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Katy Perry: Who Do We Want Her To Be?

A pop star in search of a consistent style

This weekend was a big one for Katy Perry. After she declared how much she missed Taylor Swift (and said a slew of other terrible things), everyone assumed her account had been hacked. This led to some speculation that the source behind the hack was Taylor Swift herself. But no — we’re not that lucky.

Instead, Perry’s name made headlines without it being in conjunction with rumored boyfriend Orlando Bloom for the first time in months. And while nobody here condones hacking or online harassment (duh), the incident did lead to hints of a new single called "Witness" from the former pop darling, which would be great if it were legit. First, because we haven’t heard new music from Perry in literal years, and second, because as of February she was still only in the "research and development" phase of album writing.

This actually explains a lot.

While Perry seemingly has not had a lot going on lately, when we do see her she’s usually mirroring her Top 40 peers in their low-key diva aesthetic scale-back. Across the board, gimmick has been traded in for high fashion or retro glamour (here’s looking at you, Lady Gaga), particularly as female artists increasingly gravitate toward what’s #natural. (Within reason. Nobody’s showing up anywhere without concealer yet, save for Alicia Keys.)

This poses an interesting challenge for Katy Perry. Back in 2012, she represented her musical narrative appropriately, decking herself out as "a bubbly, youthful party girl with blue wings and whipped-cream-cannon bustier who's just been miraculously freed from a Candy Land game board" — a.k.a. a Teenage Dream. She later made her way into a sunflower field, into a Cleopatra costume, and eventually, somehow, into 2007 after showing up to the Golden Globes this year sporting a Jersey Shore–era Bumpit. This could have signaled a reasonable scale-down (like, hi: This winter I almost bought flared jeans in a moment of aesthetic "Who am I?!" panic). Sadly, it gave way to culturally appropriative vibes at the Met Gala and a Marchesa gown that she couldn’t walk down the stairs in at Cannes. Perry is obviously amid some active evolution of her style, but how does she fit into pop right now? And if she doesn’t, what does she have to do?

And holy shit, are those questions daunting — especially since most of us have come up against our own versions of them while trying to figure out who we were outside of the spotlight. Most of us (or I assume all of us) figured out how we wanted to look and what we wanted to wear and who we wanted to be in the comfort of our homes and social circles, all while safely taking to LiveJournal or MySpace or any other avenue of emotionally driven social media. Our emotional, mental, and stylistic changes didn’t happen when the industry we were in began changing to the point of leaving us behind.

That’s what it seems like is happening to Perry. As she assures interviewers that her music is genuine, it’s hard to believe it can entirely be so, particularly when her style varies with every event and indicates that she might be figuring herself out. (Where there’s no consistency, there’s usually questioning.) Which is fine and healthy and normal, but also terrible to go through while being compared to the perfectly on-brand likes of Taylor Swift, Adele, or Beyoncé. All on top of having to write a record that will contend with the spoils of the last year or two.

But maybe it doesn’t have to — at least not in the realm of the Top 40 we’re familiar with. We’ve watched artists stray from their comfort zones before, so maybe this is Perry’s cue to do the same. After all, Taylor Swift broke away from country. Zayn quit One Direction. Lady Gaga crooned along with Tony Bennett. And at one point, Perry herself was on Warped Tour, appealing to fans of pop-punk who championed her enough to make "I Kissed A Girl" a 2008 phenomenon. She’s always stood on her own, why is why seeing her break from her gimmick to try to fit into pop’s current aesthetic landscape seems wrong. If candy canes and whipped cream bras were what she loved, that should be enough. (I mean, hello: Dolly Parton’s always been Dolly Parton.) And if not, that’s fine too. But her red carpet choices just seem to shout, "OK, now what about this? Does this work?"

Which is the only thing you can’t do right now in pop. Genres be damned, the universal rule is confidence — everybody we all like and listen to is aware of who they are and who they want to be (even if we don’t like it). That means Perry better be plenty sure of the same as her next album draws closer. It’s not about whether she can compete or contend with her contemporaries, it’s about her ability to speak up for herself. It’s about her deciding who she wants to be, and being it. It’s about showing up on that stage (or on that red carpet) and coherently declaring her tastes. Katy Perry’s comeback isn’t dependent on her fitting in or manipulating herself to carve out space among an army of Grammy winners, but she does need to create her own narrative and her own rules, and then follow them.

People will care when she does. I mean, her Twitter hack earned LOLs at the expense of her adversary. We know (and seem to care) that she’s dating Orlando Bloom. We’re talking about her clothes. So space will be made for her to perform. And as long as she owns the shit out of that space, there might even be space for her Bumpit.