Katy Perry’s “Roar” Explicated As If It Were a Shakespearean Sonnet

“Roar” by Katy Perry

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

In this opening stanza, we see the central issue to which the entire piece devotes itself, vis-a-vis the subjugation of the female by what is implicitly a male-dominated hierarchy. Though one may in theory “bite one’s tongue” OR “hold one’s breath” to keep oneself from speaking (and typically not engage both tactics simultaneously), this combination of metaphors for failing to speak one’s mind uses the tried and true motif of “more is better,” used ingeniously, and to undeniable satirical effect by Christopher Guest in his masterwork This Is Spinal Tap (wherein it is said of a set of amplifiers “these go to 11”.) Ms. Perry, however, seems not to intend satire.

This initial theme, expressed in first-person narrative, coalesces in the line, “I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything”. The ambiguity inherent in this choice cannot be overstated. The line has been attributed to Peter Marshall (the Senate chaplain, not the host of Hollywood Squares), Alexander Hamilton (the British journalist, not the American forefather) and Malcolm X (yes, THAT Malcolm X). In referencing this line, Ms. Perry aligns herself either with 1940s American politics, 1970s BBC or the militant Civil Rights movement in 1960s, depending upon one’s reading of the surrounding text. I would tend to suspect that, given the tone of subordination in the rest of the stanza, Ms. Perry actually sees herself as the modern embodiment of Malcolm X, seeking to throw off the shackles of male suppression by “any means necessary”. Although it is equally possible that Ms. Perry does not know the allusion herself and just thought it sounded cool.

You held me down, but I got up (HEY!)
Already brushing off the dust
You hear my voice, you hear that sound
Like thunder gonna shake the ground
You held me down, but I got up (HEY!)
Get ready ’cause I’ve had enough
I see it all, I see it now

What first appears to be metaphorical, emotional “holding down” of the protagonist in the first line of the second stanza is immediately undone in the second line with, “Already brushing off the dust.” This connotes an actual, physical holding down, the type which would necessitate the brushing off of dust. This image, existing both metaphorically and in actuality, brings to mind John Keats’ idea of “negative capability”, wherein two seemingly paradoxical elements can exist in the mind harmoniously. Is the protagonist actually being held down, or is she decrying the emotional manipulation of her male counterpart? Perhaps future literary analysis is necessary to solve this conundrum.

In this stanza we also see the first use of simile in the piece, with the assertion that the protagonist’s voice is going to shake the ground “like thunder”. The most obvious antecedent to this is Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood” (“It’s like thunder, lightning/The way you love me is frightening.”) Although Floyd’s superb R&B classic references a mate’s love, while Ms. Perry refers to being really, really loud.

[Chorus]
I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
You’re gonna hear me roar

Alas, the chorus. I must take a moment to explain that this is not the chorus of Greek antiquity, developed as a dramatic device to insert authorial explanation of plot summary and characters’ actions into a play. The chorus in modern parlance refers to the mind-numbing repetition of a musical and verbal phrase (colloquially known as a “hook”) designed to force an audience’s capitulation to the fact that he/she cannot, no matter what means are used, shake said repetition from controlling his or her brain. Examples are too frequent to mention, although radio advertisements that repeat the same phone number 87 times during a 15-second spot serve to explain the point. That, and the seminal mid-60s work of Lennon/McCartney. The stanza above is a particularly strong example of this latter definition of a chorus.

Divorced from its musical component, however, there are a few key literary issues. The images and metaphors are, to put it mildly, mixed. The “eye of the tiger”, an image most notably used by 80s pop band Survivor in its theme song for one of the twelve Rocky movies, leads directly to the the term “a fighter”, ostensibly referencing Mr. Sylvester Stallone’s boxing character. Then the protagonist imagines herself dancing through (a) fire, a metaphor for rebirth and the achievement of sexual maturity performed by such disparate cultures as the Chinese and Polynesians, perhaps intended to mirror the protagonist’s own bildungsroman. Then, inexplicably, the image is transformed from “tiger” to “lion”. There is some historical precedent to using these images together (such as “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” from Yip Harburg in The Wizard of Oz), but mixing them as Ms. Perry does here is unprecedented. Perhaps she is intending to convey a “liger”, the 900-pound behemoth resulting from a lion mating with a tiger in captivity. But there is no textual evidence to support such a theory.

What we are left with, then, is the image of a lion with tiger eyes who vaguely resembles Rocky Balboa in a hula skirt performing a ritualized fire dance. Whether this is what Ms. Perry intended is debatable, to say the least.

Now I’m floating like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes
I went from zero, to my own hero

Yet another prizefighting image, as the protagonist references noted poet laureate and sometime boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Note that Ali was also a proponent of Civil Rights and a member of the Nation of Islam, as was the aforementioned Malcolm X, underlining the recurring motif that Ms. Perry seems to think she is an African-American symbol of social justice. Except, you know, with white prepubescent girls.

It is also unclear whether the “stripes” referenced belong to the bee or the butterfly.

At this point in the work the chorus is reprised for approximately 16 hours, in keeping with repetition theory of countless radio commercial advertisers.

Mention should be made of the lyric “oh”, which is repeated in Tarzanic fashion a whopping 90 times over the course of the piece. This can be likened to Shakespeare’s use of the phrase “except my life” in Hamlet, quite famously repeated three times by the title character. In contrast to this repetition indicating Hamlet’s desire to end his own life, however, Ms. Perry’s similar use of repetition serves to make one want to kill themselves. A fine point of disparity, to be sure, but an integral one.

ENDNOTES: Full disclosure: I LOVE this song. I had a fight with my youngest son to keep it on the car radio, which is the first recorded instance, I believe, of an adult male arguing with a prepubescent in favor of Katy Perry. I suppose behind my Springsteen-fan street cred there is a pop-trash, knobby-kneed 11-year-old girl who just wants to stop the world and melt with you.

I also didn’t know what “bildungsroman” meant until I wrote this.

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