let’s see what’s up.
I think the narrator in Perry's song identifies with the guiding voice of "Still I Rise": its narrator baldly asks if her sexiness, if her sassiness offends (themes developed and edged at in “Wide Awake” and other Perry songs past); its narrator faces with confidence the one who had imposed expectations upon her and clearly states her own motives and interests without apology. And, I think we can all agree that in the music video, Perry certainly dances “like [she’s] got diamonds/ At the meeting of [her] thighs.” But most importantly it’s the spirit of self-determination that brings them together just as strongly as any argument that the Perry tune’s critical shallowness might tear them apart.
It’s interesting that “Still I Rise” does not “go” to that more vulnerable place that Perry’s song acknowledges. In “Wide Awake” we see the before and the after. Did the narrator in “Still I Rise” have a troubled and insecure “before”? I’ll tell you somebody who did: Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”
So, alright, I realize that I’m presenting you with not only one controversial combo today, but two. Yes, Plath’s poem evokes mucho imagery from the holocaust, which, clearly, is not a topic being discussed in Perry’s deliciously schmaltzy pop tune. But, again, let’s take the Plath piece out of the little box of “suicide poems with Nazi imagery” and instead tease out some of the bits about rebirth. Because Plath's stuff was a lot about holocaust and self-harm and violent imagery and all this taboo stuff but it was also about her household and her life (and attempts to end it) and she too was just a person in this world with many shades within everything she said.
The echo of Plath’s poem that I heard in “Wide Awake” is the line about the peanut-crunching crowds. In “Wide Awake” the narrator paints a picture of having been entranced in this seemingly wonderful, safe, cozy, internal space in her flawed relationship, and upon her waking to reality, finds she’s “on the concrete,” in the public sphere, a hot mess in a gutter in the open and on display at her worst moment. In a similar vein, Lady Lazarus caustically comments that upon her “rebirths” (and, if we’re going to follow the "confessional poetry" vibe, her suicide survivals) these tacky gawking crowds are there invading her personal and painful recovery. Crunching their peanuts, in Lady Lazarus’ case. Perhaps buying US Weekly’s in the case of Perry’s narrator.
Frankly, I think both of them could stand to spend a little more time hanging out with the likes of Maya Angelou and her narrator if they want to get their acts together.
I suspect (and hope) that today's mashups will lead to some interesting discussions. So, what are your thoughts on these comparisons? And do you, too, dance like you have diamonds at the meeting of your thighs? I hope so.
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