GG‘s Number Ones column reviews every Billboard Hot 100 #1 single of the last 10 years.
The life of a firework begins like this. First, a fuse is lit. When it burns through gunpowder ignites. An explosion follows and the rocket shoots towards the sky. After, a mix of chemical fuel, oxidizer, colourants, and binders come together. When they do the firework explodes, showering the sky in a dazzling spray of light. On 2010 single ‘Firework’ Katy Perry sang about exactly this. It was a song about releasing inhibition, flying high and igniting in a brilliant flash. Little did Perry suspect just how prophetic the song would be.
Living the Teenage Dream
2010 was Katy Perry’s breakthrough year. She had made a name for herself as a chart-topping pop star two years earlier with singles ‘Kissed A Girl’ and ‘Hot N Cold’. Now the release of third album Teenage Dream and its accompanying singles catapulted her to superstardom. She captivated the world with catchy songs and dazzling fantasy image. The woman who had been born Katy Hudson was now not only a successful pop act but one of the most well-known musical acts of a generation.
And of all the material which came from this period, it was ‘Firework’ which Perry treasured most. It is the song she, up until this point, had put the most of herself into. ‘Firework’ captured Katy Perry’s mindset at the height of fame. She wrote several more confessional numbers later in her career but this was Katy Perry at her very peak.
As her childhood dreams of fame and fortune were coming true before her very eyes, Perry co-wrote the lyrics to ‘Firework’ hit songwriter Ester Dean. “We knew that she was a better singer than a lot of people thought at the time,” Ester later shared. “We wanted to highlight that… she wasn’t trying to be perfect, it was just from the heart.”
‘Firework’ Was Influenced by Jack Kerouac
Perry’s lyrics were inspired by author Jack Kerouac‘s 1957 countercultural classic On The Road. The novel’s most famous passage had been brought to her attention by boyfriend and British comedian Russel Brand. (Perry met Brand while rehearsing for MTV’s 2009 Video Music Awards. They began dating immediately. After a whirlwind romance they married in October 2010 only to divorce in July 2012.)
“The only people for me are the mad ones,” Kerouac famously wrote, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes, ‘Awww!'”
‘Firework’ and Funeral Plans
Perry had a simple and romantic explanation for her lyrics. “Basically I have this very morbid idea,” she informed Billboard magazine in 2010. “When I pass, I want to be put into a firework and shot across the sky over the Santa Barbara Ocean as my last hurrah.”
Perry’s fixation with fireworks stemmed several childhood experiences with her father. On more than one occasion Katy would assist Keith Hudson in smuggling fireworks into America from Mexico in order to celebrate national holidays. “As a kid,” she revealed to Parade magazine, “I was totally like, ‘Yeah!’ Now I realize there are repercussions. I’m like, ‘You’re going to load the car with fireworks? That thing is going to pop off!’”
Like the Fourth of July
Below the song’s simple sentiment, it seems there is more of Perry’s childhood which is coming through. Katy Perry grew up in a strictly religious household. Secular music was banned. As a result, she listened to gospel music and Christian pop.
‘Firework’ reflects these influences. Twice during the song’s pre-chorus, Perry urges her listener to “shine”. The Bible makes more than 90 references to the words shine and shining. The idea of giving off light in some brilliant fashion- shining it before others, shining to light the darkness, and so on – carries a religious double meaning.
From here one could go even deeper into Perry’s psyche. No doubt the way in which her childhood’s religious overtones mingled with her pop aspirations was something which made her stand out. Let’s face it, more than a few pop stars – Kanye West, Bob Dylan and Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green – have believed themselves touched by the divine. Perry, who was told by her devout parents as a child she would one day stand before presidents and kings, was no exception.
“You just gotta ignite the light,” Katy Perry sings, “And let it shine. Just own the night.” Perry, who once professed on wanting to be an All-American girl for the whole world, also then spices this up with some patriotic zeal and good old fashioned American sentimentality by adding, “Like the Fourth of July.”
‘Firework’ entered the US singles chart on December 16, 2010. It was Katy Perry’s third No. 1 single from Teenage Dream and fourth overall. The song’s anthemic quality made was a favourite with Radio DJs the world over. To date, it has sold more than a million copies in the US. It remains part of Perry’s repertoire. She has performed the song 464 times live. This makes it her third most performed song, topped only by ‘Hot N Cold’ with 491 performances and ‘I Kissed A Girl’ at 515. The song would also feature in her show-stealing halftime finale at the 2016 Super Bowl.
Blinded by the Light
By the close of 2010, Katy Perry was riding upward on an unstoppable wave of success. Her music was loved by millions. Her escapist images captured the world’s gaze. What is more, she had fallen in love and married the man she was sure would be the love of her life.
A decade later Perry is living in a very different reality. With Teenage Dream, Katy Perry soared to dizzying heights the material which followed struggled to match. These days she feels, in her own words, like she has “fallen from Cloud 9“. While she is still a wildly popular entertainer with a vast following, the broader public’s fascination has slipped away. She has since divorced her first husband and, after several high-profile flings, started a family with actor Orlando Bloom.
Was Perry blinded by success? A closer look at her lyrical inspiration Jack Kerouac may have revealed fame and acclaim are not all they are cracked up to be. On the Road was published on 5 September 1957. A little over a decade later Kerouac was dead. Alienated and embittered by literary success, the alcoholic author died in front of his living room television after choking on his own vomit in 1969.
Why She Fizzled
Perry wanted to be a firework. And she was. Her career hit stratospheric highs with Teenage Dream and a commendable run of singles. She continued to sizzle with the material which followed. Then she fizzled.
Most people, the poet Dante once suggested, fumble through life blindly. Stumbling from one thing to the next they never stop to think of the overall journey. The wise, Dante believed, saw life for the journey it was, something, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Is the fact that they are so romantic the core of the pop star’s appeal? Is it simply part of their fabric to dream about those brief explosions of instant fame without paying any heed to the oblivion that follows?
Perry, like so many larger than life pop stars, was not long-sighted. An unending appetite for fame and acclaim seems to have blinded her to her past excellence. Slowly Perry has edged into a swirl of self-indulgence and banality until finally, short of some extravagant comeback, she has become a wearisome cliche. As her former husband, Russell Brand once remarked Perry’s world is one of “vapid, vacuous, plastic, constructed, mindless celebrity.”
You can prolong the explosion indefinitely but nothing lasts forever. Katy Perry wanted to burn like a firework and explode. But it seems she failed to consider one very important question. What happens after that?
Romantic, Beautiful, and Impossible
In 2010 Katy Perry embodied the romantic, beautiful, and impossible. She was the person her audience dreamed of becoming. She soared to superstardom. And then, when she herself began challenging the pop star fantasy three years later with PRISM, she began to fall. Many rejected her rather than face the truth that Perry’s dreamy persona was only ever exactly that, a myth.
Nonetheless, when Perry’s life and pop star fantasy aligned she truly was spectacular. She was an idol, someone who embodied the American Dream. Until she didn’t. At which point many amongst a newer generation of pop stars were willing to take her place.
Katy Perry caused a great sensation. She continues to spark. But what use a firework with no one to see it?
‘Firework’ Chart Positions
US/Billboard 100: #1 (39 weeks on chart)
Australia/ARIA: #3 (40 weeks on chart)
UK/Official Charts: #3 (68 weeks on chart)
Katy Perry 'Firework'7
One of her better tunes
A little vacuous
She's no longer on Cloud 9
Later work fell flat