Off the top of my head, I can come up with more “controversial” stances Katy Perry has taken than I can count on one hand: “Ur So Gay” being mean, homophobic, and seemingly aimed at Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz; “I Kissed a Girl” being shock-Sapphic and heteronormative; “You / PMS / Like a bitch / I would know” in “Hot N Cold”; the Sesame Street debacle; the unparalleled mastery of the Maxim mien to optimize titillation; the use of “Last Friday Night” to hop on Rebecca Black’s comet and put on nerd drag; the use of “Firework” to hop on the It Gets Better wave; the uncomfortably xenophobic “E.T.,” and specifically a remix in which one of the most famous black rappers of the moment was turned into a lascivious, rape-y beast; the microwaved breakup “rage” of “Part of Me” getting timed to a) the end of a very public relationship, b) the re-release of an album, and c) the Grammys in which Adele’s heartfelt kiss-offs were venerated. Her debut album was named One of the Boys; her “California Gurls” had a Snoop Dogg verse because casual misogyny and watered-down Golden State triumphalism fit, and “Gurls” because she decided to make it the least convincing Big Star tribute ever.
So why is Katy Perry not going all the way when covering “Niggas in Paris,” and instead doing Karmin-style genre tourism? C’mon, Katy: We know what you’re saying when you say “ninja,” just like Reggie “Combat Jack” Osse did when he took the Voice‘s Tom Breihan to task for using “ninja” as a substitute for “nigga” in 2006. And you even admit in the opening seconds of your BBC performance that things are going to get embarrassing!
Perry’s got every right in the world to cover whatever she wants to cover, but covering “Niggas in Paris” when her only interaction with hip-hop has been her giving “edge” to her pop songs by adding rappers (Snoop, Kanye, Missy Elliott, B.o.B) is weird. But why would she travel the treacherous terrain of white-girl rap if not to get some of the shine that Kreayshawn and Perry replicant Amy Heidemann of Karmin have received? (Karmin’s own use of rap to break into pop, from the look-I-can-rap-just-as-“well”-as-y’all cover of Busta Rhymes’ gymnastic flow on “Look At Me Now” to the use of “jigga” in the place of “nigga,” is about as iffy an appropriation as any in the last few years; Perry being conscious of Karmin’s encroachment on her nontroversy turf is the guffaw-worthy subplot here.) This is Perry making a headline because she felt like she needed to make a headline, and making it about as indelicately as possible.
Prominent white people wading into rap, despite white folks like Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys being among the genre’s forefathers, will probably always make headlines: no musical genre has been taken as the representation of an ideology like rap has been taken to represent minority life (and specifically black life), and the Fox News-ified political discourse has coded “hip-hop,” even stuff as relatively benign as Common’s oeuvre, as dangerous to boot. Perry knows this.
Osse’s issue with Breihan was about appropriation (“That shit,” referring to “ninja,” “is too effin’ close, boy”), but also about the authenticity of criticism from white rap fans (Breihan panned Kingdom Come and praised Pitbull, among other high crimes and misdemeanors against “real rap”), and the argument made it clear that there will always be divides and debates in the world of hip-hop over who gets to have what say and who gets the benefit of the doubt. Respect matters in rap—Elliott Wilson’s got a magazine of the same name for a reason— and the white figures that have had sustained success in the genre, from the Beasties and Eminem to lesser figures like The Alchemist and Evidence, have had to earn their respect by paying respect, paying dues, and showing and proving. Perry probably knows this, too: if she didn’t learn it by being in the music industry, dating rapper (with authenticity issues!) Travis “Travie” McCoy of Gym Class Heroes might have been an education.
So we have a) Perry likely willfully thumbing her nose at the rap fan establishment by covering a rap song, and b) Perry using the same questionable substitute for “nigga” that got a big-time white rap critic fileted. And yet it’s c) Perry covering one of the best songs of 2011 as half-heartedly as possible, subbing “mothereffs” for “motherfuckers” and “so” for “shit” in the rallying cry/hook, that rankles the most.
Forget that she’s making one of the most overt engagements of race in recent memory (Jay-Z noted “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too” on a song about the incongruity of wealthy black men in Paris, and it peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100 despite no DJ being able to say its full name, which, wow) into a bloodless Kidz Bop track: Perry can’t figure out flows that virtually anyone who has heard the song more than once has down pat, doesn’t know the words, and sounds like she’s never spoken English before at some points. If you’re going to do SEO rap and traffic in appropriation, Katy, you could at least aim for a level of quality control above “reprehensibly abysmal.”