A few thoughts on Katy Perry’s “This Is How We Do”
“I fought the laws of economic rationality, and I won.”
The neoliberal subject is supposed to make economically rational calculations about how she spends her time, her money, and her energy. Do I spend my time working, or would it I get a better return doing something else, like sleeping or going out? Partying hard and going gaga might be a good investment if it helps you work smarter and more efficiently, if it builds your brand, if you need a release, and so on. But the effect of this is that every decision–even the decision to have fun, or the decisions you make about what is fun, while having fun–is now work. It’s not that you’re choosing to do have fun instead of do work, but that having fun its own type of work. If you’re lucky, you get the return on that investment. If you’re less lucky, that return goes to someone else (e.g., I’ve talked about the way clubbing has become a type of outsourced labor here at Cyborgology).
In this context, Katy Perry’s new single “This Is How We Do” sounds like a defense of the wanton disregard for economic rationality. In the bridge (and sounding like she’s doing her best to channel P!nk), Perry praises a bunch of economically irrational activities in the form of shout-outs to
The ladies at breakfast…in last night’s dress
All you kids who still have their cars at the club valet…and its Tuesday
All you kids buying bottle service with your rent money
All you people going to bed with a 10, and waking up with a 2
The last two–spending money on overpriced booze rather than housing, and sleeping with someone who is quantitatively inattractive–really resonate with the idea of economic calculation. All of these decisions are economically irrational because they give you diminishing returns. Imagine the disappointment (and, perhaps, shame or self-disgust) of waking up next to that person you realize you’re not attracted to at all.
There’s also a musical representation of miscalculation at the end of the song. The last iteration of the chorus sounds like it’s going to conclude with a fade-out. But at about 2:56 in the YouTube video posted to Perry’s official account, Perry says “Wait, what? Bring the beat back,” and we get about half a minute more of instrumental coda. In bringing the beat back, the song goes past the point of diminishing returns–it’s really likely, IMO, that this last 30 seconds will get cut in radio airplay. Even in the video this section feels like filler–Perry walks to the background and lies down in the dark as animated ice cream cones twerk in the foreground. So, both the lyrics and the composition give examples of economic irrationality, that is, of pushing something fun past its point of diminishing returns.
Instead of arguing for the benefits of such irrationality, for its positive contributions to individual or social life, the song argues for its normalcy, for its lack of perceptible effect. It doesn’t treat over-the-top partying like something that’s ecstatic or extraordinarily pleasurable, but something that’s mundane. In effect, “This Is” defends economic irrationality as non-disruptive, either to society or to “our” ability to function in it.
You can hear this defense strategy in the song’s music. Especially with the slowed-down sample of the song’s title, “This Is How We Do” sounds like Perry’s answer to Miley’s sizurpy “We Can’t Stop.” Perry’s song has a similarly muted soar, and what I’ve argued here is its concomitant first-person-plural perspective. But what’s really interesting is what Perry sings over that muted soar: she repeats the phrase “it’s no big deal” four times. The song phones in its soars because they’re no big deal. While such irrationality might feel overwhelming to people who don’t “do” like us, from “our” perspective we’re so habituated to it this irrationality barely even rises to the level of perception. What some think is irrational excess is, for us, just another day.
The song’s structure reflects the regularization of otherwise irregular excess. The two NBD soars aren’t even the song’s main climax–they’re just the chorus…a regular, repeated part of the song. The biggest musical moment is at the end of the bridge, when Perry finally puts some support behind her voice and wails “RENT MO-NAY”; this is followed by some sounds of a cheering, whistling crowd (and, um, a really puzzling picture of Aretha Franklin singing at the first Obama inaugural. I get the R-E-S-P-E-C-T analogy, but, um, otherwise the video’s use of this image just seems gratuitous and racist). There’s like a hyper-abbreviated soar in the last few beats of the bridge to lead us back to the final iteration of the chorus, a sort of pale echo of the earlier soars.
Such economic irrationality is “no big deal” only when it’s performed by specific kinds of bodies in very particular circumstances. Just think for a minute about the absolutely huge deal made about “welfare queens”–implicitly black women who make supposedly economically irrational decisions like buying alcohol, beauty services, or even junk food. According to this anti-welfare perspective, such purchases are bad returns on taxpayer investment because they are wasteful–they bring enjoyment and relief to black women, rather than the (generally white) ‘taxpayer.’ This Jezebel post shows plenty of examples of these anti-welfare memes, and does a decent take-down of them.
The ability to fuck up and not be punished is like the definition of privilege (e.g., men getting away with rape, whites getting away with murder, “I Fought the Law and I Won,” etc etc). So perhaps what “This Is How We Do” is really about is affirming the privilege of those whose economically irrational behavior passes as “no big deal”?
Oh, and p.s.: don’t even get me started on the racist appropriation in the video.