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When mega pop star Katy Perry’s new single “Roar” was leaked two days before its official release last week, it immediately caught some flak. First there were the accusations that it sounded a little too much like Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.” Then, producer Dillon Francis tweeted that the lyric video for “Roar,” which depicts a series of text messages with animated emojis, was a rip-off of the video for his song “Messages.”
Such controversy is nothing new. Top 40 these days is not so much a platform for musical innovation as it is a reservoir for trends carried in from tributaries that feed the mainstream from the fringe. And when an idea, or a sound, or a look, catches on, it ripples outward again, in an endless cycle of musical give and take.
Sure, some artists stand to benefit more from the take, and Perry, who will perform on MTV’s Video Music Awards on August 25, is one of them. But critics who focus on the similarities between “Roar” and “Brave” are missing the significance of the song: it is a marked departure from the aesthetic of Perry’s previous work. With “Roar,” she casts off the electronic frivolity of “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream” in favor of the earth-bound thump of rock 'n’ roll.
For one thing, there are the drums: hollow, thundering, and devoid of cymbal or snare. That’s something that, arguably, both Perry and Bareilles stole from “Some Nights” by Fun. (Or anything by Fun. for that matter.) “Roar” is similarly anthemic, with dark, sustained power chords and a brash chorus of female voices swathed in reverb. (Actually, they sound a lot like the backup vocals in “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers.) Even the artwork has a glam rock bent, with Perry sporting a silk jacket with a giant embroidered tiger on the back, no trace of her iconic blue wig or the coy smile of her “Teenage Dream” days.
Then, of course, there are the lyrics. “I got the eye of the tiger, the fighter/ Dancin’ through the fire,” Perry sings in the chorus. “Cause I am a champion/ And you’re gonna hear me roar.” She has never been one for subtlety and with these lines—references to “We Are the Champions, “ by Queen, and “Eye of the Tiger,” by Survivor, respectively—she draws an explicit, winking connection between herself and those arena rockers of yore. She has also never been one to eschew clichés, and in “Roar” she employs them to the point of near absurdity. Each verse is a series of platitudes kitted together with arch, yet heartfelt, candor: “I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath/ Scared to rock the boat and make a mess. ... I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything.” The words, like the music (like all pop music), are the same familiar ingredients, rearranged into something novel.
We might have known, from the prevalence of Fun. and Mumford & Sons in the Top 40, that anthemic indie-pop-rock was here to stay. What “Roar” seems to suggest is that listeners—or at the very least producers and songwriters—are finally beginning to tire of the electropop that has long held sway in the mainstream.
Fans will, of course, notice a tonal commonality in the angry defiance of “Roar” and the empowering imagery of Perry’s 2010 hit “Firework.” And there is a certain candied whiff, à la “Teenage Dream,” in the new single’s hook, a sing-songy series of “oh”s. But those songs, at their core, were dance tunes, complete with synths and drum beat breakdowns. “Roar” is a power ballad, meant to uplift and incite fury all at once. And yet, as its heavy-handed references suggest, it is as much a parody of itself as anything. It’s with “Roar” that Perry—at once master and lampooner of a quintessentially masculine style—at last makes a convincing feminist statement. The title, of course, echoes the opening line of Helen Reddy’s 1971 anthem “I am woman, hear me roar.”
Admittedly, calling it a convincing feminist statement might be a bit of a stretch. The real joy of “Roar” is its reflexivity, its self-fulfillment. We can all listen to it and feel empowered about our breakups, optimistic about our disappointments. In light of Perry’s highly publicized split from British comedian Russell Brand, it’s easy to guess where she found her inspiration. But while the song will, for the rest of us, remain a handy metaphor, for Perry it is far more literal. As “Roar” climbs the charts over the next few weeks, we are all gonna hear it, whether we want to or not.
This program aired on August 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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