Katy Perry's kisses, the hot ones and the cold ones, tell the tale of her career. • The singer, a daughter of Pentecostal pastors, commenced as a 23-year-old flirt with overeager lips. Her debut single, 2008's I Kissed a Girl ("and I liked it, the taste of her cherry ChapStick"), hit No. 1 in almost 20 countries, selling more than 4 million digital copies in the United States. • Boys, babes, the naughty pop princess aimed to smooch 'em all: in Sin City (2008's Waking Up in Vegas), in a menage a trois (2010's Last Friday Night), in a titillating marriage (to bad boy Russell Brand, whom she'd later divorce, letting it all crassly play out in a sexy concert movie, Katy Perry: Part of Me).
Compared to potty-mouthed contemporaries Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus, Perry's loose lips were tame. And yet she flaunted her 7 Minutes in Heaven come-hither — not to mention a whipped-cream-bazooka bra — with Betty Boopish abandon, a playful PG-13 streak that helped her become the most bankable woman in pop music. She was the first female solo star to chart five No. 1 singles from one album (2010's Teenage Dream, the cover of which showed Perry cherubically naked in a bed of clouds).
Lately, however, as Perry closes in on her 30th birthday on Oct. 25 — and prepares to play the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Monday — she's revealing a milder, tamer side. The vavoomish cleavage shots have buttoned up; her pastor parents can read magazines again.
Latest album Prism, released October 2013, is more about self-empowerment than sucking face. New ballad Unconditionally was a far thematic cry from 2010's California Gurls. Prism, which also included contemplative cuts By the Grace of God and Spiritual, was her fastest-selling record, and has moved more than 3 million copies in the United States. (That said, there's still a song on there called Birthday, in which she winks to her "balloons." Still, that's pretty harmless.)
Perry hasn't stopped there. An on-off relationship with singer-songwriter John Mayer started, and ended, behind closed doors; no movie treatment for this split.
And Perry is still kissing girls — she's just not liking it so much.
At a Cyrus concert in February, a "friendly girl kiss" between Miley and Katy in the front row turned serpentine when Miley, as Miley is wont to do, went full tonsil hockey. Perry, who was there to see the show, recoiled in true horror and ripped her 21-year-old pal in public: "God knows where that tongue has been!"
And most recently, on an episode of CMT Crossroads, a show that pairs strange musical bedfellows, Perry and alt-country newbie Kacey Musgraves performed the latter's Follow Your Arrow, in which the country singer warbles about kissing anyone you want, gender be darned. On stage, after the lyric "Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that's something you're into," Perry rolled her giant eyes then mock-grimaced when planting a chaste buss on her partner's cheek.
That pucker is still persuasive; she's just using it differently. Perry is an incredibly powerful woman, and her inner change just might have consequences. When the biggest star in trend-happy pop cools with the kisses, will her peers stop playing spin the bottle, as well?
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In a recent interview that raised eyebrows — and played like a new handbook for music executives — Perry told the Los Angeles Times that the thrice-platinum Prism was "a very self-reflective album. I think it was a point of real personal change in me and that is reflected in the songs. A lot of personal growth, a lot of therapy. A lot of looking inwards and working on things that I needed to work on rather than continually pointing the finger or ignoring an issue."
In other words, below-the-belt songs a la 2010's Peacock ("Come on baby let me see / What you're hidin' underneath") could be pretty much a thing of the past.
Phoebe Kushner, music director at popcentric Hot 101.5 in Tampa Bay, says Perry's evolution makes welcome, comforting sense — both for the singer and for pop culture as a whole.
"When you're first coming up as a pop star, you need something that sets you apart," says Kushner. "But once you develop as an artist, you can rely more on your talent, on your fan base, on being yourself. When we first met Katy, she was in her 20s, but now she's maturing. She and I are around the same age. I wasn't a fan of hers at first. But I think Prism is a fantastic album. Personally, I enjoy her more now."
You could be cynical and say Perry is merely being a savvy businesswoman, preying on our social media weariness and 21st century overload. The inundation of sex and "Oh look, Rihanna is pantsless on Instagram again" is everywhere. Less is more is a smart, refreshing move.
But whatever the case, Perry is such a powerful sales and tastemaking force — Prism rocketed to No. 1 and spawned mega hits Roar and Dark Horse — her personal transformation could have reverberations. A trend toward less sex/more feelings might already be happening.
After all, the two hottest young faces in pop are Nickelodeon good girl Ariana Grande (whose Problem is vying for coveted title of song of the summer) and pensive busker Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift's redhaired British buddy. Both celebrate personal independence and strength over, say, steaming up the car windows.
Once the only person who could make Eminem blush, rapper Nicki Minaj just released a slow, sincere hip-hop ballad, Pills N Potions; it's good, but it sounds nothing like her. The 31-year-old Minaj also has various girl-driven merchandising deals (including a clothing line for Kmart) that bank on her calming her booty-first routine. Maybe there's something about that 30 Club.
For Perry's peers sticking to their salacious guns, the news isn't as great. Lady Gaga's most recent album, the over-the-top Artpop — promoted via totally awkward nude videos — was a commercial failure compared to earlier releases. Gaga's sales weren't helped when, during a live performance in Austin, Texas, she had someone vomit on her. This week, she took heat for a porn-spoofing video for Do What U Want that featured singer R. Kelly and photographer Terry Richardson, both of whom are facing sexual misconduct claims.
Perry, on the other hand, has commodified discretion, calming down, not trying to cram herself (or her tongue) down everyone's throat. "Every once in a while I feel the vultures circling, ready to take me down," Perry told the Los Angeles Times. "And then I'm, like, 'I'm backing out, I'm backing out. I'm going away. I'm going to let you take a breather.' "
Taking a breather is something Miley Cyrus doesn't quite get. And although Miley's album and concert sales are still considerable, there's been a sea change in the court of public opinion.
"I think we're all getting sick of Miley's shtick," Kushner says. "Katy, on the other hand, has been in the business a long time. I think she said to herself, 'I don't want to do that thing anymore.' "
We'll see on Monday where Perry's head and lips are at. But we have a feeling you can leave your cherry ChapStick at home.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.