Arguing that Katie Perry’s music video, “Chained to the Rhythm” functions as a simulacra of American society under the current US administration reveals cracks in the tenor of public discourse. They are disparate formats anchored in different realms of the population’s consciousness—one a popular culture entertainment video while the other is situated in the public culture realm (albeit hanging over the nation like a miasma)—and yet the former mirrors and ironizes the latter without impinging on citizen’s sense of what is foundationally “American” popular music. A close reading of Perry’s music video reveals a playful mockery of the American Dream. And yet, the masses avidly consuming Perry’s song do not see a direct link between her lyrics and the current administration’s racist, sexist, and homophobic proclamations. In fact statistics from the music industry prove the astonishing popularity of “Chained to the Rhythm” and attest to Perry as an influential force in youth culture and a voracious appetite. “Chained the Rhythm” modernizes concepts discussed in Lynn Sally’s articles "Fantasy Lands and Kinesthetic Thrills,” and "Fire Spectacles,” about the role of amusement parks in popular and mass culture as microcosms of society. Furthermore, “Chained the Rhythm” draws upon theoretical perspectives of cultural theorist Gloria Anzladua’s article “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and filmmaker Nadia Marie’s documentary “Too African to be American and Too American to be African” about the unique challenges of performing multi-cultural identities in a country governed by white privilege. Ultimately, this digital project demonstrates the importance of American society adopting Anzaldua’s “mestiza consciousness” and moving past the strict racial, ethnic, gendered, and socioeconomic dichotomies which limit us.
Setting the Stage
With 166,224,457 views on Youtube and reaching No. 17 on the Billboard Top 100, it is no secret that Katie Perry's latest chart-topper, "Chained the Rhythm" has received substantial media attention and international recognition. However, what makes "Chained to the Rhythm" somewhat of an anomaly is the explicit political message to the song which critiques societal blindness to matters of race, class, and gender in light of the election of President Trump. NPR poignantly notes that an, "overt social critique in our Top 40...is a relative rarity" ("Hot Chip remixes Katie Perry's Chained to Rhythm"). In "Chained to the Rhythm", Perry is re-inventing the high culture of political rhetoric into the form of easily accessible and consumable pop culture for the masses.
Amusement Parks as a Microcosm of Society
One of the key features of "Chained to the Rhythm" is the setting in which the music video takes place, an amusement park which is entitled "Oblivia" and contains rides such as "The Greatest Ride in the Universe," "American Dream Drop," and "Bombs Away." There is also a ride called "There's No Place like Home" which throws a Hispanic or Latino couple over a fence that appears to represent the U.S/Mexico border wall and a movie theater showing a film entitled, "A Nuclear Family in 3D". It is apparent that these names reflect some of the highly critiqued commentary of President Trump regarding immigration, racially-charged issues, ISIS, and foreign policy in addition to playing on his infamous campaign slogan "Make America Great Again". Perry utilizes the symbolism of a hamster on hamster wheel and a bubble in juxtaposition to these rides to demonstrate the "Oblivia" which the average white, middle-class American and Trump himself possess in regards to these pertinent issues. In many ways, Perry is utilizing the amusement park "Oblivia" to portray a microcosm of the flawed American society under the Trump administration.
Historical Connections and Coney Island
Perry's utilization of the amusement park as a microcosm of American society echoes the work of cultural theorist Lynn Sally. In her article, "Fantasy Lands and Kinesthetic Thrills," Sally studied the history of Coney Island and the myriad of ways in which it too was a microcosm of the United States in regards to its "urbanism, modernity, and capitalist [nature]" at the height of the industrial revolution" (293).
Sally furthers this argument by demonstrating how often times, amusement parks serve as an idealistic microcosm of, "how America and Americans should be" (299). In particular, Sally describes one park at Coney Island named Dreamland which possessed a utopian "White City" that associates "whiteness with purity and with wealth" (299). Oblivia's" "American Dream Drop" mirrors Coney Island's "White City" through its exclusive nature and racist undertones which unfortunately resemble elements of modern American society. This amusement park ride plays on the "Make America Great Again" slogan by creating a ride that is composed of a number of miniature upper-class houses which are shown as only being accessible to white, heterosexual couples. Therefore, through the simplicity of an amusement park, Perry is able to communicate a complex political message about idealized phenomena surrounding the "American Dream," who is able to attain this dream, and the realities of white privilege.
Furthermore, in her article "Fire Spectacles," Lynn Sally also describes a Dreamland exhibit called "Fighting the Flames" which featured a staged fire that burned down a tenement apartment, similar to the ones where most immigrants would have resided at that time in New York City. Although this exhibit seemed fairly mundane, it was one of the most popular exhibits at Coney Island and perhaps was so successful for the ways in which it, "directly referenced and in fact performed the elimination of the immigrant population" (45). This exhibit held appeal with the upper-class who frequented Dreamland who were "made uneasy by the influx of immigrants" and wished to regain a sense of control over the rapid expansion of New York City.
In a similar fashion, in Perry's video, Oblivia's "There's No Place like Home" ride simulates the experience of Hispanic men and women literally being thrown out of "Oblivia" or the United States over a white picket fence which appears to represent the U.S/Mexico border. Despite radically different time periods, Sally and Perry are both tapping into a middle and upper class fear of the immigrant population expressed through the microcosmic world of an amusement park and the "Fire Spectacle" and "Theres No Place like Home" rides.
"Keeping on the Hamster Wheel": Anzaldua and Identity
Apart from analyzing Perry's video as a microcosmic presentation of society, connections between "Chained to the Rhythm" and Gloria Anzaldua's discussions of identity are readily apparent as well. One poignant scene in the "Chained to the Rhythm" video occurs towards the end when different attendees of the amusement park attempt to successfully keep running on a hamster wheel. Although Perry and a white male are able to successfully keep up with the pace of the hamster wheel, a black man and an Asian woman fall off despite their best attempts to keep the pace.
In this scene, Perry is commenting on the role that racial identity plays in one's ability to succeed and not "fall off" in American society. This scene connects to Gloria Anzaldua's article, "How to Tame a Wild Tounge," which expresses the difficulties which minority groups face when attempting to keep up with a white culture that often devalues their identity. Although Anzaldua's struggle centered on Chicana desires to communicate bilingually and listen freely to Tex-Mex corridos, her message of feeling illegitimate and not fully able to participate in and be recognized by white culture resonates with this particular scene. For African-American groups it may be the ignorance of white populations to police brutality and for Asian populations it may be the assumption that they are taking white American's spots in elite universities; however, no matter the circumstance, Anzaldua's struggles of forming a multi-cultural identity and in a country in a culture dominated by white ideals remain relevant. Perry's video demonstrates that in an era where Trump consistently disregards the legitimacy of these identities, keeping on with the hamster wheel becomes extremely difficult for non-whites in the United States.
"Too African to be American and Too American to African"
The theme of finding multi-cultural legitimacy is not just limited to a Chicana context as expressed by Anzaldua's work, but also in a the myriad of other racial and ethnic minority groups which compose the fabric of the United States. Sociologist and filmaker Nadia Marie explores the theme of multi-cultural legitimacy through her film "Too African to be American and too American to be African" which follows a group of Sierra Leonean women who are first generation African immigrants and constantly feel as though they are not fully American or Sierra Leonean but an intersection of both identities. This leaves them grasping to hold on to the "hamster wheel" of two distinct cultures which one woman describes as a "chameleon act."
Although much of Perry's "Chained to the Rhythm," centers on the divisive reality of the United States (male v. female, white v. black, rich v. poor), by incorporating Anzaldua's notion of the "mestiza consciousness" society can move past the limitations of being defined by one identity. Anzaldua describes this reality of the "mestiza consciousness," as a moving beyond the strict dichotomies that often define us and entering a space which welcomes "a true integration" of the many identities which shape us (410). Although the current administration makes this acceptance of integrated identities difficult, striving for a country which celebrates the intersection of many identities would mitigate the affects of racial, ethnic, gendered, and socioeconomic privilege in the United States.
As the Atlantic states, "Amid the ongoing drama of the Trump era, pop’s biggest stars have become more activist, headlining rallies and sending tweets of protest" ("Katy Perry Proclaims a New Era of Purposeful Pop"). However despite this trend, one of the most controversial aspects and evident gaps of Perry's music video is the inherent nature of an extremely wealthy, white, privileged performer participating in a music video which comments on the realities of minority groups which she is not associated with. Although some may argue that she is utilizing her platform as a high-grossing artist to generate awareness of important issues, others may find that her demographic reality makes her an inaccurate representative of these issues.