A nude image of Katy Perry graces the cover of her latest album, “Teenage Dream,” which was released on Aug. 24. What’s shocking is that this is not so shocking. In the era of Lady Gaga’s nearly nude crowd surfing at Lollapalooza and Miley Cyrus’ underage stripper-pole dancing, Perry’s CD cover seems just another in a long line of attention-grabbing tactics by a mainstream pop artist.
Although artists have been selling sex since before Elvis shook his hips, in-your-face sexuality has become so much a part of popular music that Kylie Minogue and Bananarama’s former producer Mike Stock has called much of today’s music “pop chart porn.”
It wasn’t always this way. Album covers on which an artist appeared nude once seemed like tactless bids for publicity — and those sometimes backfired. Alannah Myles, for example, saw her career tank in the U.S. after a No. 1 hit when she pulled a similar move in the 1990s.
But today, with CDs selling fewer copies, risqué publicity tactics have become so commonplace that the public no longer reacts with scorn. Since Perry emerged in 2008, she’s managed to stay in the spotlight with hits engineered to court controversy and publicity stunts designed to grab headlines, like getting a mold made of her breasts for charity. If it all seems much more crass than the pop of your mom and dad (or even your older brother), well, that’s what it takes to be a mega-celebrity these days, said Jo Piazza, Celebenomics columnist for AOL’s PopEater.Video: Perry: New single is sexy, not trashy (on this page)
“Katy Perry represents the perfect postmodern celebrity that realizes they have to engage in a 360-degree guerilla marketing campaign to really be a famous person,” said Piazza. “It’s not good enough these days just to have a talent, because we have new celebrities popping up every 10 minutes, which means that these people have to reinvent themselves constantly.”
The road to reinvention, Piazza said, can range from joining a charity to “feeding scandalous stories to magazines. Anything that they know will keep their name in the headlines for the next five minutes and is going to promote their brand.”
A new pop era
Back in the early 1990s, some pop stars like Madonna fully embraced the idea of 360-degree marketing. But a large contingent of rockers and rappers avoided what was then considered pandering to audiences, lest they be thought of as inauthentic and rejected by their listeners — such as Vanilla Ice, for example.
Perry, who got her start as a Christian artist but switched to pop, might have at first seemed to be an artist with some anti-commercial leanings, since she came up through the punk-identified Warped Tour. Then again, that annual tour itself has helped commercialize a genre of music that once spat in the face of all that was considered “establishment.”
Los Angeles Times pop music critic Ann Powers said Perry’s popularity is indicative of a shift in tastes of the pop music audience. “We’ve moved out of the rock era and we’re definitely in the pop era,” Powers said. “The values that were associated with rock ’n’ roll — authenticity, spontaneity, roughness, rawness — those are not the values that people are looking for from their entertainers today.”
To understand why Perry (or Lady Gaga, for that matter) reigns, you have to look to the past, said Powers. Before the rock era, the manner in which artists were marketed was “similar to the mainstream stars of today in that they were multi-platform stars — they were actors, dancers, singers and they sort of cultivated their audience through many different means.”
Perry’s presentation is also softened by the fact that she doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously. “She’s really playing into the idea of camp,” Powers said. “She’s presenting herself as an attractive woman, but then it’s almost like a parody of an attractive woman.”
All of the above would likely have meant the kiss of death when rock musicians ruled two decades ago. Said Piazza: “Back then it was a sin to be a sell-out. And I think something similar happened in the rap and the hip-hop world.”
The nude painting that adorns “Teenage Dream” probably won’t raise any issues of artist credibility for Perry because, well, virtually every commercial artist today tries to be scandalous in some way, said Carla DeSantis, a rock writer and founder of ROCKRGRL magazine.
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“In order for new artists to feel that they’re becoming successful, there’s more shock they need to include than artistic merit,” said DeSantis. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to monetize a music career. I think people are just pushing and pushing and it’s taking more to shock people.”
Said Piazza: “We’ve become a lot less shockable. With the gigantic supply of celebrities, the demand for more and more salacious content has grown exponentially.”
DeSantis said such publicity ploys, however, are usually only part of the world of commercial music. “I think there’s still a lot of great independent music,” she said. One such act, the Arcade Fire, hit the top spot on Billboard’s album chart in early August with its third album, “The Suburbs,” released on the indie label Merge Records.
Similarly, back in the early 1990s, hyper-commercial acts like the New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul dominated sales until the audience for alternative music grew so big it made albums by Nirvana and Pearl Jam hits. Could such a changing of the guard happen now? Maybe if the major labels started looking beyond just developing megastars, said DeSantis.
“There’s only a handful of units that get moved by anybody anymore,” DeSantis said. “And what’s really kind of weird to me is that the record industry still believes in the platinum album — which is kind of like believing in the Edsel.”
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