Pop Music As A Road To God
by Claire Bufalino
Isn’t it funny? How easily people forget about one thing when you give them something shinier to look at? You can give them all of the facts, be completely honest with them, and still they will only see what they want to see. Last Friday night, I was at a bar with a good friend of mine, and the topic of religion came up. I talked with her openly about my very Catholic upbringing and how tough it’s been to make it to church every week as a college student. Later that night, I had a few too many drinks and got a little too familiar with several people in that bar. A few days later, when I made an offhand comment about my religion to that same friend, she was shocked. “You’re religious!? I had no idea! You’re so much fun!” See what I mean? People easily forget about your religion when you give them something more interesting to talk about.
I know you’re Protestant, so let me stop you before you roll your eyes at my claim that a Catholic upbringing could be as sheltered and structured as that of the God-fearing Protestants. My parents were plenty serious about making sure their children were committed to religion, and my mother could fear God with the best of them, especially when it came to music. I wasn’t restricted to Christian music like you were, but I also wasn’t allowed to stray too far from what was played by Radio Disney. I remember one afternoon when I was about nine, I was at my friend Andy’s house, and we were swapping our favorite music. I probably played her something by the Jonas Brothers. With three older brothers to look up to, Andy’s musical taste was on a different planet than my own. She played me “Numb” by Linkin Park, who I had never even heard of, and my young mind reeled. I never heard that kind of emotion in Hannah Montana. I didn’t even know music could be that loud. That song is far from what my mother could have deemed lyrically inappropriate, but nevertheless, when Andy burned me a CD and I ran home and popped it into my daisy-covered boom box, you can bet she came bounding up the stairs in a Catholic rage. No matter how tame the lyrics were, that much distortion and screaming had to come straight from the devil.
This musical tension continued throughout my childhood, but my mom lost the right to be so vocal about it. One day in seventh grade, I hopped in the car after school, and after a minute or two of small talk about my day, I blasted the radio. It was the one thing that sustained me through many car drives around the suburbs of Chicago. “I Kissed a Girl” came on, and the car froze. This was the first time either of us had heard the song. Even though my mother no longer had the right to censor my music, I felt the tension between us as the song played. She sat in silence, pretending not to hear, probably worrying the whole time that it was filling my innocent mind with thoughts of experimentation and cherry Chapstick. I sat in silence, pretending not to enjoy the song, wondering whether girls really kissed other girls and if they were really allowed to sing about it on the radio.
Fast-forward seven years and I’m not quite the innocent child my mom so hoped I would be for at least 10 more years--I know plenty of girls who kiss other girls. And that’s why people are often surprised that I still go to church. Follow religion with a few wild antics and nobody remembers a word you say about church. Cover your faith in cotton candy and nobody will feel threatened by it. Bookend your comments about God with songs about wild parties and kissing girls, and your audience will forget you even mentioned that old bearded guy. And thank goodness because we wouldn’t want to make them uncomfortable. Little did they realize that the wild child the audience loved was also devoted to her spirituality. No matter how many times you told them you loved God before, they were too focused on your cupcake dress to notice. Until now.
Everyone thinks Prism shows such a new side of you--that you are finally maturing into a more spiritual person and artist. I’m not sure if you’re the type to read the reviews, but in Jody Rosen’s Prism review for Vulture, he wrote, “The wacky-party-chick Katy Perry has given way to the wounded-but-enlightened Katy Perry, a Perry whose big tunes and big beats come with homilies, tales of resiliency and self-actualization.” He must have forgotten that you’ve been this girl the whole time. He forgot that before Katy Perry even existed, Katy Hudson was writing contemporary Christian music. But apparently it was easy to look past that until you were singing a piano ballad called “By the Grace of God.” As long as you kept singing about waking up after a wild night in Vegas, they could forget your comment to Ryan Seacrest about hearing God speak to you when you prayed.
Now the secret’s out. With the more openly spiritual songs on Prism, it’s impossible to ignore this side of you now. But that doesn’t mean you are a more religious person now. I see very little difference in strength of faith between 16-year-old Katy Hudson and the Katy Perry you are now. In “Faith Won’t Fail” on your 2001 Christian album Katy Hudson that people often forget about, you sang, “For He’ll prevail in the midst of all my trials and tribulations. And He’ll prevail in the midst of all my sin and temptations.” And then in 2013 you sang, “By the Grace of God, there was no other way. I picked myself back up. I knew I had to stay.” It’s almost like you were foreshadowing the next twelve years of your life. You knew that through many Friday nights, controversial outfits, and broken hearts and one devastating failed marriage, God would be there. No matter what you did or where you went, He was there.
In her Buzzfeed article about your faith, “Fireworks and Brimstone,” Laura Turner wrote that your Christian album “was written with about as much vulnerability as a phone book.” At that moment in your life, there was no vulnerability in the music because your faith was all you knew. Constantly picking up and moving because of your evangelist parents was all you had been exposed to. In your Part of Me documentary, you said, “I had no idea other people weren’t like how our family was.” How could there have been any vulnerability in that music? You weren’t exposing anything, or at least you didn’t think you were. But for the rest of your career, you have been exposing your private life in your music little by little. Despite your candor in speaking of your faith, it took three albums to really bring that openness to your music. Previously you had made many Biblical references, implying that religion still plays some role in your life. For example, in “Who am I Living For?” on Teenage Dream, you reference the Old Testament story of Queen Esther, something that would slip past most pop music fans unnoticed, a wink to your Christian roots. And although devil-or-angel is an old pop metaphor, it means a lot more in “E.T.” when you sing: “You’re so hypnotizing. Could you be the devil? Could you be an angel?” For you in particular, this is an extremely vulnerable moment. You are openly struggling with your desire for this person and what it means for you and, quite possibly, your faith. Is it wrong to be hypnotized by him? Is it right because it feels good?
Your first two albums are sprinkled with moments like this one, glimpses into your vulnerabilities, but it isn’t until Prism that we get a bigger picture. And maybe that’s what Rosen meant about your growing spirituality and maturity as an artist. You’re not only fighting to keep your faith alive as a person living a very exposed life, but you are grappling to find a home for that faith in your music, and as a result, popular music as a whole.
Since the early pioneers of rock and roll, artists and audiences alike have been struggling with religion’s place in popular music. For example, Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the first wild men of rock and roll, struggled for a long time between his faith and his love of “the devil’s music.” In his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus transcribes an argument between Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips that took place after Lewis initially refused to sing “Great Balls of Fire” due to its blasphemous lyrics. The argument was about Lewis’s ability to save souls as a rock and roll musician. He argued, “You can do good, Mr. Phillips, don’t get me wrong. You can have a kind heart.” Sam Phillips interrupted, “You can save souls!” And Lewis loudly replied, “No! No! No!” Lewis left his faith behind because he thought God had no place in songs about lust. He wanted to distance himself from the pressure to set a constant example of devout faith for an audience. This struggle between pop music and God has continued all these years because artists give themselves the choice between making music about their God and their real emotions, their real experiences. No matter how much God plays a role in those experiences, He never makes it into the studio.
Maybe Jerry Lee Lewis, along with many artists to follow him, was looking at it the wrong way. Many artists denounce their faith because they can find no place for it in a music they don’t believe can save souls in itself. But maybe we never needed pop music to save our souls. We just needed God to have the presence in music that he does in everyday life. Not as a stern, ubiquitous force, judging our every move, but as the friendly, comforting, personal God that you talk about so often.
And that’s what you have done in Prism. Those songs aren’t saving souls, but they reveal the way that God plays such an important role in your life, constantly listening and providing the guidance that you ask for. By acknowledging your struggles and the role He plays in helping you overcome them, you have conveyed a realistic image of God’s presence in your life. You’re not preaching. You’re not apologizing for your mistakes because that’s not what you do in life. Faith is confusing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constantly present for many people. You aren’t pretending that God is something that He’s not and that your faith is something that it’s not. You are just telling us your story, and as you wove God more and more into the seams of that story, He became impossible to keep out of the music.
Before you came along, artists could either be a real person or a Christian. When it came to Christianity, there were two types of people. The first was the wild child who made mistakes before deciding to get their life in order and become a Christian. And the second was the person who grew up Christian before disowning the religion, breaking free, and discovering all that life has to offer. (The latter seems to be much more common these days.) Your own parents fell into the “get their life in order” category, becoming evangelical Christians after their hippie youth of drugs and free spirits. But you showed that an artist could be both. For years you have talked about God often while singing “the devil’s music” of real emotion and lust and love. Now you are singing about both because both are present in your life, and nobody is calling you a Christian artist. You have managed to bring God into the pop sphere. You gave God a feature on a number one album.
Yet people are still so confused by the dichotomy of your seemingly separate worlds, causing them to simplify and label you. In that same Buzzfeed article, Laura Turner said, “it’s precisely this tension between pastor’s daughter and good girl gone bad that makes Perry so intriguing--and, at first blush, cartoonish.” But maybe it’s not a good girl gone bad. It just seems that way because you’re the daughter of a preacher. You even said in your documentary, “people love the story of good girl gone bad, and they think my parents have disowned me, but that’s not the story at all.” They don’t see how someone who grew up in such a religious family could be the fun, bubbly party girl you are without having “gone bad” somewhere in between.
I don’t think you have ever been a good girl gone bad. As someone who grew up going to church every Sunday and has still managed to have just as much fun in college as anyone else at my beloved liberal sanctuary of a school, I know that you have always been a normal girl exploring yourself the way many girls do while still maintaining faith in God. But now you are finally giving pop music the chance to represent faith realistically. You were never good. You were never bad. You just were. People may not get that. They will simplify it and say that you were a child who is now maturing into a thoughtful, spiritual adult. But I know that you have always been both. Child and adult. Cartoon and real. Spiritual and wild. Good and bad. They may not understand you, but I do. And I want to thank you for your commitment to honesty in your music, especially when that meant giving God a place in it.
All My Love,
P.S. I was reminded of you the other day during a conversation with my mom. It made me think of that time when you asked your mom which of your songs is her favorite, if it was “I Kissed A Girl,” and she said very seriously, “No. Not that one.” I had just sent a few new songs of mine to my mom, one of which had the line “We’re fucked” in every chorus. I asked her how she liked the songs and if she liked that one in particular, and she responded, “The swearing song? No. I didn’t like it.” I think our moms should get together and throw a party.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|