If you've only seen videos of Katy Perry singing "I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot N Cold," looking like the love child of Zooey Deschanel and an anime character, you might take her for a lightweight. She giggles, does exaggerated pantomimes of femininity, and jumps into cakes at award shows. Nothing about her screams gravitas
But Perry doesn't mind underplaying her hand. While she was "failing"—being dropped by three record labels before the age of 24—she was taking notes the entire time. And when she arrived at Capitol, she made sure to land on her feet.
"I Kissed a Girl," the first single from her album "One of the Boys," spent seven weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 during the summer of 2008 and has sold 3.1 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The follow-up single, "Hot N Cold," reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 and has sold 2.9 million downloads. Her third single, "Thinking of You," shipped to radio Jan. 12; it has sold 97,000 copies.
Her album has sold 806,000 copies since its release in June, but if she was hitting 15 years ago, she'd probably be reaching Alanis Morissette levels of album sales.
That change in the music business is not lost on Perry. "People got burned by too many uneven records," she says. "I personally can't live without iTunes."
Her manager, Bradford Cobb, isn't worried. While album sales offer a bigger boost to the bottom line, he believes that Perry shouldn't be painted as a two-hit wonder.
"'Thinking of You' will be the tipping point that gets people to buy the whole album," he says. "It will show the depth and range she has as an artist. I'm comfortable with people discovering Katy at their own pace."
Throughout her career, Perry has proved resilient. At 15, she recorded a gospel album, which promptly disappeared after the label folded. She tried again at 17, working with Glen Ballard on an album for Island Def Jam, which also went nowhere. Finally, she signed to Columbia in 2004, hoping the third time would be the charm.
It wasn't. But the Columbia deal started Perry on her current path. "Columbia was never really willing to embrace Katy's vision," Cobb says. "They were not willing to let her drive. Here was this ambitious young woman with a clear picture of who she was and the willingness to work hard, and Columbia just wouldn't put her in the driver's seat."
One of Columbia's ideas was to pair her with production team the Matrix to serve as the female vocalist for their album. When that situation didn't pan out, Perry started recording a solo album. But before it was completed, Columbia put on the brakes.
"Eighty percent of the record was done, and Columbia decided not to finish it and dropped her," Cobb says. "We got the masters back and then started looking for a new home."
Noting that none of its executives who worked with Perry are with the company any longer, Columbia declined to comment.
While she was waiting to find a new label, Perry took a job at the independent A&R company Taxi Music to pay the bills. "I was sitting in a cube, listening to all this horrible music people had sent in and critiquing it, because I was supposed to be helping them get ahead in the music industry," she says. "Then [former Capitol president] Jason Flom called me. That day I went out for coffee and never went back."
At Capitol, Perry says she was given the freedom and autonomy she had always wanted. She started working with producer Dr. Luke and co-wrote two new tracks, "Hot N Cold" and "I Kissed a Girl." (Perry is credited as either a writer or co-writer of every track on "One of the Boys.") And once the record was done, Capitol decided to put Perry's personality and visual image front and center in its promotion efforts.
"The campaign really started in November 2007 with the release of the video for 'Ur So Gay,' " says Bob Semanovich, senior VP of A&R at Capitol. "We were going for something that was playful and fun, a way to introduce her and get people talking." The label also released a digital EP, focusing on creating online buzz rather than going straight to radio.
"I came up with the concept of the dolls in the video and wanted to make sure it was seen as a tongue-in-cheek dis track," Perry says. The over-the-top campy video shows an emo Ken doll surfing MySpace and a Barbie version of Perry engaging in trickery to seduce him. "It started getting passed around and really took off when Blender reported on it and Madonna said she liked it. I started doing some press and played a New Year's Eve show, and I think people started to wonder about me."
Even as the buzz was building, "Boys" was enduring last-minute tweaks. " 'I Kissed a Girl' almost didn't make it on," she says. "There was some concern at the top, but I just let them sit with the song and they came around. They liked it so much it became the first single."
Perry embarked on the next step of promotion in the most traditional of ways. "I did a two-month tour of radio stations," she says. "I had dinner with so many music directors. But the in-person meetings were valuable, because they helped plant a seed."
Cobb says Perry's personality was key to helping her connect with programmers. "She's so bright and outgoing," he says. "She can tap into youth culture and speak to a younger generation, which is what lots of programmers are really looking for."
As "I Kissed a Girl" began to climb the charts, the track's subject matter didn't escape the ire of critics on both the right and the left. "We were aware of the politics, and there was some concern about releasing 'Ur So Gay' and then 'I Kissed a Girl,' " Cobb says. "We had two groups that never agreed on anything both mad at us." And while Perry has yet to win over the religious right, she has attracted a strong gay following, even appearing on the cover of Out magazine.
With her song on the pop charts, Perry and her camp made the decision to embark on a very un-pop tour: the Vans Warped Tour. "We wanted to establish her as a credible performer and make sure she wasn't seen as just a one-hit wonder," Semanovich says.
"Doing the Warped tour when she had a pop hit raised some eyebrows, but it added a lot of cred," Cobb says. "She got out there and connected with a different audience and romped with the boys."
But romping with the boys didn't mean Perry shed her signature glam for grunge. "I didn't wear the same outfit twice," she says. "I know how much people follow the visual aspect and they want to see eye candy. I used Freddie Mercury as my model—he was a serious artist and musician who never lost sight of the fact that you also need a good look."
After wrapping the Warped tour, Perry headed overseas. In London, she played summer shows at the 200-capacity Water Rats and the 1,000-capacity Scala. "Girl" and "Hot N Cold" were both No. 1 singles on Billboard's European Hot 100. In the United Kingdom, "Girl" was the No. 4 best-selling single of 2008. U.K. sales now stand at 495,000 for "Girl" and 328,000 for "Hot," according to the Official Charts Co. And, much as in the States, the single sales have outstripped that of the album. "One of the Boys" peaked at No. 10 on Billboard's European Top 100 Albums chart. In the United Kingdom, it has sold 279,000 copies, according to the OCC.
Perry launched her first headlining tour Jan. 23 at the Showbox in Seattle, with a brief detour to perform at the Grammy Awards as part of the My Grammy Moment promotion where a fan performed alongside her during the telecast. The tour will hit theaters with 1,000- to 2,000-seat capacities; there will be an 11-date European run, including several U.K. performances, and stops in Japan.
"Our philosophy has always been to sell places out," says Creative Artists Agency's Mitch Rose, who worked Perry's tour. "We set the ticket price at $18-$20 for most markets, because we wanted to ensure a sellout. We could have charged more and we know we're leaving money on the table, but making sure the rooms were packed was our first priority."
But just because the rooms are small doesn't mean Perry will keep her show simple. "I have the guy who creates stages for Madonna working on this tour," she says. "I'm indulging my obsession with fruit and cats and designing all different outfits."
This quirkiness is leading her to other opportunities—Perry also says she'd like to develop a clothing line at some point, but she's in no hurry. "It would take two years to do it right," she says. "I don't want to do something rushed and sloppy. I look at something like Gwen Stefani's line, L.A.M.B., and that took forever to do."
Stefani is a role model of Perry's, not just for her sense of style but her long career. Perry believes interacting with her fans is key; she's constantly blogging and responding to MySpace messages, as well as putting in time after every show to chat and sign autographs.
"All the big pop girls come across as being so scared and so distant," Perry says. "I understand diva-ness, but I cultivate an image as the pop star next door. You need to have some mystery and some privacy, and there are parts of me that I hold back. But at the same time, I love meeting people and e-mailing with them and blogging about funny things." Perry's MySpace page has been viewed 28.3 million times and also provides a phone number users can call to hear updates.
"The fact that she's making so many connections with fans now is good, because they'll be more loyal," Cobb says. "She loves to tour, and we're planning on sending her through markets multiple times. We want to make sure she has the right kind of growth and keep working this record as long as possible."
As for Perry, she's focused on using everything she learned in the past to build her career. "There are times I want to call up the old labels and say, 'Now who's laughing?' " she says. "But then again, if I hadn't had all those obstacles, I don't think I'd be as smart about the business as I am now." ••••
Additional reporting by Mark Sutherland in London.
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