In April 2008, Madonna called into a Tucson, Ariz., radio station to tell hosts JohnJay and Rich her favorite song of the moment: “It’s called ‘Ur So Gay and You Don’t Even Like Boys,’ ” Madonna said. “You have to hear it. It’s by an artist called Katy Perry.”
During that spring nearly a decade ago, the former Christian pop artist once known as Katy Hudson had a selection of punchy pop-rock tunes loaded onto MySpace, including what would be her first hit to top the Billboard Hot 100, “I Kissed a Girl.” That summer, she performed on the Vans Warped Tour, donning a pink guitar and retro chic frocks alongside boyfriend Travie McCoy of Gym Class Heroes. It was a perfect rebellion for the religious singer who once protested outside a concert for the superstar who first gave her a major shout-out.
On the heels of her fifth full-length album, Witness, the 32-year-old who is the first woman to score five No. 1 singles from one album (courtesy of 2010’s Teenage Dream), brought a Madonna-size tour to the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night. Originally scheduled to begin in early September, the massive production, which featured multiple costume changes, dozens of dancers, and an appearance by Left Shark from her 2015 Super Bowl performance, suffered delays that pushed the start date to October — and the sheer magnitude of the spectacle was worth the wait. With set fixtures that included giant flamingos, a colossal floating pair of lips, and an entire solar system with Perry at its center, the two-hour show was a glimpse into the neon-colored fantasy that is Katy Perry.
Though Witness is not Perry’s most commercially successful LP to date — the album’s singles “Chained to the Rhythm” and “Bon Appetit” did not have essential earworm melodies — the tour proved that Perry’s version of stardom hinges as much on sugar-coated visuals as lyrical narrative. The dystopia Perry sings of in “Chained to the Rhythm,” ignited live with a moderate dose of funk, can be adequately forgotten with sparkly costumes and snappy choreography.
Compared to contemporaries like Lady Gaga who fuse powerful vocals and solo performances into their larger-than-life shows, Perry’s melodies often get lost in the tapestry of the live band and backup singer lineup, most notably on set-opener “Witness,” “Roulette,” and “Bon Appetit.” Though she did break out the guitar for One of the Boys’ “Hot N Cold” — spiced up with punk energy — it was an acoustic “Thinking of You” performed atop a floating planetary orb that was a real vocal standout. Stripped of the choreography and background production, Perry was at her most dynamic and vulnerable.
The night was about reimagining the songs audiences have heard ad nauseam and putting them into a cotton-candy teenage dream. “I Kissed a Girl” was electrified with a burlesque verve, “E.T.” had a hard rock edge, “Part of Me” was reworked to be spin-class-ready.
Between a tender moment with a 10-year-old audience member brought on stage to make a wish, and an impromptu basketball game with a father in the crowd, Perry’s show skewed toward her young audience and their concert-going parents. She at times censored herself, kid-proofing her image, which was initially built upon kissing girls, seemingly the opposite of rumored foe Taylor Swift, who has increasingly toughened up her platform.
Ultimately, it is Perry’s messages of hope — “Part of Me,” “Roar,” and encore “Firework” — that resound the most with fans, and these are the notions on which she ended the night. All high-caliber songs with belty strikes for choruses, Perry indeed saved the best for last, no minor feat given the preceding two hours’ worth of dancing and showmanship, and she demonstrated that she practiced what she preached.
Long gone are the days of Warped Tour — and dissing former flames with songs like “Ur So Gay” — but the kitsch, the snark, the personality behind the songs are the cornerstones of Perry’s persona, then and now. All that has changed is the size of the stage.