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RetroPop: Jolting "Wide Awake" With Katy Perry, Maya Angelou, and Sylvia Plath

Katy Perry, Maya Angelou, 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."Sylvia Plath
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.

Previously: Would Jane Eyre Totally Heart Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger"?; Ellie Goulding's "Lights" and Emily Dickinson's Dark

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Comments

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hmmm. OK. I want to go with

hmmm. OK. I want to go with you here, I really do, but I just can't. Admittedly, I'm no Katy Perry expert; I've heard this song exactly two times- once when I clicked on the link here, and then again when I realized that the song was so disinteresting to me, that I had actually zoned out about mid-way through, and stopped listening to the lyrics at all. I do, however, know a thing or two about Sylvia Plath, and have a reasonable working knowledge of Angelou's work as well. This mash-up is problematic for me, not because of the "audacity" of linking these artists together, but in the flatness of the Katy Perry selection-there simply isn't much there to work with in the Katy Perry piece in terms of depth, complexity or nuancing. There's just not enough there to tease out or extrapolate much, if anything, about the narrative mindset or the authorial voice. Granted, there is significantly more information that we can glean from the imagery presented in the video (I'll deal with that later)- but without the backstory of Perry's very public failed relationship with Russell Brand, her lyrical images are so generic as to be almost meaningless. In the absence of her persona, both the poetry of Perry's lyrics and the imagery of her video are nothing more than a series of generic, trite, machinations that have been employed with greater impact by more adept artists, to much greater effect (the video for Tori Amos' "Hey Jupiter" comes most immediately to mind as a more effective application of the "inner child as savior" trope, just as a single, obvious example)... What Perry has done here, has been done before, and with much more emotional immediacy and raw depth. In short, I'm just not buying what Perry is selling. What makes both "Still I rise" and "Lady Lazarus" so much more compelling, is the ability of the authors to pull out the freakishness of their own singular experiences, until they become so exaggerated as to become transcendental- ironically, a parlor trick that Perry, with her campy persona and explosively orgasmic projection of constructed-femininity-as-commodity, has proven time and again to be particularly gifted at. Perry trades in exaggerated expressions. It's how she gets the butter on her bread. Perhaps the problem here, is that Perry is actually trying too hard to (simply) be honest. It's almost as though, outside of artifice, she just can't contact her own creativity, and the fruits of her honesty end up feeling inauthentic. We can actually see pieces of this idea in the video itself, in which Perry sits down in front of a make-up mirror (on a sound-stage set like, well, a sound-stage) in order to remove an obviously fake pink wig, at which point she contemplates herself; as a performer, Perry is simultaneously aware of us an audience, contemplating her, and her performance as the Artist contemplating Her Genuine Self.
I know, Meta, right!?! By the end of the video, we have seen Perry (presumably) confront and conquer her "false suitor" with the help of her inner child... the expected narrative would show a stronger, self-actualized Perry preparing to go out on stage as Herself, having risen above the need for gimmicks... but AHA what we get instead, is a shot of the supposedly "resolved" Perry, again at her makeup mirror, but this time she is in a new wig, one which is made to appear more life-like, but at closer inspection is as fake and contrived a construction as the earlier pink wig. In this wig, Perry's true self has simply gone deeper, it's truly incognito- even the disguise is wearing a disguise- in this case the "disguise" being employed is an attempt to appear "genuine." Even as Perry goes out onstage to "perform" as herself, we know this is a performance about performance. While this is an important and profound (albeit, possibly unintentional) commentary on celebrity and the self, it serves only to push the truth of Perry's experience deeper, removing it from the possibility of being a productive part of her art.
This is in stark contrast to both "Lady Lazarus" and "Still I Rise," which on some levels are about willfully constructing an alternate identity in order to protect the self and acknowledging, even embracing, that construction as a means for safe but explosively meaningful expression. The power of Plath's piece lies in the authenticity of her ineffable sorrow, and the palpability of her rage. Even if we don't know about Sylvia's oven, the poem can do nothing but be absolutely honest about the author's inability to resist the repetition of her own self-destructive behavior. It does not equivocate, unlike Perry's piece, it does not pretend to be moving on, even as it reaches for the razor blade. "Lady Lazarus" IS the razor blade, and the waiting wrist. Likewise, Angelou presents the reader with a kind of jubilant phoenix, eager to reclaim the self in the wake of its own disparagement. Both voices eagerly await a kind of cathartic destruction as an opportunity for self-reinvention- which is exactly what Perry seems to be backing away from or denying. Perry's narrative voice is no avenging phoenix, waiting to rise from its own ashes and exact vengeance; Perry's narrative voice just wants you to look at her pretty pictures, so it can burrow deep inside of its own security blanket, sucking its thumb and watching reruns of Alias for new costume ideas. There's just no real WORK going on here, there's no action, there's no crisis, there's no change. Perry's narrative voice might just as well be talking to us about a trip to the grocery store to buy kumquats and lollipops- which is totes fun to hear about, but not, you know, life changing.
This is not a teardown of Perry- please don't get the impression that I live in a cave, and spend my time gazing at my navel, contemplating feminist poetry (I mean, I DO, but, you know, I do other stuff, too....) I think Perry has a real talent for pushing on the barriers between the personal and the public, and even for pulling the grotesque out of her subconscious and into her own personal limelight for everyone to see and poke at. I think we've seen her tweeze at her own pain like Plath in "Lady Lazarus," and I think we've seen her re-assemble her broken girl parts into a more meaningful and self-actualized whole as Angelou does in "Still I Rise," and hell, the woman can write a catchy tune- I just don't think she's doing any of those things here.

Wowie!

Wow, thanks for this awesome essay response! I'm going to need to digest this a bit before I can offer anything useful, but merci for a nice plate full of food for thought, Mirandajaney! I'll get back to you soon.

Brianna Goldberg
http://www.briannagoldberg.com
@b_goldberg

Ready!

Hey there Mirandajaney,

Thanks again for your awesome comment. I thought about it a lot and there's a lot to respond to and I'm sure I won't be able to do it justice but here's what I've got so far:

You mention that this Perry tune can't hold a candle to the emotional and intellectual depth of either the Plath or Angelou pieces, describing it instead as generic and trite. No argument here! Not sure if you've been following RetroPop up to this point but you can see in the first post of the series what the guiding philosophy is. I'm not saying that modern pop songs are poetry of the first order, but rather that they're powerful, and that they do have messages (ones made powerful by their influence on our culture) hidden in there between the trite lyrics, and that's what I'm setting out to re-frame and explore a bit.

I'm going to steer clear of the story in the video because I just don't know who came up with the concept or who wrote the script or whatever and I don't want to get confused between the narrator in this song (which was what I was addressing in this post) and the character in the video and the persona of Katy Perry the celebrity generally with all her personal dramz. Each of those things is a totally separate subject and I often get them all bungled up in my own mind but I'm going to try to keep them separate for our purposes today.

So, yes, I totally agree that "Wide Awake" cannot compete in terms of authenticity with work from Plath or Angelou! Again, it is a song written by like five people, so it would be pretty hard to attribute any emotional truth to it. I think what we can do is pick apart its message, however contrived, and see what it's saying to the kajillions of listeners (and, especially, the young women) who are consuming the song on a daily or, if they listen to the radio for long periods, an hourly basis.

I loved, loved, loved your line about kumquats and lollipops, so thank you for bringing some extra light into my day with that sentence. Oh, and also the line about "Lady Lazarus" being a razor-- that was killer, too.

And as for the catchiness, eh, what can I say, sometimes the power of the brand is stronger than the groove of a tune and of course there's all sorts of subjective elements to the appreciation (or non-appreciation) of it. But, hey, it spent six weeks in the top ten this summer-- that's something!

Thanks again for your thoughts... and now, I'm off to buy some lollipops and kumquats!

Brianna Goldberg
http://www.briannagoldberg.com
@b_goldberg

I don't necessarily think

I don't necessarily think that you need to separate the song from the video from the persona that is Katy Perry. I think they are kind of intended to be taken as a whole piece, telling a whole story. But then again, I'm not sure that the people who create any of this expect that listeners will be taking a critical stance in relation to it.

I also don't necessarily think the song is totally lacking in a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. There were two lines in particular that really struck me (and this is from knowing a little bit about the singer's background). "I am born again/Out of the lion's den." These lines reflect some pretty traditional Christian imagery, and knowing that she comes from an Evangelical background, I find this interesting. I think when you link this especially to the imagery in the video of her younger self rescuing her, it becomes much more of a message. What I find especially interesting in this context is that after she's "returned," awake, and aware of the truths that her younger self revealed, she goes on with the performance of her prior self (i.e., she might have a different wig, but she's just as costumed, and preparing to perform one of her older songs). It's as though she's come to a realization about Truth (perhaps God's truth, from an evangelical perspective), but she's keeping it inside herself while she goes on to perform the Katy Perry that she's been performing all along. I wonder if the song isn't a message to her Christian fans, making a claim that she still believes, even as she performs things that seem un-Christian.

The Christian right is really adept at embedding messaging, using Christian symbolism, that will be recognized by other Christians, although not necessarily by non-Christians. I don't know that this is really what's going on here, but it struck me.

I also think that your choice of comparison was interesting, because in previous posts, you've compared female writers from the past who were considered "pop" artists of their time. I'm not sure that Sylvia Plath or Maya Angelou have ever been considered "popular" or "low-art." I did, however, read "Still I Rise" and really want to hear a pop artist perform it as a catchy song. (I'm not saying you NEED to only pick artists who were considered popular, just that I wonder what kind of difference that makes.)

Thanks!

Awesome comments about Perry's religious background, I hadn't even considered that aspect. Merci, Laura!

Brianna Goldberg
http://www.briannagoldberg.com
@b_goldberg

Whoa.

You just blew my mind. It's going to take me awhile to stumble through the thought forest you just watered in my brain. However, the first thought that comes to me is this: I bet this is the only time I'll laugh while reading an article that mentions both Katy Perry, suicide, and Nazi imagery.

Blurb

Thanks, Shannon... I think I'm going to use your quote about laughing while reading about KP and suicide as, like, a blurb on my website. Best. Compliment. Ever.

Brianna Goldberg
http://www.briannagoldberg.com
@b_goldberg

RetroPop: Jolting "Wide Awake" With Katy Perry, Maya Angelou,

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Much appreciated-- if you find you're liking the series, please to keep on commenting, always happy to hear what readers think about this whole thing!

Brianna Goldberg
http://www.briannagoldberg.com
@b_goldberg

RetroPop: Jolting "Wide Awake" With Katy Perry, Maya Angelou,

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