Music

Fireworks And Brimstone: The Personal God Of Katy Perry

The pop star’s Pentecostalism asserts that God plays an intimate role in every decision she makes, no matter how large or small.

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

What Katy Perry prays for, Katy Perry gets. She was just 11 when she asked God for “boobs so big that I can’t see my feet when I’m lying down.” It was the kind of prayer no one would expect God to take seriously, but Perry hails from a religious background that believes in a God who is eager to answer anyone’s prayers, no matter how small (or, ahem, big), as a way of proving His existence.

It’s the same God Perry prayed to on Feb. 1, when, as a fully grown pop superstar at the height of her career, she performed during halftime of the Super Bowl for an audience of 114 million. “I was praying and I got a word from God and He says, ‘You got this and I got you,’” Perry told Ryan Seacrest days later on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards.

When Perry talks about her relationship with God, it always sounds both personal and somehow refreshing. No other pop star talks about God so regularly and sounds so candid doing it. “I do not believe God is an old guy sitting on a throne with a long beard,” she once told GQ, and it shows. Her God is deeply interested in the details of her personal life, from her Super Bowl performance to her relationships to her cup size.

It’s not strange for someone raised in the Pentecostal church — someone who once said, “Speaking in tongues is as normal to me as ‘pass the salt’” — to feel like her success is the direct result of, and always dependent on, prayer. Her God is deeply invested in individual flourishing and prosperity. And a spirit as colorful as Perry’s would, in some ways, be a natural fit for Pentecostalism, which, with its emphasis on speaking in tongues and boldness in prayer, is one of the more fantastical forms of Christianity.

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It’s not what good girls do/
Not how they should behave/
My head gets so confused/
Hard to obey

—Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl”

When “I Kissed a Girl” came out, I was just out of college — a small, Christian liberal arts college in Santa Barbara, Perry’s hometown. I went to a lot of weddings that year (There are a rash of weddings immediately after every Christian college graduation.) We had just graduated from a school that proscribed same-sex relationships, but everyone, young and old alike, was singing along on the dance floor: “It felt so wrong/ It felt so right/ Don’t mean I’m in love tonight.” Such was the broad appeal of Katy Perry.

She’s the closest thing we’ve got to a human emoticon — a totally lovable, expressive, candy-colored wink to pop culture. A word you keep coming across when reading about Perry is “cartoonish.” And cartoonish works for her image, but what it doesn’t do is tell us much about the person underneath the persona. “I have always been this character,” she told Glamour in 2010, “but I kind of cartoon-ized myself a little bit [in my stage persona]. So when someone really likes me, it’s like [she mimes opening a curtain] here comes a person! I wonder if you can handle this.”

Born Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson (she changed her last name to avoid being confused with the actress Kate Hudson) in Santa Barbara, California, in 1984, Perry’s childhood was tumultuous. Her parents, Keith and Mary Hudson, were Pentecostal preachers who moved wherever they felt the Holy Spirit call them, eventually settling back into Santa Barbara, where they founded the now-defunct Oasis Christian Center. “We were traveling all the time,” Angela Hudson, Katy’s older sister, said in the 2012 documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me. A traveling pastor’s salary — even doubled — isn’t much to survive on, so Perry’s family would occasionally eat from the food bank their church stocked. Katy, Angela, and their younger brother, David, weren’t allowed to eat Lucky Charms (“Luck” was too reminiscent of “Lucifer”) and had to call deviled eggs “angel eggs.”

It would be another 10 years before Keith Hudson would call his daughter a “devil child” in a sermon, and those 10 years held a world of change.

Katy Perry, like most of us, contains multitudes. The year she turned 16, she lost her virginity in Nashville in the front seat of a Volvo. The same year, she released Katy Hudson, an album of contemporary Christian music with songs like “My Own Monster” and lyrics like “Where can I go where can I hide from these evil sufferings?/ Oh these images painted on my walls/ They say there’s a place that I can hide in the shadow of your wings/ Oh Lord, bring me to this place of refuge.”

It’s precisely this tension between pastor’s daughter and good girl gone bad that makes Perry so intriguing — and, at first blush, cartoonish. But there’s a lot more under the surface, both to her appeal and to her life. “People love the story of good girl gone bad,” she said in Part of Me, “and they think my parents have disowned me, but that’s not the story at all.”

Keith and Mary Hudson have lived lives that evangelical Christians love to hear about, of the “I once was lost but now I’m found” variety. He played tambourine with Sly & the Family Stone and took LSD; she danced with Jimi Hendrix and got married in Zimbabwe, but was divorced before she met Keith. They became Christians and planted churches together across America while their children were young, preaching to new crowds on a weekly basis. There is a moment in Part of Me when we see Keith Hudson in front of a group of people in a small church with an eagle emblem on the wall behind him and, above it, the phrase “DECLARE HIS WORD IN ACTION.” He owns the room, as charismatic preachers do.

A hallmark of the charismatic church is the belief in an active, intimately involved God. Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann wrote a book about the American evangelical relationship with God, When God Talks Back. “Over the last few decades,” she writes, “this generation of Americans has sought out an intensely personal God; a God who not only cares about your welfare, but worries with you about whether to paint the kitchen table.” This upbringing has undoubtedly influenced Perry as it has so many of the faithful; to them, God isn’t a distant grandfather type but an omnipotent being who has an opinion about every possible decision they have to make, no matter how small.

When Perry talks about praying before her Super Bowl performance, she is talking about (and to) this kind of God. The charismatic God “really is unconditionally loving,” says Luhrmann over the phone from her home. He’s “a loving God and a buddy God…people do this back and forth when they’re talking to God, the way two young girls talk to each other. They’re sharing everything.”

Another observation Luhrmann makes is how much some charismatic worship songs “are almost sexual, with a touch so light that the suggestion could slip past.” She cites the song “Dwell,” which includes a line, addressed to God, in which the supplicants ask the man upstairs to “Come and have your way.” Perry subverts images and practices in this way — from religious to sexual — on her song “Spiritual,” from Prism: “Lay me down at your altar, baby/ I’m a slave to this love/ Your electric lips have got me speaking in tongues.”

Perry regularly incorporates her religious background into her public persona, whether she’s performing or on the red carpet or writing song lyrics. Rather than run from questions of faith, she embraces them in the same way she responds to queries about her family — with nuance. Her songs often point to what evangelicals would call “a hunger for something more,” whether it be the deep questioning from “Lost” (“So if I pray, am I just sending words into outer space?”), the Biblical reference in “Who Am I Living For?” (“So I pray for a favor like Esther/ I need your strength to handle the pressure”), or the sexual overtones of “Spiritual” (“Lost in sweet ecstasy/ Found a nirvana finally”). She has managed to integrate prayer and meditation, speaking in tongues and singing to arenas, support for LGBT rights and an open line to a personal God.

One of the most affecting things about Katy Perry — something that is easy to overlook at first glance, but impossible to ignore as you spend time learning about her — is her vulnerability. I suspect it’s part of what makes her music so moving to her devoted fans, and it’s also what lets her get away with her cartoonish persona. Perry performed a medley of hit songs at the Super Bowl halftime show, complete with dancing sharks and costume changes, and turned around a week later and sang about overcoming suicidal thoughts at the Grammys in a relatively minimalistic performance. In that song, “By the Grace of God,” Perry recalls her frame of mind just after then-husband Russell Brand left her: “By the grace of God (there was no other way)/ I picked myself back up (I knew I had to stay)/ And put one foot in front of the other/ And I looked in the mirror and decided to stay.”

It’s a far cry from Katy Hudson’s Christian music album, which was written with about as much vulnerability as a phone book. But there’s something human in the fact that it’s taken some time for Perry to bare her inner life to the public. It’s a scary thing to write about one’s fragile mental state; scarier even than singing about kissing girls. (Although that proved difficult for Perry, too, who asked her sister to tell their parents that “I Kissed a Girl” was going to be her first single.)

The charismatic church presents a friendly God because it is concerned primarily that people might not know God at all, that they might be put off by an angry God. Where other denominations, like the Southern Baptists, are most focused on making sure people aren’t heretics, the charismatic church, to put it crudely, wants to make sure that people believe. That is both a cause and result of their conception of God as unconditionally loving, and unconditional love is a prominent theme in Perry’s music. Her song “Unconditionally” was written for John Mayer after their first breakup.

To talk about your own need for unconditional love — and your willingness to love unconditionally — is this really vulnerable thing. It’s rooted, for Perry, in this idea that God is all-loving and very close, not judging you but ready to hear whatever is on your heart, even when what’s on your heart is only pain. There was a scene in Part of Me where Katy, hours before a sold-out performance, is sobbing alone in a chair. Her marriage has started to fall apart, but she hasn’t told anyone in her inner circle. They fret about her, ask her if she wants to cancel, offer her water and a washcloth. Like many of us, she doesn’t really know what she needs.

In March 2013, Mary Hudson published an article on Charisma magazine’s website titled “How to Pray for your Prodigal.” Aside from an author bio at the beginning, Hudson never name-checks her famous daughter. “Satan’s assault on our youth is relentless,” she writes, and makes mention of the evils found in “movies, television, music and the Internet.” But, in a kind of unexpected and sweet aside, she also encourages parents not to hound their unbelieving or wayward children: “The people around you, including your child or unsaved relative, are not the ones who need to hear your prayers. Only God needs to hear them.”

“You just love her,” Perry’s mother says in Part of Me. “No matter what she was doing or what she was singing about, she’s just a blessing.”

Though public perception of Perry’s faith has led some to view her like an alien who has successfully adopted the form of a human being — “How did a fire-and-brimstone-preacher’s daughter become America’s sexiest pop star?” Rolling Stone asked — her life and lyrics point to an answer: “With help from my buddy God.”

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