Unravelling the Katy Perry Cipher Through “This Is How We Do”
Katy Perry’s latest album Witness has sparked quite a bit of conversation since its release last month, but I’m not sure it’s the conversation she wanted us to have. The artist is touting her fourth studio album as her political record, a Trump-era act of resistance designed to get us talking about the social ills and unethical power structures in which we are complicit in our daily lives. But so far, Perry’s mantra of “Purposeful Pop” appears to have largely failed to launch on both counts: her political statements lack depth or clarity, and are easily overshadowed by her many, many blunders; meanwhile critical consensus is that the album’s songwriting lacks punch, riddled with dull hooks and production choices that fail to leave a significant impression on the listener. It’s quickly become apparent that the more interesting and fruitful discussions to stem from Witness involve what the album indicates about Perry’s persona and process, as well as the state of the pop music industry as a whole.
As a student of pop music and a junkie for cultural criticism, I find Perry perennially fascinating. She’s often dismissed as the pop industry equivalent of vanilla, i.e. rendered bland by nature of being so thoroughly default. But vanilla is a subtle and expensive flavor, and pop art as carefully ordinary as Katy Perry’s can reveal a lot about both the artist and the society in which that artist functions — after all, how can an artist be ordinary without a public to define what is ordinary in the first place?
Rather than excavate Perry’s most recent work, though, I’d like to focus on “This Is How We Do”, a single and accompanying video from her previous album, 2014’s Prism. I’ve chosen the older work because (for reasons which we’ll get into) I think that this song is deliberately representative of Katy Perry’s work, and it might help us understand the roots and connective tissue binding her steps and missteps of the past few months or so to the greater arc and canon of her career. I’ll be going second-by-second through the song’s music video, so here it is for reference:
0:00 “This Is How We Do” opens with a comically massive, trancey stab of a synth that serves as an immediate wink to the listener — Katy Perry is letting you know that she is about to perform a Pop Song, and at that a Katy Perry Pop Song, and she’s going to do it with a knowing smirk on her face and just a little dash of ironic remove. Plenty of critics, especially in the wake of Witness’ overall sense of cloying earnestness, have suggested that this in-on-the-joke quality defines Perry’s persona and characterizes her best work, and this opening salvo seems like a setup for a solid satirical punchline. PC Music had begun to properly make waves around the time of this song’s release in 2014, and by itself this synth sounds brazen and gleeful enough to herald something along the lines of Madonna’s supremely exciting SOPHIE-produced “Bitch I’m Madonna” from the following year, whose video Perry made a cameo in and which sounded like PC Music’s supercharged pop parody as broadcasted from inside the house — and who better, really, to commandeer a lovingly poisoned industry takedown than one of that industry’s captains? But Perry has only rarely achieved craftsmanship on a level rivaling Madonna’s better work — keep that tab open, we’ll be referring back to Owen Pallett’s brilliant theoretical analysis of “Teenage Dream” again — and she has yet to sustain strong songwriting and musicianship across an entire album the way Madonna did on Ray of Light, if nowhere else. “This Is How We Do”, unfortunately, will prove no exception.
The film language in this video is deliberately and pointedly rigid, focused invariably on the center of the frame. Combining it in the first shot with the image of Perry as a museum piece does an excellent job of announcing the clip’s intention of depicting, as mentioned above, a Metanarrative Of Katy PerryTM, and at that in an arresting, artistic way. I believe the ultimate intent of this song is to construct the ur-Katy Perry song (more on this later) and this image, particularly the zoom into the world of the painting that becomes the next scene, does a good job of setting the table for examining that idea.
That’s when she offers you a drink.
0:10 “Sipping on rosé, Silverlake, sun coming up all lazy / Slow-cooking pancakes for my boy, still up, still fresh as a daisy / Playing ping-pong all night long, everything’s all neon and hazy / Chanel this, Chanel that, hell yeah / All the girls vintage Chanel, baby”
Let’s acknowledge right off the bat that this is a terrible melody. It is exactly two notes, a droning second resolving to a tonic at the end of each line, over and over and over again, comprising nearly the entire song. You could try to read this as an attempt at parody, a mockery of the supposed lowest-common-denominator singable simplicity of a pop tune, but if such grating repetition is a joke, then it comes across as mean-spirited and shallow rather than playful or incisive. As Pallett’s analysis of “Teenage Dream” indicates, Perry posesses a powerful understanding of how much meaning and power can be wrung from a simple melody, while even PC Music’s deliberately singsong toplines or Icona Pop’s barebones shouting have more dynamism than “This Is How We Do.” And at any rate Perry’s delivery, in both the track and the video, don’t support this reading — the simplicity seems more like an attempt to project groundedness and self-confidence, an aura matching what the center-focused framing and contented lyrics seem to be trying to evoke.
And oh dear, those lyrics. Namechecking luxury brands is a relatively uncommon move for Perry, and it doesn’t exactly roll off her tongue here. More troubling, though, is the way the lyrical choice seems calculated to signal an alignment with hip-hop in a bid for cultural currency. Cultural appropriation has been a recurring issue for Perry, especially over the last two album cycles (take her video for “Dark Horse,” from the same album as “This Is How We Do”, which attempted to pay homage to Michael Jackson’s iconic “Remember the Time” video while ignoring the racial significance of Jackson’s Egyptian imagery) and this is a prime example of why, even beyond perpetuating systemic oppression, the practice tends to simply result in poorly executed entertainment: the practice of naming brands in black music evolved, at least partially, due to the fact that the act of simultaneously being wealthy and black inherently constitutes social defiance (Watch the Throne, anyone?); disconnected from this as a white woman, Perry struggles to infuse meaning of any kind into her invocation of her own purchasing power, and her words ultimately tumble by into the void unrecognized. There’s an Office Depot near my parents’ home that always seemed to be playing “This Is How We Do” when I visited, and I think the meaninglessness of these lyrics is part of why a song that’s so directly fixated on drunken hedonism played so well against copy paper smell and racks of discounted decade-old software — unaided by the monotonous melody, the only lines that register at all to a casual listener are the ones that comport to the quirks of Perry’s established persona, which are much better represented in this stanza by her bizarre left-turn into “playing ping-pong” (that unassailable emblem of lurid nights and sordid days) than by her weak gestures towards a body of work that’s neither for nor by her.
Katy Perry’s food fixation emerged fully-formed on June 14, 2010, when her “California Gurls” video was first uploaded to Youtube and almost immediately became one of her most enduring visual presentations. It’s possibly her persona’s most distinct idiosyncrasy, and it may also be one of her most fascinating and subversive facets. We demand our female pop culture figures to be thin and unearthly; the notion of them being hungry and consuming food contradicts our sexist fantasy that they exist in needless voids, having no desire other than to satisfy the desires of others. Female pop stars of recent memory have effected some of their most powerful controversies and backlashes by engaging directly with this fraught relationship to food — witness Lady Gaga’s brilliant and much-reviled meat dress, or the way Ke$ha’s snarled invocations of whiskey and beer quickly became “TiK ToK”’s most-discussed lines, and the most demonized during Ke$ha’s time as the concerned parent’s scapegoat du jour. In this light, Perry’s consistent invocation of food, and particularly junk food like the sweets, ice cream, and pizza depicted here, might be read as an attempt to humanize the feminine, to remind us that our goddess-like pop singer has bodily functions too, in the hope that doing so will both dampen our unreasonable demands for her “perfection” and soften the guilt of our grimy, drab realities failing to match our pristine media reflections.
Some of her most effective art, such as it is, has involved that food fetishism, including “California Gurls” and the clip for “Bon Appetit” from Witness. That single is easily the album’s strongest so far: “Chained To the Rhythm” is hamstrung by its hopelessly milquetoast and vague attempts at invoking the deeply urgent and nuanced social issues of our time, and its video doubles down by only touching very briefly and lightly on any one problem, mixing in some shallow (not to mention hypocritical) “put down your phones” grousing for good measure; “Swish Swish” has a solid topline and some knocking Eurodance beats but runs out of ideas within its first minute, while its Saturday Night Live performance comes across like the work of a 40-something suburban mom whose only connection to gay culture whatsoever is a religious devotion to RuPaul’s Drag Race and the irritatingly trite Taylor Swift non-beef puts a fetid stink on the whole business. “Bon Appetit” is ostensibly a fun sex jam about setting the mood with endless groan-worthy food puns — by itself (with the exception of a perfunctory guest verse from chartstormers and *ahem* partners in tone-deafness Migos) more than welcome, especially when it comes wrapped in some of the sharpest sound design of Perry’s career — but the video may actually be the most powerful, pointed, and vicious political statement so far in her supposed “woke pop” remaking. It spends most of its runtime playing with tried-and-true imagery of cooking a woman as a metaphor for the demeaning objectification of female bodies and sexuality in entertainment — even pushing the trope to oddball extremes with nigh-Manneristic body deformation, exaggerated pastry bag foley, and whatever this facial expression is supposed to communicate — before enacting a final twist: Perry is being served to a table of drooling 1%-ers when Migos activate a hidden trap. They (three black men) along with Perry (a woman) and the kitchen staff (mostly people of color) have ensnared their oppressors and torture, cook, and eat them instead. The editing of this scene in the final product is unsatisfyingly timid, only showing frenetic cuts to the violence itself before quickly darting back to Perry presiding over it, but the final shot, in which Perry smirks into the camera from behind an oversized Titus Andronicus-worthy cannibal pie, is gleeful and boldfaced in a manner that her other political efforts seem afraid to even come near broaching.
But Perry’s food fixation is not put to any such use in “This Is How We Do”, or really any use at all — much like the brand-dropping, it seems to exist in the abstract without a purpose beyond itself. There will be one overture towards breaking this monotony of meaninglessness, but we’ve got a full sixty seconds to cover before we get there.
Personally, I’m always inclined to give pop artists, especially female pop musicians, the benefit of the doubt when considering whether a given detail in their content is intentional. Pop music is an act of profound, precise, and exact engineering — again, see Pallett’s unravelling of “Teenage Dream”’s harmonic designs, or his other two excellent pieces for Slate on Lady Gaga and Daft Punk— enough that it will always make more sense to assume intention and purpose rather than carelessness or ignorance. (This is to say nothing of the fact that female musicians of any kind, especially pop stars, have spent far too long facing sexist dismissals of their labor.)
So when I see this direct reference to De Stijl in a Katy Perry video, I’m inclined to think that Perry and her team were indeed inspired by De Stijl, or at least the Theo Van Doesburg paintings to which this shot pays homage. (They certainly wouldn’t be the first musicians on that front.) One of the main quests of De Stijl was to find a basic vocabulary of visual art — as the manifesto linked above outlines, Modernism as a whole had shattered longstanding traditions about the fundamentals of how a visual work was constructed, and De Stijl’s artists searched for a new set of fundamentals that was objective, ineffable, inherently unable to be shattered. It’s not a perfect analog, but I wouldn’t wonder if Perry is attempting to do the same here with her own work: to try to make the ur-Katy Perry Song, a sort of toolkit (as opposed to a template), not “minimalist” so much as a deconstruction into basic parts. Those basic parts, as this song would have it, are actually pretty well born out in the rest of Perry’s catalog, especially her singles: straight tempos, prominent EDM-inspired percussion, cartoony synths, easily sung melodies with only occasional use of stacked harmony, lyrics and melodic shapes that communicate low stakes and confidence, cleanly delineated song structure, and a propensity to search for joy within the rules rather than in breaking them.
These are not bad decisions by themselves, and though they might sound like a description of every pop song from the past decade at first blush you’d be surprised how often other artists consciously don’t employ these elements. You’d certainly be hard-pressed to find someone who commits as thoroughly to them as Perry does across whole albums — even the one or two hip-hop inflected beats per album move with the same driving feel as the Max Martin dance rhythms to which she defaults. But again, Perry’s music doesn’t display craftsmanship that makes for continuously compelling work within these constraints. (Compare to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ongoing album cycle, where almost every song she’s released since 2015 lands with the same undeniable MOR transcendence as “Teenage Dream”.) And, more troublingly, if “This Is How We Do” is meant as a distillation of her stylistic DNA, then she’s also trying to make sure you know that she’s influenced by hip-hop, and as we’ve already seen she struggles to embody that without coming across as tone-deaf.
0:40 An effective, if not ironclad, rule of thumb in evaluating whether a work of music can be called “pop” in the modern sense is whether or not it reaches its chorus within the first minute. If that sounds extreme, try putting on big-tent chart pop albums and watching the progress bar in iTunes — on Taylor Swift’s 1989, only the contemplative guitar strummer “This Love” takes more than a few clicks past the one-minute mark to settle into a refrain, while not even in the genre-experiment weeds beyond the frontloaded singles do any of the fourteen cuts on Lady Gaga’s debut The Fame need more than sixty seconds to detonate.
Not to be outdone, “This Is How We Do” not only starts but finishes its first chorus by the time it reaches triple digits, landing the downbeat of its second verse at almost exactly one minute in. The message is pretty clear: the song wants to make a meal out of its own economy, to display its own streamlined form as a kind of musical athleticism. This is a concept plenty of musicians have toyed with, but at their best, tightly-wound songs showcase and/or imply a wealth of ideas, as a way of making both those ideas and the song’s ability to address them with limited resources mutually more impressive. Lorde’s work on Pure Heroine was obsessively focused on this idea, carving relentlessly incisive and detailed portraits of adolescence into the negative space of her sparse tracks; so too, in a different sense, was the entire canon of her onetime opening act Majical Cloudz, whose output largely consisted of frontman Devon Welsh spilling out confessional after knotted confessional over organ drones and tinny drum machines. By contrast, Perry seems to have largely achieved her minimalism by restricting substance — flattening the melody, heading off every opportunity for shifts in flow and dynamics at the earliest pass, and sapping the song of almost any emotional stakes, especially at its most critical points — like this chorus. “This is how we do / Yeah, chillin’, laidback, street stuntin’, yeah we do it like that / This is how we do…” Beyond expending three lines in the song’s prime lyrical real estate to reiterate the same basic, broad sentiment, her choice of words seems to mean very little to her. Her droning delivery is almost apologetic in the way it seems hellbent to avoid hooking into your ear, with almost no change in emphasis between syllables.
0:46 “…do do do do.” Speaking of which.
She even emphasizes the stuttering on “do” with text cards. It feels like filler, scaffolding for blank space on an unfinished lyric sheet, but it’s then presented as if it were one of the song’s most insistent hooks. Using a chorus-ending solo stutter as a song’s key earworm is a strategy that has worked precisely once in the history of the iconic modern stutter, and that is the moment it was invented, on Rihanna’s “Umbrella”. Though it’s become part of modern pop’s DNA, pop artists have mostly been wise to relegate stutter to a secondary slot, providing hooks but remaining a component of texture foremost rather than content. Even Lady “P-p-p-poker face” Gaga herself uses it at most for exaggerated, attention-grabbing accents that nevertheless remain accents, like aural equivalents of her angular facial prosthetics. It’s an anticlimactic whimper on the tail of what was already a deeply anticlimactic chorus, so much so that the swollen kick drums and frayed, escalating yell Perry employs for the “no big deal” prechorus feel like they belong in a different song.
1:00 “Big hoops, and maroon lips, my clique hoppin’ in my Maserati / Santa Barbara chique, at La Super Rica grabbing tacos, checking out hotties / Now we talking astrology, getting our nails did all Japanese-y / Day drinking at the Wildcat, sucking real bad at Mariah Carey-oke”
It’s always thorny to appraise pop music on the basis of “authenticity”; it’s kind of like taking Starbucks or Whole Foods at their word for claiming to be corporations who have heart. But like those companies, in order to make such an image worth selling, Katy Perry has to be reasonably convincing, and this verse is easily “This Is How We Do”’s most convincing, capitalizing on specific references to real locales from her California hometown. I’d take issue, though, with what appear to be attempts at boosting Santa Barbara’s cultural diversity — I say appear precisely because the problem is that referencing tex-mex, Asian-owned nail salons, and a monoculture-enshrined black performer hardly indicate any kind of divorce of the white gaze or its associated stereotyping from Perry’s depictions of non-white groups, which soundly defeats the point of highlighting diversity at all.
Meanwhile, the “Carey-oke” pun serves as both another notch in the song’s no-wasted-moves ethos and a classic Katy Perry military-grade clunker, the kind of “square root of 69” anti-joke designed to make the teller look all the more endearing for the bomb. This is a gambit Perry has attempted countless times, to the point where she constructs entire songs around it, like “This Is How We Do”’s sister single “Birthday,” which is effectively Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake” at twice the length and half the directness (which, as you can probably guess from the titles alone, is still plenty direct). “Birthday” is an excellent example of how this gambit can often fail to work in her favor — in the track itself, the aggressively static arrangement and uninspired delivery makes Perry’s grinding of the metaphor into the ground monotonous rather than endearing; the song’s video showcases her bad-comedian schitck at its worst via a hidden-camera conceit that sees her attending parties in various ostensibly comical disguises, the most egregious of which is “Yosef Shulem the MC”, a caricature that would smack profoundly of anti-Semitism for the raised-Christian artist even if she wasn’t inciting genuinely aghast looks at a bar mitzvah, even if the “hebraic hip-hop” gag wasn’t one that the Jewish-American community themselves had already come up with decades earlier to far more substantive and amusing results.
1:36 “…do do do do.”
It’s easy to acquiesce to our patriarchal cultural narratives and sneer that our female pop artists are vapid idiots, wealth-coddled puppets who were selected almost at random from the general population for various powerful male executives to manipulate for their own gain. But the truth is that it takes something approaching genius to become a pop star. An aspiring celebrity has to acquire and leverage an insane amount of resources, shore up a formidable artistic, cultural, and business acumen, predict countless opportunities and persuade countless higher-ups, cultivate a capable and functional team of business and personal assistance, and put in an extraordinary amount of excruciating, tedious labor. What gets me the most about lines like this one is that after all of that — after attaining and sustaining the awe-inspiring achievement of becoming a pop superstar, much less one with the record-breaking success she’s found — Katy Perry chose to use the opportunity it provided her on, well, this.
And she didn’t make the decision alone. The number of decisions that had to be greenlit and the number of people who had to make and greenlight each of them in order to arrive at the chorus of a bestselling pop star’s single is staggering. And every single one of those people thought this line passed muster, that it would earn them or their clients money, audience, cultural influence, and the power that comes with them. The believed in this line enough to let it be the song’s climax, its mic drop, its conclusive resolution towards which every other part of the song is directed.
Given its placement in the video — at a peak in the chorus, at nearly the exact midpoint of the runtime, and on the deepest “layer” of the video’s nested scenes — this visual, where anthropomorphized ice cream products march in a clear homage to that midcentury movie theater bumper advertising concessions before suddenly transumuting into full-color “modernized” revisions, one of whom is twerking and another of whom appears to have Towelie-style weed eyes, is clearly intended as a key point, a distillation of whatever statement Perry wishes to make about herself with the song and video.
That statement would appear to have something to do with rendering the familiar exciting, adding vibrancy and edginess to inoffensive, domestic Americana. We’ve already touched on this idea multiple times: Katy Perry, who sexualizes Candyland and brings the bottle service to Office Depot. There’s an edited reel her team released from the weirdly unambitious continuous five-day livestream leading up to Witness’ premier where Perry claims that, as an artist, “I always go to the limit, and then I push it”, not a minute before reminiscing about an extended Kenny G cameo in one of her music videos. Obviously, Katy Perry isn’t exactly Death Grips, but you might argue that she’s a provocateur within a certain very, very strict Overton window — the tier of monoculture where Adele reigns supreme, that video of a crying white woman reading Vince Staples lyrics is worth discussing, and Lady Gaga was completely beyond the pale of decency until she got a cosign from Tony Bennett. After all, Perry did manage to have Missy Elliot perform fucking “Work It” at the Superbowl without much fuss, the same platform where Madonna struck out with a few frames of M.I.A.’s middle finger and Coldplay were completely upstaged by the backlash against Beyoncé’s “Formation” — perhaps this is what she means by the “limit” she pushes, that she wants to affect progress to the middle of the road from within.
The problem is that the middle of the road is only determined by a cultural framework in which colonialism, oppression, and other social ills are key supports. (You’ll notice a running theme of blackness as the outsider and the unwholesome in a lot of what I’ve mentioned above.) Since Perry is required to lean on this framework to remain in the middle of the road, she cannot help but be infected by these ills far more than she can remedy them. Speaking of which,
This is Katy Perry performing a black woman. With cosigns from two white-owned tech giants.
In my opinion, Katy Perry’s music videos from the Prism album cycle (excepting the cinéma vérité of “Birthday”, which as we’ve discussed has its own issues) often suffered from visual overload. The big culprit is “Dark Horse”, which pops with screaming neon and glittery metals in almost every single overstuffed frame (are blinking LEDs what that headpiece in the throne room scenes really needed?), but “Roar”’s Tarzan story is marred by irritatingly gratuitous camera movements and “This Is How We Do” has these collages during the bridge, which rival I Spy spreads in their ability to confuse the viewer. Hell, even the I Spy photos, which are designed to puzzle the listener with a maze of conflicting perspectives, tend to have individual scenes that draw extended focus, whereas these jumbles only make sense as a single, very confused scene. It took me weeks of repeated viewings of the video while working on this piece to realize that these shots were actually very literal representations of the lyrics — in this case “kids”, “bottle service”, and “rent money” — because the visual information is too cluttered to decipher in the few seconds afforded each one.
I’ll say again: I think it always makes more sense to assume intentionality in the content of pop art. I don’t think it’s at all fair to Katy Perry or all the hundreds of other people who had a hand in this video’s creation (and yes, rest assured that there are hundreds) to think this picture of Aretha Franklin was included just because the word “respect” also happens to be a song Katy Perry is aware of, even though that song has little at all to do with the youthful abandon Perry is applauding in the lyric. But assuming intention only makes this beat more damning, because the next most reasonable explanation I can think of is that this invocation of Franklin is either a shallow gesture of feminist solidarity or yet another shallow effort to court a black audience with a “fellow kids” level of insulting transparency and depthlessness.
2:40–2:45 “Shout out to all you kids goin’ to bed with a 10 and waking up with a 2….”
At first blush it’s almost surprising that this line exists. Katy Perry was repping feminism (however vaguely) long before Witness, while the numbered rating system she invokes here is decidedly antifeminist, culturally inseperable from boys addled by their feeling of entitlement to women’s bodies and, further, deeply connected to unrealistic standards of beauty and performance for people of all genders. This does not seem like the supposed Katy Perry of 2017, who chats about white privilege with DeRay McKesson — it seems more like the Katy Perry of 2008, who sang “you p.m.s. like a bitch” on “Hot N Cold” and penned the deliriously homophobic wannabe trip-hop putdown “Ur So Gay”.
But maybe that Katy Perry is not as far off as the present-day Katy Perry would prefer you to think — after all, those songs and videos are still readily available for sale and stream through all of her media channels, and her supposed political consciousness has yet to pan out in her actual business practices, whether it’s videos and tours whose lavish production pays no mind to our planet’s dire ecological straits (how much non-renewable resources and energy would you wager was expended to produce that almost comically oblique “Fire H2O” shot from “Chained to the Rhythm”?) or continuing to host her music on platforms like Spotify, whose ongoing unsustaniable exploitation of artists is well-documented. This, for me, is the sticking place where gestures like that podcast appearance with McKesson fall flat — in that interview, she refers to parts of the “This Is How We Do” video as “mistakes”, but she is still broadcasting, advertising those supposed “mistakes” to us, the transgressions she claims to be so concerned about redressing still proffered to us as part of her brand.
2:48–2:50 “…[chuckle] not me.”
What is Perry trying to communicate with this addendum? There’s always the odd possibility that she’s boasting about her discernment in selecting casual sex partners, but more likely this line exists because Katy Perry felt it was necessary to claim on record that she does not have casual sex. It’s an odd declaration that completely deflates any sense of liberation this entire bridge has shorn up, proclaiming (if implicitly) Perry’s moral superiority or purity in not having casual sex; it’s also a strange and creepy continuation of pop culture moments like Britney Spears’ “waiting until marriage” days, when the sexist dissonance between society’s demand for sexualization of young women and simultaneous demonization of young women for their sexuality reared its hideous head in a particularly overt manner.
There’s a lot to be gleaned about how a female pop star wants to present herself from the way she is framed with her dancers in videos. Lady Gaga, simultaneously champion of and in solidarity with the queer community, is usually with a large, pointedly androgynous mixed-raced group in her videos’ major choreography pieces, often positioned prominently but always performing the exact same moves as everyone else. The more that Beyoncé has consciously positioned herself as an avatar of black women, the more her visual albums depict her surrounded by them. Rihanna, the consummate rebel, is overwhelmingly shown dancing alone. Katy Perry, with her laidback goofiness and domestic fetisihism, wants to come across as an everygirl, and in videos and performances you’ll often see her not dancing (or, as here, just sort of bopping) during choreography sequences as a way of showing you that she’s more like the viewer than the team of synchronized superhumans behind her. It’s a perfectly fine strategy, and one which makes a virtue of the fact that dance isn’t exactly an expected skill for a former CCM artist. It’s also one employed by Taylor Swift, who in like manner came up as a country songwriter rather than a pop idol, and who also actively presents herself as an everygirl. I often wonder if this is why Perry and Swift have made on-and-off but vigorous attempts to spark a feud — most recently, Perry’s making mountains out of a supposedly stolen backup dancer and releasing a toothless dis track only to almost immediately rescind the already shallow barbs. In our sexist pop framework, we often restrict the already limited roles available our female singers to only one slot a piece — there can be only one reigning pop princess or queen, one renegade outsider, one vixen at a given time. (I’m reminded of Sarah McLachlan’s tales of the genesis of Lilith Fair, when almost every promoter she approached told her that a bill with more than one female act would never turn a profit.) It tracks, then, that Swift and Perry, despite their shared proclamations of feminism, might feel compelled to perpetuate the profoundly sexist concept of a catfight, to battle for dominance in a single reductive slot even though their respective bodies of work explore markedly different sonic and lyrical spaces.
2:55 “What? Wait, no no no no. Bring the beat back.”
This kind of fourth-wall command over one’s own song has been a staple of pop divadom since Janet Jackson first murmured “I love this part”, but Perry treats her entry in this trope like some kind of revolutionary disruption in the industry, accentuating it with a “that’s right”, apparently under the assumption that her audience is busy wiping their collective jaw from the floor. And the ensuing recapitulation doesn’t deliver on her promise at all, a limp retread of an already limp stomp that goes nowhere and does nothing before farting out after only eight measly bars.
At its most effective, the “I like this bit” trope precedes some of a song’s strangest sonic corners, as in Jackson’s “Nasty” when the already brute beats reach their most digitally jagged, or in Britney Spears’ “Break the Ice” during a muffled ooze of a breakdown. In both cases, this signals the female artist’s insistence of agency in her work, taking ownership of “masculine” harshness and innovation that’s often unfairly ascribed to her male producers. Perry, on the other hand, seems to be trying for something more like Beyoncé’s call of “bring the beat in!” from “Love On Top”, which underlined her intention on 4 of putting a harder, more contemporary production style to consciously retro sounds, in that song’s case Reagan-era Whitney Houston and premillenial boy bands like New Edition. Perry ends “This Is How We Do” surrounded by the animated ice cream characters from earlier, connecting the “bring the beat back” moment to her own bid at updating the vintage. But unlike any of those songs, her invocation of the trope is not followed by anything of substance at all — if anything, the outro is drained of it, relegating those fizzy synths from the beginning to the background and leaving only dead air in their place. It’s an ending emblematic of “This Is How We Do” as a whole — oddly joyless, low on substance, and leadfooted in presenting what substance it does have. Beside a reclining Perry, an ice cream cone twerks mechanistically, casually swiping and cheapening an oppressed culture’s property as darkness closes in.