How a Christian rock songbird turned into pop's lady-kissing megastar
With Katy Perry’s latest sure-to-be smash “Roar” now clogging the airwaves, and her new album Prism set to take over our lives imminently, it’s as good a time as any to take a close look at Perry, and how her big hits have come to be.
It’s now impossible to imagine a time without “I Kissed a Girl,” “Teenage Dream,” or “California Gurls,” but this of course wasn’t always the case. The vibrant, colorful pop star Katy Perry used to be, as most fans know, a Christian rock singer under her given name, Katy Hudson.
So what turned a niche artist into one of the biggest pop stars of our time? The answer starts in 2007, when the singer’s then-new record label, Columbia, introduced her to songwriter/producer Łukasz Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, in order to come up with a hit or two that would push her otherwise strong debut pop LP over the top.
Did it work? Well, have you ever heard of “I Kissed A Girl” (#1 for seven weeks) and “Hot N Cold” (top of the charts in 15 countries)? The massive success of those tunes set up the nexus of the team that would continue to bring Perry her greatest successes. “IKAG” was written by Katy, Luke, Simon Fuller’s go-to songwriter Cathy Dennis, and Swedish pop maestro Max Martin.
Martin is responsible for the prior wave of teen pop, having helmed many of the Backstreet Boys’ and Britney Spears’ biggest hits. He was at this point in the middle of a career renaissance sparked by his work on “Since U Been Gone,” which made him suddenly yet again the center of pop music. He was also Luke’s mentor, and they had been collaborating for a few years by this point.
The tune was co-produced (with Luke) by another very important part of the Perry empire: Benny Blanco. Blanco was originally mentored by Luke, and so fit naturally into the team’s process.
As with much of the team’s work, this tune was all about the artist. Perry came up with the initial concept and hook, and everyone involved made sure that the end result was true to the artist. This last part had been part of Martin’s M.O. since the Britney Spears days. A 2001 Time article talked about the Swedish producer’s early days working with the then-teenage star:
“Just as he has his finger on the musical pulse of fandom, Martin also grasps what his artists want to sing. That doesn't happen by chance. Before he starts writing for Spears, he talks with her, sees her shows and finds out what's in her CD player. ‘I want the input because that makes the chemistry of the song,’ he says."
Martin, Luke, and Blanco, individually or in combination, would go on to be involved in some of the hugest hits of the next half-dozen years, from “Moves Like Jagger” to “Tik Tok” to “U + Ur Hand.”
Back on planet Perry, while everything went amazingly well with “IKAG” and “Hot N Cold,” there was still a missing piece to the puzzle. This would fall into place with the addition of Perry’s long-time friend Bonnie McKee to the team in 2009. McKee was at that point without a record label (Reprise had dropped her as a solo performer) and was more interested in acting than music. But a call from her old pal Katy would change all that.
McKee, Martin, Luke, Blanco, and Perry formed the core team that would write and produce all three of Katy Perry’s massive #1 singles on her second album—“Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” and “California Gurls” (the last sans Blanco). There proved to be gold (and platinum) in them there hills, as the group sans Perry also created “Hold It Against Me” (written by Luke, Martin, and McKee and produced by Martin and Luke), “Dynamite” (written by all four of them with Taio Cruz, and produced by Luke and Blanco) and other hits.
A great idea of how the team works can be found in a New York profile of Luke, which traces the creation of “Dynamite”:
“[Luke] created a basic beat track with his fellow producer Benny Blanco. (Dr. Luke has a slate of producers signed to his company, Prescription Songs.) The track was originally intended to go to the rapper Flo Rida, but it wasn’t a good fit as a rap song, so Luke sent it to Sweden, to Max Martin, who wrote half of a hook for the chorus. Luke wrote the other half, then sent that track to Bonnie McKee, a lyricist. Then Luke started looking for the right vocalist to attach.”
The gang gets back together on Perry’s new single “Roar,” which is produced by Luke and Martin, and written by Luke and McKee. If the initial rush of attention is any indication, it looks like the powerful hit-making squad has added another chapter in their plan to turn a California girl into a pop powerhouse. —Shawn Setaro