Katy Perry – By the Grace of God

My biggest criticism of “Roar” was that it was boring. I felt similarly about the majority of Prism: “Unconditionally” only has its weird scansion going for it; “Dark Horse” is “E.T.” flipped around (now she’s the alien/horse) but without dynamics; and “International Smile,” though sounding like a mashup of this Martin Solveig song and Lana Del Rey’s “Carmen,” plays it safe. Even “Birthday” – Prism's clear highlight, like “Teenage Dream” ten years later – sounds tame next to her last album's singles.

But then I began to wonder if I was substituting “boring” for “not ridiculous,” and in doing that writing Perry into a box. One of the Boys had put her on the map with its noxious but catchy pop-rock, but it was Teenage Dream that rocketed her into the stratosphere. The lasting image of Perry’s career so far is either her whipped cream bustier or her Kathy Beth Terry caricature or her firework bustier. From 2010-2011, Teenage Dream found Perry playing enough dress-up to satisfy ten lifetimes’ worth of Halloweens. Because of this, perhaps my kneejerk “This is boring!” response to “Roar” et. al comes from how jarring it is to see Perry with a straight face. While “Wide Awake” anticipated that shift, it felt more one-off, an inoffensive single that could help sell her documentary. A whole album of nondescript music seems unconscionable for Perry. While boredom was not my only problem with Prism, it’s fair to say that I used that to justify disliking it. “Why would she go this direction?” I asked myself when listening to Prism for the third time, trying desperately to get it. But then I answered my own question: “She has every right to.” In a way, I was delegitimizing her artistry by restricting her to Candy Land frolicking.

"Birthday" is Prism’s best song, no doubt, but I’ve linked the closer “By the Grace of God” above. I found it moving in a way I never expected a Katy Perry song to be. It’s the pick-yourself-up ballad that everyone expected after her divorce from Russell Brand, sure, but it hits a much darker layer than “Part of Me” or “Wide Awake” were too guarded to. The first time I heard the chorus, I filled in the lyrics in my head: “Looked in the mirror and decided to say.” But the line is, “Looked in the mirror and decided to stay." I was caught off guard. Stay? Stay where? On Earth. Here. Alive. "Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way." This is devastating, a flip of the "taken out by love" cliché often employed so positively. No longer can I hold Perry’s music at arm’s length, enjoying it with a raised brow. "By the Grace of God" demands my attention. Maybe it is just safe. Or maybe this song came to me just when I needed it most.

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