Katy Perry’s “Oblivia”: A Pop Princess’s Re-Telling Of The Cultural Dupes Narrative

Originally written as an academic web-journal entry. 

An establishing shot of a futuristic amusement park enclosed by a white picket fence and bordered by the vastness of an open field—this is how Katy Perry’s latest music video begins. The field is lush and mostly flat, appearing in stark contrast to the industrialized-looking arena that sits immediately behind it. Even from a distance, the viewer can discern tall, rocket-shaped buildings and roller coasters that resemble oil pipelines; without the inclusion of bright, festive colors and a few more typically distinguishable rides in the background, we might mistake this for a factory of some sort, further emphasizing the dissonance behind and in front of the fence. Two-dimensionally, the fact that the park appears sandwiched between the clear, blue sky and the vast green field adds to this recognition of contrast; still, the scene is a familiar one. It is not unlike many of the Walt Disney parks in Orlando, Fla., and this familiarity alleviates some of the uneasiness we may experience entering this world. This world, we soon come to realize, is Oblivia—the fictional, utopic and highly metaphorical visual world of Katy Perry’s chart-topping “Chained to the Rhythm.” The song’s title refers to the idea that we are all cultural dupes1 with little to no individual agency, plagued by pseudo individualism and commodity fetishism, desperate for social validation and (most recently) obsessed with online documentation and spectacle. The lyrics on their own work well to highlight these themes,

Are we crazy? Living our lives through the lens. Trapped in our white picket fence, like ornaments. So comfortable we live in a bubble. So comfortable we cannot see the trouble…

But the video adds so much more.

The video, which was directed by Mathew Cullen, was actually shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, also known as “The Thrill Capital of the World.” Oblivia, short no doubt for oblivion, presents equally perplexing spatial and temporal juxtapositions on the inside as it does on the outside. Despite its futuristic undertones—handheld screen devices lifted upward to capture mundane moments and crew members dressed like astronauts—its pastel color scheme, dated hairstyles and retro fashion (for all but Katy Perry) present yet another visual conflict. While Katy Perry’s white cape looks more akin to a Star Trek costume, many of the other patrons are dressed like they should be on a 1950s sitcom about a nuclear family living in pseudo-Pleasantville. Katy Perry’s character dons a short, bright pink hairstyle and her cape, corset and pleated skirt are all white. Near the entrance, a crowd of patrons gathers, photographing and documenting a large monument that reads “The Greatest Ride Ever.” Although the monument is not positioned near any attractions, it is arguably in reference to the park itself as a utopic depiction of our own reality. Perhaps, most notable about Oblivia’s setup is its playfulness with contradiction. For example, in a world that appears so obviously over-controlled, the participants themselves exhibit very little control of their own. All of the attractions and rides (many of which are discussed later on) require that the participants relinquish their control over the situation; the wait time for one ride is well over 1,500 hours and patrons still line up happily and orderly, making sure to follow the directional signs. Even when patrons leave the park, they are literally catapulted up and out by a crane-like mechanical arm, over a sign that reads, “Safe trip home,” when in fact they have no control over the safety of the journey given their bizarre departure. In its recreation of a fictional world, oddly like our own but far stranger, the video creates some critical distance between its content and its viewers. It is sufficiently removed from us, in that it seems unlikely and unrealistic, that we can critique it and yet familiar enough that it is thematically reflexive and provocative.

More than anything else, the video appears to be a critique of the elusive but intriguing American dream, arguing instead that the dream itself is a fallacy—a false reality, a picture quite literally painted of utopia for the mass public to buy into. Not only at the center of the thematic development, the American dream is also at the center of the amusement park, as an attraction. This is the first attraction Katy Perry’s character, Rose, sees as she enters the park and its presence is noted through an eyeline-match shot that reveals her wonderment in its greatness. The attraction stands tall with a figure-eight-shaped ring of pastel-colored houses spinning around its main tower. Patrons (read: gleeful, heterosexual couples) enter the houses in pairs and often holding hands. When the houses get to the top of the tower, they stop spinning and drop suddenly about a half of the way down. The implication is such that the dream is meant to disappoint and yet, it is still relentlessly pursued. No one in line looks anything but thrilled to be there—the anticipation far outweighs the risk, the pleasure conceals the pain. Simultaneously and similarly metaphorically, as we see the ride function for the first time, Rose stops to smell the roses (the tongue-in-cheek irony here is apparent) and is pricked by a thorn. But before she is able to process the interaction that has left her visibly confused and dejected, she is distracted by another attraction.

This time it is a rollercoaster called “Love Me.” Here, patrons ride again in pairs—male and female as dictated by the blue and pink hearts on each seat. The men sit on the blue side, women on the pink side. As the ride swirls and loops, we see The American Dream Drop run again in the background. When we return to Love Me, the camera playfully switches from medium shots of the two front-seat passengers (Rose and Simon) that place us in a directly spectatorial role to point-of-view shots that place us in the front row of the roller coaster. We whiz through a heart-shaped tunnel lined with emojis of affirmation: smiley faces, thumbs up and hearts. Interspersed with these shots are those of military-style lines of patrons making their way through the park in a choreographed fashion, each person taking identically rhythmic steps alongside red, flashing arrows on the floor and hoisted on flag poles as the song lyrics echo, “We’re all chained to the rhythm.” But in keeping with the theme of the video, everyone is happy—they do not protest or grimace. They are willing participants, much like we are in the viewing experience and in our lived experience. As Rose and Simon’s ride comes to an end, what appears to be a scoreboard fills the screen. Reflecting the gender binary of the ride (and of the real world it mocks), Simon has earned 9,478 points (or likes) while Rose has earned 17 even though their experiences seem strangely identical if evidenced only by facial expressions. In fact, Rose is more outwardly enthusiastic for much of the ride. Close attention reveals that this “scoreboard” is actually the souvenir photo taken of the pair on the ride and a small logo in the bottom right corner identifies the collection point as the @ValidationStation. With all its social media references, the Love Me ride is clearly representative of our obsessive relationship with sharing and liking via social networks; the video is amusingly quite literal in its naming of the ride and photo center despite its otherwise metaphorical depictions, creating a similar sense of dysphoria.

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Sequentially, the last indication of this dysphoria is when Rose attends a film screening of the fictional A Nuclear Family in 3-D. She and hundreds of others sit with their 3-D glasses on to enjoy the show, which depicts a dated scene of a husband and wife in their living room. The man is reading the paper while the woman irons their clothes. Between them on an oversized television, Skip Marley appears, much to Rose’s delight. He looks nothing like the others in Oblivia—for one, he is black and has long dreadlocks. His lyrics resonate with Rose (who now has blonde hair instead of her original, candy-pink hair),

It is my desire. Break down the walls to connect, inspire. Up in your high place, liars. Time is ticking for the empire. The truth they feed is feeble… and we about to riot.

He increasingly becomes more real to her until their hands touch. With this, she is awakened and sets out to reveal the Truth to the rest of Oblivia, but to no avail. Dressed in an uncharacteristic, gun-metal, leather spacesuit, she attempts the hamster wheel attraction and is quickly disappointed, not in the least bit enthralled by its appeal. It is unclear whether she has merely evolved or if we are looking at a completely different person—a Rose of the future, a more enlightened, more wary Rose. But the message remains the same in either case. Skip Marley’s verse indicates a rejection from the confinements of any social norm; noting his and his family’s musical background in reggae and their messages of individual freedom and resistance, his mere presence alongside pop icon, Katy Perry, is stark and to the point of the artwork as a whole (both song and video). The video’s ending shot, that of Rose in close up, is more personal than any of the shots prior. Her facial expression is recognizably more real; her lips are parsed and her eyes are wide as she stares directly into the camera, confronting the viewer head on. Her heavy breathing and visible paranoia—especially after experiencing the vivid play-world of Oblivia—leave the viewer with an intense feeling of discomfort. Just like its opening sequence that included an establishing shot, so too does the closing sequence. This time, the only attractions visible in the background (barely) are the rockets flying through the air from Bombs Away. Beyond this, the terrain is hilly and barren, like unchartered territory. The setting has transformed, almost in an instant, from utopic to dystopian.

The most poignant visual contradictions in the video are admittedly less explicit. They are: the Bombs Away ride that appears in the background of the amusement park; the rainbow-colored cotton candy shaped like explosions; the neon-colored drinks that are on fire at the gas station-themed beverage center; the long lines for the mundane hamster wheel attraction; the crowded 3-D showing of the unspectacular A Nuclear Family—at every event, smiling faces and cheerful anticipation. Outside of Oblivia, these are not happy events; worse, outside of Oblivia, these are not extraordinary events. Missile attacks on remote countries, chemically polluted drinking water for marginalized populations, rigid routines of the corporate world and overplayed stereotypes of the idyllic family are unfortunately quotidian occurrences, rarely observed in awe. There is something uncanny in Oblivia and the blissful ignorance of a collectively numb population. But there is also something amiss in the real world and therein lies the video’s central point. It is not until Rose sits down among the crowds to watch the 3-D feature film that she takes notice of her disillusioned world; the glasses become indicative of their failure to recognize the seriousness of things going on around them, their inability both to see things other than their own reflections and to appropriately mediate external social influences. In this video, Cullen purposefully and continually blurs the line between the real and not real, the literal and the metaphorical, the here and the elsewhere, the present and the alternative present. Much like the narrative presents a revolutionary end, Cullen and the rest of the creative team involved in the video’s production suggest a similar awakening. They are careful not to imply that this is easily done or understood; the ambiguity at the end (Is this Rose or someone new? Is she “enlightened” or simply under a new spell?) persists in real life.

It is important here to remember that music videos are intended to promote and sell the music; in this way, they function as visual advertisements for the accompanying song and maybe even for the artist themselves. The “Chained to the Rhythm” music video, with its pastel color scheme and high-key (low contrast) lighting, is intentionally visually pleasing. Despite being inundated with dark and heavy social commentary, the imagery in the video is remarkably whimsical: flocks of birds flying through clear, blue skies; smiling attendees skipping hand-in-hand; perfectly choreographed group routines; and heart-shaped structures playfully scattered throughout. For all its metaphorical references to the demise of contemporary culture, the video itself seems to make light of a serious message, the very setting being an amusement park with mindless fun as its primary goal. Essentially, it positions itself—and Katy Perry and her image—as being equally as chained to the rhythm as the real world it reflects is. It is intentionally congruent to Katy Perry’s iconic pop-star persona. She is colorful and bubbly; in a previous video, she appears with lilac hair, pink stockings, metallic blue heels and an ice-cream cone-inspired babydoll dress. It is no surprise then that the “Chained to the Rhythm” music video upholds this image and its fairytale aesthetic to appeal to Perry’s usual band of fans and supporters. There is no need for someone to buy into the song’s message to enjoy the music video; ironically, it is entertaining in either interpretation and, thus, profitable in either interpretation. And by this logic, the video’s emancipatory potential is undermined by its own inherent commodification.

Image Credits

KatyPerryVEVO. “Katy Perry – Chained To The Rhythm (Official) ft. Skip Marley.” YouTube, Google, 21 Feb. 2017.

Notes

  1. Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader, pp. 34–43.

 

 

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