“I Kissed a Girl” came out when I was a college senior. Some of my roommates liked it. I loathed it. I just wasn’t buying the schtick. I believed (and still do) that Katy put out a song she knew would be a hit because she knows how to get attention. It was inauthentic. Katy Perry put out a song about kissing other girls for the exact same reason that girls kiss other girls at bars. *Attention*.
So. I was immediately anti-Katy. I refused to be swept away by her trickery and lulled carelessly into a sweet dance beat. But something happened when “Hot & Cold” came out. Radio burned. It. Out. But somehow, she got her hooks in me. By the time “Hot & Cold” took over, “I Kissed a Girl” was totally old news. It was rarely played on the radio, and frankly, I started to forget it even existed. Pop music sometimes moves so fast you get amnesia, you know? On to the next one, on to the next one, as Jay-Z would say.
So as soon as “California Girls” hit radio in Summer 2011, I was a goner. The timing was perfect. My windows were down, the sun was shining, I was driving in the middle of nowhere, and I cranked that stuff. It reminded me of Madonna’s, “Holiday”. So much bubblegum your head could burst. And Snoop Dogg/Lion’s appearance on the track? Priceless and classic Snoop. It was dripping with West Coast summertime goodness. Irresistible.
And we all know what happened next. Teenage Dream blew up. Katy made a splash that knocked Michael Jackson’s Thriller records down several notches on the charts. Her singles went straight to #1 and stayed there for months until Billboard retired them to give other artists a chance. And all along the way, I started to feel a kindredness with her.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I heard what she said. She kissed a girl, and she liked it. Daisy dukes, bikinis on top. Making out in a mustang, to Radiohead. Sex on the beach. Let’s go all the way tonight, no regrets-just love. We’ll melt your popsicle. I saw her naked side-body in the “California Girls” video. I watched her bra turn into whipped cream guns. I also heard Kanye West’s misogynistic alien S&M rant at the beginning of “E.T.” Friends, I missed none of this. But the more Katy called out for attention, for some reason, I viewed her like someone I knew. I didn’t treat her like a far-off celebrity that I could judge. Somehow, I watched her like someone I’d known for a long time, stepping out and trying to figure life out. And I treated her as such. I didn’t carelessly accept whatever she did as fine and good. I recognized these things, then categorized them in my mind: A) Testing her own boundaries B) Manipulating the public for attention C) Complete cluelessness. For this reason, I’m still a big Katy Perry fan, today.
Katy’s faith fascinates me. Faith, you ask?! I know. I know, I know, I know. You’re picturing that gothic “Dark Horse” performance from the Grammy’s right? But did you see the, “Not Like the Movies” performance at the VMAs? What about the “Wide Awake” music video? Or the lyrics of, “Firework” or “Grace of God”? For every controversial thing she does, I see something else full of heart and authenticity on the other end. I see someone figuring life and faith and love out for the first time, since she never did as a child,–and there just so happens to be ten cameras on her at all times. And in my opinion, she deserves some grace as she walks through it.
For those of you that don’t know, Katy grew up with Assemblies of God missionary preacher parents. She was incredibly sheltered from pop culture, in her parents’ opinion, for her benefit. Here’s a quick snippet:
Here’s a tidbit from Katy’s 2011 interview with Rollingstone, explaining more about her upbringing and her early career:
“That’s because they’re born-again evangelical pastors and “traveling ministers,” which means they book seminars and prayer circles at any church that will have them around the country, though they are now based in Oceanside, California. They banned Katy from attending coed parties and dances, didn’t sign her up for sex education in school and forbade most pop culture, including magazines, TV and movies in the home. “It was not a ‘kumbaya’ atmosphere,” says Perry. “I knew about hell from the moment I understood a sentence. I had felt boards with Satan and people gnashing their teeth.”
Unlike many evangelical Christians, the Hudsons had secular—and bizarre—lives in their youth. (Perry has taken her mother’s maiden name to avoid confusion with Kate Hudson.) In their “B.C.,” or Before Christ, days, as her mom likes to call them, Perry’s father, Keith, was a hippie ragamuffin who went to Woodstock, told Katy that he dealt acid for Timothy Leary and played tambourine onstage with Sly and the Family Stone. But one night, alone in an apple orchard in Wenatchee, Washington, he had a revelation in which passages from the Bible played out before his eyes. “Who knows if those visions were remnants of something else?” says Perry.
Perry’s mother, Mary, grew up as the wild child of a wealthy Santa Barbara family. (Her brother, Frank Perry, became a Hollywood director of films including Mommie Dearest.) She even hung out one evening with Jimi Hendrix—”I’m like, ‘Mom, you should’ve gone for it,'” says Perry. “‘I could’ve been Katy Hendrix, a more legit rock star.'” Mary married a race-car driver who had lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, and together they moved to a macadamia-nut farm in Zimbabwe. She told Perry they snuck jewels back in his leg for their antique-dealing business to avoid customs. After the marriage broke up, Mary relocated to the U.S. and worked as a reporter for ABC radio, interviewing Jimmy Carter and Muhammad Ali before covering Christian tent revivals. At a Las Vegas revival run by Keith’s sister, a former Folies Bergère showgirl, Mary fell in love with God and Keith at the same time. Her family cut her off. “My mom’s half brothers convinced her parents that she had lost it because she had become a Christian,” says Perry. “So she had to do her own thing.”
Freelance ministry is not a particularly lucrative line of work, and Perry’s family often struggled. “Sometimes we ate from the same food bank we used to feed our congregation, and I was very embarrassed by that,” she says. “We had the food-stamp moment too, but I don’t like to talk about that. I don’t want to come from the place of ‘Hey, relate to me, I use food stamps.'” The rules at home were not only strict but also nutty. “I wasn’t ever able to say I was ‘lucky,’ because my mother would rather us say that we were ‘blessed,’ and she also didn’t like that ‘lucky’ sounded like ‘Lucifer,'” says Perry. “Even the Dirt Devil as a vacuum—didn’t have one. Deviled eggs were called ‘angeled’ eggs. I wasn’t allowed to eat Lucky Charms, but I think that was the sugar.” She winks a little. “I think my mom lied to me about that one.”
At times, her parents’ congregation comprised five people in a hotel room, and the Hudsons spent their days passing out pamphlets, but they never doubted that they were on the right path (Perry’s father has four tattoos, all of which read JESUS). “My mom and dad practice ‘tongues and interpretation’ together—my dad speaks in tongues, and my mom interprets it,” says Perry. “That’s their gift.” The three children, including Katy, spoke in tongues as well. “Speaking in tongues is as normal to me as ‘Pass the salt,'” says Perry. “A lot of religions use meditation or chanting as a subliminal prayer language, and speaking in tongues isn’t that different—it’s a secret, direct prayer language to God. If I felt intuitively that I had to pray for some situation, but I didn’t rationally understand it, I just let my spirit pray for it…
Praising the Lord through song in church was normal to her too, but she never thought of it as a career—at least not until she was nine, when Angela came back from a trip to her godparents’ with a new perm and a gospel demo tape. But singing was always Perry’s “gift,” at least that’s the way her parents saw it, and they supported her once she decided she wanted to pursue it professionally. She began performing at the local farmers’ market two days a week, collecting change, and proved to be gifted at impromptu speechifying too: In an old video of a performance that she shows me, she grabs a mic to inform the crowd, smiling from ear to ear, that “if you don’t live your life for Christ—I’m just going to say it—life is pretty empty, and, well, there may be no reason to live at all.”
By the time Katy was 13, her parents were chaperoning her to Nashville to pursue a gospel-singing career, and she managed to put out a record on a small label a couple of years later. One of her promotional posters, in which she seems to be screaming in ecstasy, features her in a spiky-haired “lesbian haircut”—at least that’s the way she describes it today—with a lot of rubber-band bracelets on her wrists. “I was Christian but modern,” she says. But Perry had a secret: She wanted to be a pop star, too. “Whenever I went to a friend’s house, I would immediately turn on MTV,” she says. “The other kids would say, ‘Why are you watching this? Let’s do something else,’ and I would be like, ‘No. I have to watch.’ It was all about Gwen Stefani’s ‘Don’t Speak’ and ‘Just a Girl,’ Alanis Morissette and Shirley Manson for me.”
Perry started to question the path she was on. Her Christian label shut down, and, she says, “My gospel career was going nowhere.” She started to write songs about love—and boys—on her guitar. And those weren’t gospel songs. “Letting go was a process,” she says. “Meeting gay people, or Jewish people, and realizing that they were fine was a big part of it. Once I stopped being chaperoned, and realized I had a choice in life, I was like, ‘Wow, there are a lot of choices.’ I began to become a sponge for all that I had missed—the music, the movies. I was as curious as the cat.” She smiles. “But I’m not dead yet.”
Perry remains close with her parents. “In their prayers, they might wish that Katy was the next big Christian singer, like Crystal Lewis,” says Angela. “There was a little moment of shock when she came out as a star a couple years ago, but they’ve handled everything really well.” Her parents still proselytize against pop culture, and Perry tries not to throw her personal life in their faces, never talking to her mom about sex or anything like that.”
I’ve never forgotten reading that Rollingstone article three years ago. Specifically, this part stuck out to me most (Heads up if you’re sensitive to profanity):
One time, Brand responded to some anti-gay Christian protesters who were yelling at him on the street to get on his knees for God, with, “You don’t know Jesus! I know Jesus: I’ve just been sucking his ****.” Perry was verklempt. She tweeted, “Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke.” So that made them square after his comments about her flatulence. Plus, the gossip world thought she was tweeting about Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” video, so she got some additional publicity out of the spat. Was she talking about Lady Gaga? “I wrote that tweet because of a combination of things,” says Perry. “I am sensitive to Russell taking the Lord’s name in vain and to Lady Gaga putting a rosary in her mouth. I think when you put sex and spirituality in the same bottle and shake it up, bad things happen. Yes, I said I kissed a girl. But I didn’t say I kissed a girl while ******* a crucifix.”
It’s surprising to hear Perry talk about God in this way, because one would think her religious past is behind her, but she says she still considers herself a Christian. She shows me the tattoo of the word JESUS that she got on her wrist, just like her dad. “God is very much still a part of my life,” she says. “But the way the details are told in the Bible—that’s very fuzzy for me. And I want to throw up when I say that. But that’s the truth.”
Perry even gets afraid at disaster movies, because they remind her of the apocalypse she was taught to fear, though she doesn’t know whether that exists anymore. “I still believe that Jesus is the son of God,” says Perry. “But I also believe in extraterrestrials, and that there are people who are sent from God to be messengers, and all sorts of crazy stuff.” She sighs. “I look up into the sky and I’m just mind******—all those stars and planets, the never-endingness of the universe. I just can’t believe that we’re the only polluting population. Every time I look up, I know that I’m nothing and there’s something way beyond me. I don’t think it’s as simple as heaven and hell.”
Growing up, Katy wasn’t allowed to think for herself or given the opportunity to make her faith her own. It’s clear that she knows truth, she’s met Truth, but she is still figuring everything out. And there’s no time limit on that. She’s a little bit lost. But I firmly believe that God is working in her heart and that she has value. I’m not saying she’s going to turn around and be a solely Christian artist, because frankly–there’s not much freedom in that. And I don’t believe that’s the best use of her talent for God’s glory. But He is capable. Who can predict what’s in store?
Just for a moment, put aside what you think you know about Katy Perry and watch these two videos. Pay attention to the lyrics and biblical symbolism:
And check out this song. It could’ve EASILY been on one of her Christian albums: