Katy Perry vs. Lady Gaga: The Meaning is the Message


Katy Perry and Lady Gaga both released singles last week. They’re both at the top of the charts, and my eight-year-old daughter, until recently, loved them both equally.

This is no longer the case.

With the release of Part of Me, the Katy Perry movie, as well as a feeling of identifying more closely with Perry as she aspires to be a young singer herself — my daughter has grown to like Katy Perry “better.” To be clear, she now pretty much worships Katy Perry, anything she does, and anything with her face on it. So, on the drive to school this morning when I played her both songs for the first time back to back, to get her reaction, I pretty much knew what to expect.

The minute the Katy Perry single, “Roar,” started to play, I could see Alchemy’s eyes light up in the rear view mirror, and she instantly began mouthing the words in a split second delay in an attempt to memorize them — something¬† I vividly remember doing as a child with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and KISS’ “Destroyer” albums.

The song promotes strength and finding your voice, a positive message, especially to young females trying to find their identity and place in the world. Even the word, “roar,” to me is clearly a throwback to the cloying Helen Reddy anthem of the ’70s.

Katy Perry’s brilliant ‘lyric video’ for “Roar.” The video is especially relevant if you know any girls between the age of 8 and 18.

Next, Alchemy listened intently, eyes narrowed, to Lady Gaga’s “Applause.” She used to be fascinated by Gaga’s loud, androgynous hooks and sophisticated beats. She freaked out when I brought home The Fame Monster on vinyl picture disc a couple years ago. But this morning, her eyes just glazed over and stared out the window. Gaga’s lyrics — more superficial jabs referencing literary and pop culture themes — just seemed to go over her head. And with good reason. She doesn’t yet understand what the hell Gaga is singing about.

For me, listening to the two singles back to back drove a pretty stark distinction between them. For a while, I had convinced myself that they were simply pop stars vying for the highest spot on the chart, and trying to sell more arena tickets. Now, I see that the difference between the two artists lies directly in the message (not the marketing) of their output, the image they so tightly control and convey, and the parts of the people (and fans) they appeal to.

There’s also a very real difference in the way they objectify themselves. Lady Gaga does it intentionally. She treats herself as art object, as sex object, an object to be desired, an object to be emulated. Katy Perry may do some of those things, but she does so with the intention of empowerment (read, “I Kissed A Girl”) and not for the attention (or the applause). They both preach that we are all beautiful, individual snowflakes — black, white, gay or straight —¬† but Gaga’s sermons tend to leave you with a throbbing dancefloor-induced hangover (which there is, of course, a time and a place for) and Perry’s lectures are sickly sweet appeals to the interior — the safety of your heart and soul.

I have to say, I would much rather have my eight-year-old daughter learning to “roar like a champion” than living “for the applause.”

Gaga’s pretty-much-slutty video for “Applause.”

Personally, I want to touch Lady Gaga, I want to kiss Lady Gaga, I want to lick Lady Gaga. But I want to hang out and have a beer with Katy Perry. As a white, American male, my direct experience with each of their personas is uniquely different — and it is designed that way (to some extent, by them).

Musically, Katy Perry may very well have the edge as a songwriter, but there’s no arguing that Lady Gaga will forever be remembered as the first pop star of the millennial generation.

On a much broader level, Katy Perry has always appealed to the heart of the adolescent female. That painful stage of learning to love and be loved. What Carl Jung would call “individuation.” The awkward stage of self-image, self-loathing and fitting in. It is where a piece of Katy Perry (and her alter ego “Kathy Beth Terry“) permanently resides, and it informs her music and her message on every level. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, shoots a fiber optic cable into your mind and directly uploads a vision of pluralism and equality that can sometimes take the heart for granted. Gaga’s tack has always been social, it’s always been about breaking down barriers and conventions and stereotypes and uniting the world, but it has also been primarily about the exterior of the “we” experience. And she has danced around with and within those ideas as a third person sex (or art) object.

Gaga may have her sights set on a higher stage of consciousness and inclusion, but Perry is the one sporting the Jesus tattoo and coaching the listener as they navigate the sometimes difficult unfolding and dying unto themselves. Gaga is buying the shots, but Perry is the one holding your hair at the end of the night.  And, ultimately, the world needs them both.

When my daughter is 18 years old, starting college, and discovering both the wonders of psychedelics and existentialism, that’s when I can hope Lady Gaga returns to her life (ideally on a dimly-lit dancefloor) and reminds her how to be a monster — bold, courageous and all-inclusive. But at 8 years old, my money is on Katy Perry to get her through third grade and teach her how to love herself.

Even if that means I have to listen to “Peacock” on a fucking loop.


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