The business of predicting a young musician's trajectory is murky stuff.
Just ask Christianity Today music reviewer Russ Breimeier. In 2001, when he reviewed then 16-year-old Katy Hudson's self-titled contemporary Christian music debut, he concluded, "Katy Hudson. Trust me, you'll be hearing [that name] more and more." Little did Russ know how right he'd be ... albeit with plot twists he never anticipated.
Fast-forward seven years, and Katy is indeed this moment's It Girl.
But getting there necessitated an extreme makeover. The songstress traded in her last name—goodbye Katy Hudson, hello Katy Perry—and jettisoned her Christian music aspirations in exchange for big-time fame and fortune. In place of teenage prayers ("Lord, help me see the reality/That all I'll ever need is You") she now brags about her same-sex experimentation ("I kissed a girl just to try it/I hope my boyfriend don't mind it").
Katy's provocative—and almost maddeningly catchy—synth-rock single "I Kissed a Girl" recently rocketed to No. 1. And her album, One of the Boys, has earned the 23-year-old singer comparisons to Madonna, Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani. Traces of her faith remain. But for the most part, Katy Perry has rebooted her public persona, sans Jesus.
From Faith to Freddie
Katy grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., the middle child of two traveling-minister parents who, she recounts, "planted churches and held evangelist meetings across the country." Their faith made music a highly polarized issue in the Hudson household:
On one side of the continuum, there was lots of affirmation. Katy's older sister had a penchant for crooning Carman, and soon Katy was imitating big sis. Dad, especially, encouraged Katy's passion for singing. "My dad would give me $10, which is a lot of money when you're 9, to sing at church, on tables at restaurants, at family functions, just about anywhere," Katy says. Voice lessons commenced at age 10, and Katy's parents got her a guitar when she turned 13. By 17, music had become her life's mission. "I know I've been called for a purpose," she said at the time, "and that God has had His hand on me."
On the other extreme, secular music was unequivocally off-limits. Parental vigilance, however, was eventually undermined when Katy encountered the British rock group Queen at a slumber party. "I'm a huge fan of Freddie Mercury. I'm a fan of lots of music, but he was a turning point," she explains. "I wasn't allowed to listen to secular music when I was a kid, but there was a time when I was hanging out at my friend's house. We're trying on all our outfits, like girls do, and out of nowhere I heard the lyrics to 'Killer Queen.' Time stood still. The music was totally different from anything I'd heard. I still love Freddie Mercury. He was flamboyant with a twist of the operatic, but more importantly, he just didn't give a f---."
Katy credits Alanis Morissette as another significant influence once the secular-music flood gates were thrown open. "Jagged Little Pill was huge for me. One of the vivid memories of my childhood is swinging on the swing set singing 'Ironic' at the top of my lungs."
Somewhere along the way, full-on rebellion also crept in. By the time Katy talked to Blender magazine in October 2004, any pretense of trying to live the good Christian life had evaporated. With what writer Nick Duerden described as a "wicked laugh," Katy confessed, "I've done a lot of bad things. Use your imagination." She also said of her parents' strict rules during her teen years, "That's my parents. They're crazy! They're nuts!"
Seductress, Prodigal or Both?
Whatever the exact details of Katy Hudson's transformation into Katy Perry may be, one thing is certain: She's relishing her bad-girl reputation. On "I Kissed a Girl," alcohol fuels her desire to taste "forbidden fruit" ("I got so brave, drink in hand/Lost my discretion"), but that's only the beginning. She sings, "Us girls, we are so magical/Soft skin, red lips, so kissable/Hard to resist, so touchable/Too good to deny it/Ain't no big deal, it's innocent/I kissed a girl and I liked it/The taste of her cherry ChapStick/ ... It felt so wrong/It felt so right."
The track "Ur So Gay" lambastes an ex-boyfriend—in a style reminiscent of Alanis' explicit blasts—for being "so gay and you don’t even like boys." Worse, among the song's mean-spirited barbs is a graphic reference to autoerotic asphyxiation.
But even as Katy Perry brazenly follows in the footsteps of Alanis and Madonna, there are hints that beneath her apparently calloused, world-weary exterior, she's still thinking about God. Take her song "Lost," for example. This vulnerable track is like a soundtrack for a prodigal daughter movie. "Have you ever been so lost/Known the way and still so lost?" she asks. "My mother says I should come back home but/Can't find the way 'cause the way is gone/So if I pray, am I just sending words into outer space?"
Passing references to God also turn up in some of her interviews. L.A. Times writer Emili Vesilind noted, tellingly, "Perry has 'Jesus' tattooed on her wrist in '50s script, but [she] gets shy for the first and only time when it's pointed out, covering it with her hand before reluctantly flashing it again." A hint that perhaps she's not quite so shameless as she would have people believe?
Will the Real Katy Please Stand Up?
Only time will tell which Katy is the real deal, which one will outlast and outplay the other. At the moment, Katy Hudson's flirty and "dirty" alter ego is in the ascendant. Whether or not she'll ever "come to her senses" as the Bible says the prodigal son did in Luke 15 remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the influence Katy Perry might be exerting on some of her fans is worth considering. "I Kissed a Girl" is hardly the first song to exalt same-sex experimentation or sexual rebellion just for the sake of seeing what it's like to bend the rules. Nevertheless, Katy's hit is the latest high-profile message to young women and men that our sexuality is a malleable commodity that can be reshaped at will. The only thing that matters, the song ultimately says, is whether you feel good. No need to worry about who might get used or objectified in the process. (Even if it's you.)
Will some fans of this song emulate it and its singer just as Katy found herself swept away by Freddie Mercury's flamboyance?
Interestingly, she expressed a better sense of how she might influence others when she was 17 than she does today. Back then she told Go! magazine's Cari Stone, "I know sometimes if I don't think about what I do or think about the things I say, then I'll just ruin it for everybody [and] keep giving that stereotype of teens—that they're irresponsible and not doing anything with their lives."
Now, Katy is indeed living down to a damaging, demeaning stereotype, one that our culture has already branded as "girls gone wild." Perhaps one day she'll recall the wisdom of her youth.