Taking Katy Perry Literally

Katy Perry‘s new song “Teenage Dream” has made me realize something that was kicking around in the back of my mind as I’ve listened to other pop songs over the past several months… It started with Lady Gaga (“Just Dance“), then I noticed it in Ke$ha (“Tik Tok“), and now Perry, whose wooden lyrics and delivery have inadvertently caused the notion to crystallize in my mind.

In a nutshell, it’s this: the horror of the Real* has caused these young women to retreat to a fantasy world, where the only safe or enjoyable place to be is on the dance floor. But the Real is so threatening, so horrible, that in order to really be safe from it, they have to remain on the dance floor, in a nonstop marathon of perpetual motion and enjoyment, until they reach the point of death.

*I can really find no simple, boiled-down explanation of the Real, which is a psychoanalytic term derived from philosophy and developed by Lacan. Basically, my impression is that it’s an irreducible, indescribable something that exists beyond language, beyond image — it is what makes us “recoil” into language, image, and dream… The “gap” or “absence” beyond these things on which our subjectivity is founded. I would recommend An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis by Dylan Evans, and How to Read Lacan by Slavoj Žižek, for further information.

Consider: Lady Gaga, who not surprisingly has the most nuanced and interesting take on this, captures the over-stimulation and dizziness from which the dance floor is a relief:

I’ve had a little bit too much
All of the people start to rush.
Start to rush babe.
A dizzy twister dance
Can’t find my drink or man.
Where are my keys, I lost my phone.
What’s going on on the floor?
I love this record baby, but I can’t see straight anymore.
Keep it cool what’s the name of this club?
I can’t remember but it’s alright, alright.

The prescription, of course: “Just dance.” The outro of the song nails down the paranoid anxiety underlying this remedy:

Half psychotic, sick hypnotic got my blueprint it’s symphonic.
Half psychotic, sick hypnotic got my blueprint electronic.
Half psychotic, sick hypnotic got my blueprint it’s symphonic.
Half psychotic, sick hypnotic got my blueprint electronic.

And remember, “Telephone” is essentially about the same thing: “Stop calling, stop calling, I don’t wanna think anymore / I left my head and my heart on the dance floor.” The song acutely expresses a desire to escape from the overwhelming demands of intersubjectivity and accessibility brought about by our incessant need to text, talk, and tweet, etc. — “I can never stop being who I am, so that I can be who I amexcept when I’m dancing,” it seems to be saying.

Ke$ha… same thing:

Dont stop, make it pop
DJ, blow my speakers up
Tonight, Imma fight
Til we see the sunlight
Tick tock, on the clock
But the party dont stop
Woah-oh oh oh
Woah-oh oh oh

The most interesting part of this song is the strange interlude during the bridge, where Ke$ha figures the DJ as a sort of bandit who seemingly “forces” her to keep dancing:

DJ, you build me up
You break me down
My heart, it pounds
Yeah, you got me
With my hands up
Get your hands up
Put your hands up

Here, the DJ has so much power that he literally creates and destroys the dancers. I would also direct your attention to Ke$ha’s new video for “Take It Off,” in which at least some of the dancers appear to be chased by others (who are described as “animals” and “freaks”) till they all wind up in an empty swimming pool, doing a sort of Eurythmy-type dance with incendiary body paint that makes the dancers explode on contact… meanwhile, the descriptive chorus gradually becomes an injunction: “Everybody take it off!”

Finally, however, Perry brings it all up to the surface:

Let’s go all the way tonight
No regrets, just love
We can dance until we die
You and I
We’ll be young forever

To really appreciate the implications of this, you have to listen to Perry’s robotic, clipped delivery of the lyrics, almost as if she’s being forced to recite them at gunpoint, and / or her body has already begun to collapse from the hours of dancing to the extent that she can’t form complete breaths. The main chorus conflates dream and reality in a way that reminds one of Žižek’s analysis of the ending of Stanley Kubrick‘s Eyes Wide Shut*:

You make me
Feel like
I’m living a Teenage Dream
The way you turn me on
I can’t sleep
Let’s runaway
And don’t ever look back
Don’t ever look back

My heart stops
When you look at me
Just one touch
Now baby I believe
This is real
So take a chance
And don’t ever look back
Don’t ever look back

*Žižek writes: “…recall the apparently vulgar conclusion of the film. After Tom Cruise confesses his night’s adventure to Nicole Kidman and they are both confronted with the excess of their fantasizing, Kidman — upon ascertaining that now they are fully awake, back into the day, and that, if not for ever, at least for a long time, they will stay there, keeping the fantasy at bay — tells him they must do something as soon as possible. ‘What?’ he asks, and her answer is: ‘Fuck.’ End of the film, the final credits roll. … It’s as if her message is, ‘Let’s fuck right now, and then we can stifle our teeming fantasies, before they overwhelm us again.’ … we do not dream about fucking when we are not able to do it; rather we fuck in order to escape and quell the exorbitant power of the dream that would otherwise overwhelm us.”

In the above, I argue, Perry, Gaga, and Ke$ha posit a dream that’s so overwhelming that the only escape from it is not just a good fuck, but the communal space of a dance floor, in which the dance proceeds in an endless stripping away of subjectivity until the dancer arrives at the point of literal death… And Perry, most of all, channels a twisted, literal version of the Romantic fantasy of young love immortalized in death, in which the “dream” is actually a nightmare of escape from reality, a sort of forced march into enjoyment that’s phrased in grim, metallic vocals.

Help! Save these women from the dance-unto-death!

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2 Responses to Taking Katy Perry Literally

  1. rodney k. says:

    Hi David,

    Enjoyed this reading! Doesn’t the dancefloor “philosophy” you describe so well here go back much further than these 3 singers? It may be as old as the discotheque itself. Which would make Gaga/Perry/Kesha clever re-workers of a trope, rather than (or on top of) a barometer of our wired stressed-out moment. Haven’t, too, a lot of disenfranchised groups found a kind of liberatory potential in the “communal space of a dancefloor” as an alternative to the shitty exclusionary world outside it? Lyrically, Gaga & Co. sound like a knowing remix of the Saturday Night Fever theme, but with a more extreme-sports twist (death) at the end, instead of the tacked-on maturity Travolta ended with. Also, seems like the “disenfranchised” angle is played down–this isn’t a minority community vividly living out its identity politics on the dancefloor; it sounds from the lyrics you quote like it may be a little more world-weary (& maybe manipulative) than that. Or am I all wet?

  2. dhadbawnik says:


    hey, thanks for the comment. and yeah, i think it’s dead on — somebody else pointed this out, and the possibility of viewing it all through the lens of cultural studies as a pop phenomenon spanning several decades, i suppose going all the way back to the bop hall in britain… i guess my contribution here is to note the qualitative difference added on in the language / logic of death — it’s almost a textbook definition of jouissance: go to the point of pleasure and keep going… until it’s actual suffering, and finally, you’re dead.

    btw, funny you should write today — i’m renewing the house reading series this evening at yet another new address, with your old pal robert dewhurst and geoffrey gatza of blazevox…


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