Katy Perry is not a stylish woman. Her aesthetic is based on excess, favouring quantity over quality in the hope that something will stick. Never is this more obvious than in Perry’s videos. Her videography is built around lurid explosions of colour and perplexing motifs, Perry always dressed in nonsensical but vibrant outfits, every inch of the screen occupied by something loud and crying out for attention. Her videos are rammed with ideas – far too many, in fact – giving the impression they were made in a manic rush in which any suggestion was tossed in without a moment’s thought. If they seem confusing, it’s because they are, and just sitting through one can be headache-inducing and exhausting.
Perry’s latest effort, the Joan of Arc inspired ‘Hey Hey Hey’, is a perfect example of Perry’s fondness for throwing together conflicting themes and aesthetics, tying them together in a flimsy narrative that barely makes sense. In her newest clip, Perry plays the role of a Marie Antoinette-style aristocrat who repeatedly reject the advances of the sleazy Prince Piggy before he tires of her defiance and orders her beheading. To top it all off, a second Perry, this time glammed up like a sci-fi Joan of Arc, reaps revenge on Piggy while brandishing the still-animated severed head. It’s a confusing and messy video, but also one that proves beyond all doubt that Katy Perry is the video vanguard we need, and one we must protect at all costs.
2017 has been a vintage year for music videos, from Dua Lipa’s stylish, hyper-choreographed ‘New Rules’ to the low-budget, purposeful ‘Boys’ from Charli XCX. But no one has produced such consistently ridiculous videos as Perry, an artist who rarely ventures into symbolism or meaningful motifs, instead appearing to make them purely for the fun of it. This year alone, we’ve seen her feast on human flesh, explore a sci-fi theme park and lead a team of lovable losers to basketball victory. Her videos delight in over-excess, bombarding the viewer with a constant assault of colour and terrible jokes, Perry revelling in the absurdity of it all, playing an aristocrat one day and a personified ball of dough the next. In a year in which her contemporaries have stuck largely to creating work that is artistic, stylish and rich in symbolism, Perry has kept things fun.
Perry’s approach to music videos is reminiscent of the high-budget, bombastic videos that characterised the late 90s and early 00s. Watching her ultra-polished, consumerist visuals, we’re reminded of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, acts whose heyday coincided with the peak of MTV when music videos enjoyed a huge surge in popularity. These were videos that relied on expensive sets, slick dance routines and iconic outfits, a trend that has waned since the dawn of the streaming era. But Perry’s videos suggest a return to the pricey but vacuous model of yesteryear, prioritising eye-watering indulgence over fashionable subtlety.
Yet while her videos owe a huge debt to the bombast of the 90s, Perry gives her work a modern kick. ‘Swish Swish’ is essentially one long nod to meme culture featuring a cast of minor Internet celebs while, looking further back, ‘Last Friday Night (TGIF)’ stars perhaps the Internet’s most infamous celebrity of all time in Rebecca Black. Perry casts her of-the-moment stars in wacky storylines, another trope she’s resurrected from the graveyard of the 90s. Nowadays, music videos are rarely structured around a linear narrative, instead constructed as a series of disjointed, often symbolic images from which the viewer has to extract meaning (see Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ as a perfect example). Perry’s storytelling is the natural successor to the likes of Britney Spears’ ‘Oops!…I Did It Again’, and Steps’ ‘Tragedy’, both created during a time when it was normal for videos to have a clear beginning, middle and end – something that has since fallen out of fashion.
It’s easy to sniff at Perry’s gaudy videography, but we’d be wrong to do so. While her videos may be hard-going, they’re also a refreshing antidote to the more serious, naval-gazing work of her contemporaries, harking back to the 90s when music videos were a medium for pure pop escapism. And in these grim pre-apocalyptic days, surely that can be no bad thing.