There is little doubt now that we are living in a strange time, a time where Teen Vogue talks Black Lives Matter, Elle Magazine quotes Russian revolutionaries, and the dictionary trolls the President of the United States. Activist politics is filtering into mainstream spaces in strange and uneven ways. This week one such event was the release of Katy Perry’s video for her new song ‘Chained to the Rhythm‘, which is, in fact, a hilariously direct engagement with Critical Theory.
Critical Theory emerged in the mid twentieth century, and involved theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer taking up strands of Marxist and Psychoanalytic thought, to provide a critique of society and mass culture. In particular, Adorno was very concerned with what he called the “culture industry“, that is, entertainment consumed by the masses that works to keep people controlled and complicit under capitalism. Adorno believed that popular culture numbs people so that they are not able to fully realise the conditions of their own oppression.
This is exactly the critique of society that Perry presents in her new video.
With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Perry’s video is set in an amusement park called “Oblivia”, where everyone is either viewing the world through their iPads or shuffling behind others toward mundane rides such as a literal hampster wheel. The setting notably connects up with Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous claim that “amusement has become an extension of labor under late capitalism”.
But with increasing nuance throughout the clip, Perry manages to address some of the most pressing political issues of our time. These include:
1. The financial crisis and the American dream
The first ride Perry visits is a reference to the financial crisis of 2008 that saw the mortgage market in the USA bottom-out. It’s not a fun ride—you sit in a tiny house and get jolted in the air once you’re locked in the house. It’s almost like Perry read Lauren Berlant’s book ‘Cruel Optimism‘ which talks about how people invest in dreams of a better future (i.e. the American dream) but that this belief is actually a cruel and toxic attachment.
The dream drop ride shows heterosexual couples enter, surrounded by a white picket fence. Perry comes along and smells the roses on the fence, only to prick her finger, realising that the roses have stems of barbed wire. In a reverse-Sleeping-Beauty move, this finger prick helps to wake Perry up, and we realise that the deep sleep represented in fairytales is in fact about succumbing to a heteronormative life. Here, Perry functions as a queer character who can’t quite meet the normative standards that allow her to fully enjoy the park. As Perry is also the star of the piece, we are called to rethink the “barbed” reality of heterosexually “normal” life.
On this note, we should pause here to consider how Perry’s partner on the love-rollercoaster is an incredibly camp man in a glitter shirt.
3. Racism and the Trump Travel Ban
One of the next rides that Perry stumbles across involves black couples and single people getting flung over a fence/wall. Here Perry is offering a direct critique of the Trump administration’s white heterosexist rulings.
4. War and nuclear holocaust
Park-goers walk around carrying fairyfloss that looks like broccoli, that we later realise are actually mushroom clouds. Also this ride:
5. Climate change and environmental degradation
“Fire Water” is Perry’s most obscure reference—or, perhaps her most literal. Perry visits a gas station where the petrol is actually water but that water is on fire. There are also sailors. It’s pretty great. It appears to be a reference to climate change (the world is heating up) but also fracking (which can cause river fires!), and on that note, it is also clearly about Standing Rock.
6. The nuclear family and false appearances
Toward the end of the song Perry sits in a crowd wearing 3D glasses, watching a family perform in front of a TV screen. Here Perry challenges the charade of the perfect nuclear family, and the societal focus on the heterosexual couple. The retro styling of the entire clip also gains greater meaning here, as we see that this world is also one where women are cast back into the stereotype of the 1950s housewife. But in Perry also adopting this dress (reminiscent of the Jetsons) she is entertaining a form of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag“. That is, a way of embodying the past in order to displace the “present”, to help us question our own progress narratives.
The imagery of this scene also, remarkably, directly references Guy Debord’s 1967 work ‘Society of the Spectacle‘, which laments the way everything in society has become about consumption and appearances. One of Debord’s proposed tactics for interrupting such a society is called “detournement“—basically hijacking cultural products and subverting their meaning, also known as culture jamming. That Perry would reference (or perhaps recuperate) Debord would, I imagine, have him rolling in his grave.
During the same scene, Skip Marley emerges out of the television screen, and in a direct critique of imperialism, the ruling class and capitalist society, sings: “Time is ticking for the empire/The truth they feed is feeble/As so many times before/They greed over the people/They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot”.
After this Perry dances around confusedly for a bit, before running and then stopping on a treadmill, giving us a completely alarmed stare down the camera.
When I first heard the song—which includes lyrics such as “So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble” and “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”—I was annoyed that Perry would take a swipe at ordinary people, as if everyone is just stupid and thoughtless. This seemed perfectly in line with the desperately elitist condemnation by Clinton of Trump supporters as “deplorables” in 2016, which only served to alienate rather than mobilise people. The original critical theory work from Adorno and others is similarly irksome in its extreme disdain for “low culture” enjoyed by the many, versus more intellectual “high culture”. As I see it, to condemn mass culture and in turn the “cultural dupes” who consume it, is to be radically ungenerous to the circumstances and experiences of the people involved.
But here’s where Perry manages to one-up Adorno. What makes Perry’s engagement more dynamic, is the way she places herself in the world of Oblivia. Rather than being a snobby outsider, she constantly refers to herself in the lyrics (through the use of “we”), and depicts herself in the video, as being caught up in oblivion similarly to everyone else. While she gradually becomes more “woke” than the other inhabitants of the theme park, she is consistently shown in a state of ignorant bliss just as unaware as everyone else. Here Perry manages to resolve the philosophical problem posed by Slavoj Zizek who suggests that it is false to think one can be authentically “outside” of a relation to culture. Perry doesn’t pretend to be outside of popular culture in an elitist way because she just physically can’t be…because this is a pop music video! That Marley emerges out of the television at the end also perhaps hints that Perry thinks critical ideas can come out of popular culture as much as you can also be “chained to the rhythm”. Presumably she’s hoping her work will woke you too.
While the irony of all of this should give you a lot of LOLs it does also beg the question as to whether this is really culture-jamming or merely the selling-back to us of critiques of culture. My sense is that it is almost certainly both (Perry is making money out of this after all), and that it certainly won’t be a Katy Perry video that starts the revolution (unless she keeps up her Brit Awards antics of course).
But I also don’t think it’s bad—in fact, it should be taken as an overwhelmingly positive sign that there is a current mood in daily life that is about being wildly vocal and “about to riot”. As Perry and Marley suggest, “they woke up the lions”. Sure, some of those lions are totally bizarre pop stars, but it also means it’s a jungle out there…