Katy Perry | Janelle Monae August 20, 2011 Scottrade Center
Katy Perry is whatever you want her to be. She has given us just enough to make nearly any argument about her message - if you would like her to be nothing but a pair of big eyes and a bigger rack, you'll find plenty to defend your position. If you'd like her to be everything that's wrong with pop music, just hold up the record-breaking run of Teenage Dream to whatever standard of quality you hold.
Her current single, the one that put her in the company of Michael Jackson, "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)," is a song so thematically similar to Rebecca Black's "Friday" that the Perry team decided to just embrace it, giving Black a prominent role in the single's video and marketing campaign. It is the worst of Teenage Dream's tracks, the dry bottom of the Dr. Luke well of pop magic, a discouraging grab at the ugly duckling crowd with the prevailing message: You too can be popular if you get a makeover then blackout drunk before fucking the quarterback.
But Katy Perry is not here to moralize. Her live show is impossible to mistake: This is a character she plays, a doe-eyed Alice in a whacked out, hedonistic Candyland. Her friends are slutty slot machines and drug-toting mimes, and if you take this whole fluffy charade seriously, that is not her fault. Her music (particularly at its most successful) is not confessional and is very consciously exaggerated - a placated consumer fantasy so in your face she must intend it at least somewhat as a criticism.
After all, we live in a world where celebrities live in constant broadcast to the Internet - if she were, in fact, taking too many shots, kissing people and forgetting about it, we would be looking at the grainy photo evidence the next day. Her personal life could not be less like the character she plays on stage, at least to the extent that we know anything about it at all. And what few hints we have of her actual sensibilities are encouraging - tapping Robyn, then Janelle Monae to open her tour, for example.
It's an interesting thought. But this was not a debate - this was a concert. And the 13,000 who came, screaming, in cupcake bras and light-up headbands, came to sing along with the hits laser-etched in America's brains via constant exposure. Largely, they did not come at all for Janelle Monae, who played a barely-thirty-minute set at 7:30 to a half-full arena. Didn't matter; she, and her dancing future-formal orchestra, put on a strange marvel of a show.
She started with the "Suite II Overture," an eerie foray that served as a more effective mood setter than any of Perry's elaborate presentations. Monae is a kinetic presence - she doesn't dance so much as levitate, and the early songs (including her shut-the-world-down cover of the old classic "Smile") passed in a flourish of black and white. Hooded, beaked-masked figures emerged and Monae shot them dead with her finger. She turned her hand on the crowd. Dance or die.
Though again, most of this was lost on a crowd still finding its way to seat or tracking down the light-up cotton candy circulating the arena.
The back half of the set was a breathless rush: A cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" straight into the killers off The ArchAndroid: "Cold War," "Tightrope," and "Come Alive (War Of The Roses)." More masks emerged from somewhere in the back, Monae's pompadour came undone, the string section (whose outfits recalled.... Star Trek?) took to waving their instruments in the air. Monae started swinging her mic stand within inches of the front row of fans, still unleashing that endless voice.
She jumped off the stage, then over fence separating her from the floor seats, and moon walked halfway down the long aisle. Utter pandemonium. She took off at a sprint, then leapt on the back of a masked backup dancer, who carried her, rushing, around the arena, back to the side of the stage, under a curtain, never to reemerge. The band brought the song crashing down and the lights fell with "Purple Haze" thundering over the PA. Why Katy Perry would invite such total domination every show is beyond me.
The California Dreams tour is set up as a narrative - the video clips give her time to change costumes and establish a loose plot: Perry, the butcher shop employee (with the evil boss and the bloody slabs of meat - symbolism abounds) stops by the bakery to buy a cupcake from the dreamboat. That night, she falls asleep and the show starts in her dreams, with her emerging at the top of a giant set made of pink clouds and lollipops. She changes clothes roughly once per song, the backup dancers change with her, she hits the highlights. The dream setup is apt: It all feels unreal, distant, and the impression it left faded almost immediately.
But I'll take the show: By far the most painful portion of her two-hour set was the requisite stripped-down showcase of vocal talent, accompanied by a pair of acoustic guitars and an upright bass. This being Katy Perry, even that was made frivolous - she played goofy-ass covers of "Only Girl (In The World)" "Big Pimpin'" "Friday" and "Whip My Hair." She "played" a recorder during "Big Pimpin'," but forget when it ended, stepping away and thanking the crowd while the melody she was pretending to play continued, unabated, on a backing track. Whoops. Perry, a notoriously nervous live performer, was visibly shaken by the misstep.
The acoustic break mercifully ended, and she went into a bit about how she loves getting close to her fans. So she stepped onto a platform made to look like a cloud, strapped herself onto a pole and floated into the crowd twenty feet off the floor. To connect with the fans, you see.
The show ended with "Firework" and "California Gurls," the songs that exemplify the best of what Perry can be: Vague and soaring and indelibly catchy. Pyrotechnics and foam cannons and beach balls erupted in the Scottrade Center. No matter why you came or what you think she's all about, it was hard not to enjoy the spectacle. As pop champions go in 2011, you can do much worse than Katy Perry, candy kiss bra and all.
Notes and setlist on the next page.
Click here for a full slideshow of photos: Katy Perry at the Scottrade Center