is katy perry’s ‘firework’ a work of lyrical genius?
It might be.
We’ve all felt like a plastic bag at times. Damaging the environment around us, splitting at the seams from excessive bottles of rosé, feeling as valuable as a five cent coin. Or, as Katy Perry starts with in Firework: “drifting through the wind / wanting to start again”.
It was eight years ago — in November of 2010 — that Katy first released the song that would sell ten million copies in the US and one million in the UK, lighting-up the top five of charts in over twenty countries around the world. Sure, its string-backed, Euro-synth instrumental banged as much your family's annual firework display. But it was its lyrics that truly sparkled.
Now, you might want to rain on my bonfire here and question my view. You wouldn’t be the first – MTV called the lyrics “clunky’, Slant branded them “nonsensical” and the Washington Post described it as “too mushy”. But no matter how fiery the polemic, it doesn’t affect how fucking great it makes me feel: and my feeling that it is lyrically genius.
Firstly, it's inspired by one of the world’s most popular cult novels, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. The opus of the The Beat Generation, On The Road features a quote that Katy (artistically) mines for her own use: “The only people that interest me are the mad ones,” Kerouac writes. “The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time. The ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn — like roman candles across the night.”
As she told fans in a YouTube video: “I was introduced to this guy by my boyfriend [Russell Brand] who’s a big fan. He was just telling me about this book and how there’s a paragraph that he said I was like. When I heard that I was like, that is who I feel like I am, who I want to be, who I want to surround myself with — those firework people,” she continued. “It’s just all about you igniting the spark inside of you.”
If American novelist Truman Capote had heard Firework, in some sort of incredible parallel universe, he probably would have said what he said about Kerouac’s work: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” But as Kerouac argued, the key to writing is “undisturbed flow from the mind... on [the] subject of [an] image.” It’s all about centering your mind around a specific symbol (like a firework) and then outpouring your emotions that surround it.
And Katy sure as hell achieved that. As well as the plastic bag simile, the tune is fizzing with loads of other metaphors and symbols. Sure, some may be a bit factually questionable — um, does a rainbow really come after a hurricane? — but the “sparks”, “lighting bolts” and “burst[ing] colors” make it as vivid and explosive as that memory of your Dad nearly fireballing your garden with a badly constructed Catherine Wheel.
What makes it perfect, however, is the way it melts this potentially negative imagery into something beautiful. The whole song is a metaphor, about being a ‘firework’, fizzing with energy, full of chutzpah, loud and triumphant. We’re not like fireworks — we are them.
Equally positive is the music video. It’s all about moving from self-consciousness to self-love. The video’s characters overcome anxiety over weight, illness and sexuality, with each personal success leading to a burst of gossamer, roman candle sparks. It ended up winning Video of the Year at the 2011 MTV Awards — beating Adele’s Rolling In The Deep and Tyler, The Creator’s Yonkers — and was also nominated for new category Best Video With a Message (fairly won by Lady Gaga’s equally lovable Born This Way). Pop often focuses on loving someone or something else. But like Born This Way (or Shake It Off by Taylor Swift), Firework is about showing love to yourself.
Not to get too English Lit student (bite your thumb at me, m8), but it’s the use of the second person point of view that makes it work so well. Katy constantly sings about ‘you’, making it applicable and adaptable to every individual listener. You’re a firework, I’m a firework — we're all fireworks, baby! That, partnered with the anaphoric (a fancy term for a repeated line-opening) repetition of “Do you ever feel...” addresses you specifically, in a way that wouldn’t make it out of place in any self-respecting GCSE literature syllabus.
The only thing Katy got wrong is her own thoughts on it: “I also don’t want it to be cheesy, it’s a fine line,” she told MTV. The thing is — it is cheesy. But that’s what makes it genius. It straddles low-culture and high-culture, pulp and cult, in a genuinely ace way. By the end of the last chorus, you feel fuzzy and fizzy, happy in the knowledge that you’re a firework “even brighter than the moon”.
To those who disagree? Drift away through the wind, like a plastic bag, plz.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.