Music Video Relapse: "California Gurls" (2010) by Katy Perry

Posted by Adam Fairholm on February 26, 2014 in Music Video Relapse

Staff Post


A Noisey article from last week made a pretty good point about Katy Perry music videos: "as far as music videos go, Katy Perry seems to have two speeds: sad, and batshit fucking crazy." The article was about her "Dark Horse" video (a video that is definitely evidence for their point), and looking through Perry's catalog, it does seem true that Katy Perry is an artist that oscillates between the serious and the kind of out there.

But "batshit fucking crazy" seems to imply more crazy for the sake of crazy rather than crazy for the sake of a bigger goal. And no matter what the content is of a Katy Perry video, you can be sure that it's serving to round out a piece of her for a bigger brand.

Today we're looking at a video that did a pretty amazing job of encompassing Perry's knack for visual branding with just the right amount of "batshit fucking crazy," "California Gurls" (2010), directed by Matthew Cullen.

After the success of Perry's first few singles from her first album ("I Kissed A Girl," "Hot N Cold"), it seems that Perry's mind was focused on creating a grand, unifying vision for her second album. She frequently talked in interviews about how she needed to make a big impact with a second album or else she risked remembered as the person who sang "I Kissed A Girl" and little else.

So as the first single off of Teenage Dream, "California Gurls" represents not just a music video but a sort of brand launch for an album that could have easily damaged Perry's career if it hadn't taken off. It was also the first step in a relatively significant image shift from a sort of quirky girl next door type to a full-fledged pop star, a move that now seems necessary.

The key to all of this was American painter Will Cotton, an artist who is known for creating landscapes where the landscape features are made out of candy. Sometimes, nude models are included in these paintings - sound familiar?

Cotton's work wasn't just the inspiration for the Teenage Dream-era imagery, he was actively involved in creating the visuals that would come to define this period in Perry's career. For example, the cover of Teenage Dream is actually a Will Cotton painting entitled "Cotton Candy Katy." Here's another one of his paintings for comparison:


Image copyright Will Cotton

On the "California Gurls" video, Cotton served as art director and made/designed much of what you see in the video - including the game board that Snoop Dogg uses. Musicians have long drawn inspiration from artists in other mediums, but as far as these sorts of collaborations go, this one was a very, very close one.

The video itself takes place in a board game called "Candyfornia," a play on the game Candyland. Snoop Dogg (who features on the track), is playing this game, and Perry is on the board. As he plays, she goes through the game and finds other friends - including a gingerbread man and a popsicle that straight up has an orgasm. It culminates in a sequence where Katy Perry defeats a group of gummy bears by spraying them with whipped cream. And, the whipped cream cans are attached to her breasts.

From the moment Snoop Dogg physically puts the Katy Perry board game piece down on the board he controls, it's clear that this video is a dream come true for film theory majors all across the world (if anyone hasn't written at least a term paper on this, I'd be disappointed). There are so many fun, loaded visuals here, like the candy canes that turn into snakes. Many of these visuals (sans the snakes) would later pop up on Perry's tour.

But what really makes the video for "California Gurls" an interesting case is how neatly it tied up humor, sexuality, and an album's overall visual vision in one video. It set the tone for many things going forward for Perry's Teenage Dream era, and it seems like it was a winning combination. There was, appropriately for Katy Perry, a touch of the batshit fucking insane as well.

Adam Fairholm is the co-founder and lead developer of IMVDb. You can find him on twitter at @adamfairholm.

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