The Real(?) Thing, Part I: Katy Perry: Part of Me 

The dynamic between perception and reality – both at the organizational and the individual level – is a big theme in the study of organizations.  In an organization, factual realities often don’t really matter. What drives people’s and organizations’ actions, and what shapes people’s understanding and experience of an organization, is their perception of how things are or how they should be, not what things really are.

I recently saw two movies that, in very different ways, deal with that same issue of perception versus reality. Really, I don’t try to push everything I encounter into the framework of my professional interests – but if I wasn’t curious about this stuff, I wouldn’t be doing the work that I do. Both films – Katy Perry: Part of Me and Room 237 – are very engaging demonstrations of how understood realities get manufactured from perceptions. I’m going to talk about the Katy Perry film in this post, and then discuss Room 237 in another post.

Katy Perry: Part of Me is a concert film/tour documentary – and if you’re interested in how organizations work, a major concert tour is a great example of a very complex organization, with lots of challenges and issues in its daily operations. I wanted to see this film because I wanted to get some insight into why Perry is so popular. I don’t find her music objectionable or annoying, but, having seen her perform live on several televised awards shows, she doesn’t seem to have much more talent than, say, the average American Idol contestant that gets sent home after the first few episodes. She certainly can’t dance very well, and her (unaided) singing seems average at best.

I can’t say that the film helped me understand any better why Perry is a huge star. The  film didn’t show one complete performance of any of her songs (unlike, say, Madonna’s tour documentary Truth or Dare). But what I found fascinating was how the film was constructed to promote the theme of Perry being ‘real’ – even though most of the film’s viewers likely know that a performer as famous as Perry lives a very different life from most people.

The film shows how Perry went through several musical personas – Christian singer, solo folkie with guitar, faux-Alanis Morrisette shrieker – before hitting it big with her current “fun girl” identity. We see Perry and others talk about how she felt, and sometimes still feels, geeky and awkward, just like the fans who buy her records and follow her career. We see Perry without makeup, wandering around backstage in a bathrobe and with curlers in her hair. But the great irony of the film – despite its title, which teases new insights into Perry’s world and personality – is that it never really explains how her current identity is any more “real” than her previous ones, since it comes across as manufactured and commercially calculated. (And for what it’s worth, I thought the music from her faux-Alanis stage, which I hadn`t heard before, was more passionate and engaging than her current records.)

Real? (Credit: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

As the film gets into documenting Perry’s concert tour, it then expects its viewers to unquestioningly accept the film’s own manufactured reality. For example, we see several backstage meet-and-greets during which Perry asks fans if they want to come on stage and dance with her. This is presented as “wow, isn’t she spontaneous and generous” – and Perry does appear genuinely excited – but after this is shown happening over and over again, it’s apparent that this “spontaneous” gesture is as pre-planned as the rest of her show. There’s also a scene where Perry, tired of demands and strict schedules (which are certainly a reality of any months-long concert tour) declares, “Let’s go to the waterpark!!!” Any viewer even slightly familiar with the rigid structure of a major concert tour will immediately know that a jaunt to the waterpark is not going to just happen on a whim – for no other reason than the sheer logistics (e.g. transportation, security) of getting a major star and their entourage and tour staff to and from anywhere. But that’s just part of Perry (or her handlers) constructing her ‘real’ for us, by continuing the theme of her being fun and impulsive.

However, even within this highly controlled reality, there are some very real moments in the film – unfortunately, for sad reasons. The film was made as Perry’s marriage to Russell Brand was falling apart, and there are some genuinely touching scenes of Perry, not the performer or the celebrity but a heartbroken young woman,  in tears as she tries to deal with her devastation and fulfill her demanding work commitments. But my overall impression of the film is that maybe what’s most real about Perry – or at least about “Katy Perry” the celebrity – is her unreality. Her music and her persona are designed to give her audience a colourful and poppy escape from the everyday world. There’s real work that goes into making her that way – and there’s a real person somewhere behind it all – but it’s the unreality that matters, and maybe the unreality is the reality her audience cares most about.

In another post I’ll talk about Room 237, and how it illustrates perceptions leading to a whole other type of (un)reality.

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