Katy Perry has a cold.
The pop superstar is in a mostly empty Toronto hotel room, the furniture having been removed earlier to allow for a round of interviews pegged to her new album Prism. She's a little under the weather, but perky and pin-up-gal pretty. Severe bangs, a super-watt smile, a schoolgirl skirt and a pink sweater all vie for my attention as we chit-chat about movies.
She recently saw Fargo for the first time. What took so long? "It wasn't of the Christian mind," she says with a laugh, explaining that her strict religious upbringing didn't allow for such R-rated things growing up. On the flight here, Perry finally caught Midnight Cowboy, a classic from 1969 that she now considers to be "like, one of the top five movies" that she has ever seen.
At this point I turn on my tape recorder. The small talk ceases, she sits up straight in her chair and jokingly says "hi," as if the preliminary small talk hadn't counted. She then sneezes twice, and tells me not to get too close to her. Well, really, what are the chances that I ever could.
Do we know our pop stars?
In theory, these millionaires have more contact with their fans than ever, what with Twitter and such. But much of the social media is marketing media, with the artists themselves interacting only barely.
Press interviews? Usually bland and semi-scripted affairs, with the talk generally keeping to message. In Perry's case, she's in town to appear at a private concert and an on-stage Q&A to support the new album. "Please keep your interview predominantly pegged to Prism and note that she will NOT talk about her romantic life or tabloid subjects," reads an e-mail directive from the record-label publicist.
It's an unfortunate proviso, given that the lyrics of Prism were actually inspired by Perry's love life (involving a divorce from the English loon Russell Brand and a current relationship with the American singer-guitarist and romantic big-game hunter John Mayer).
But about those lyrics – what do they tell us? Perry's case is a little different than the Gagas, Mileys and Britneys, particularly with her new LP. She admits that her previous album, Teenage Dream, was "cartoon-y," but she feels that Prism is stripped down, revealing and less conceptual. "The feel to it is vulnerability," says the 29-year-old hit-maker, clutching a tissue as she explains the "inward work" she'd undergone previous to the making of the record. "Sometimes we create holes inside us, through blows to our self-confidence or because of what other people say to us."
Some of Prism's material is indeed a result of Perry's emotional spackling, particularly the empowering eye-of-the-tiger anthem Roar and the soaring ballad Unconditionally, on which she emotes, "Oh no, did I get too close – oh, did I almost see what's really on the inside?"
Fellow pop star Britney Spears also has a new album out. She's gone through a lot lately, and describes Britney Jean as her most personal album yet. "After having a huge breakup this year," she said in an interview not long ago, "I had a lot to say in the studio."
There's really nothing in Spears's oeuvre, however, that indicates she's capable of saying anything revealing. Sure, we've learned that the former Mouseketeer is a glutton for punishment ("hit me baby one more time"), that she habitually errs (Oops!… I Did It Again) and that she can push back ("You want a piece of me?").
Mostly though, the blank-faced midriff-barer has been along for the ride, delegating her grooves to assorted Scandinavians as she ran away to 2008's freaky Circus and then released a great album (2011's Femme Fatale) that carried no songwriting credits at all from her.
Spears's name is attached to the songs of Britney Jean, but there's really not much information from them to be gleaned. "I always felt like a stranger in the crowd," she barely sings, her voice auto-brushed to a metallic monotone on Alien. The album's executive producer is pop cyborg Will.i.am.
On the electro-tinged Work B**ch, Spears reflects on the drudgery of the music business. It's just a job, and now she's set to take her act to Las Vegas for a residency of 100 concerts over two years, with a speculated retirement possibly to follow. Goodbye Britney Jean, we hardly knew you.
And we don't need to know her, or any other pop star. The orally fixated Miley Cyrus is all about too much information. Lady Gaga lives a costume-ball life and lives for the "applause, applause, applause," as she should.
Ironically, on Spears's supposedly personal album, she sings about handing over the keys and having someone else "lead the way." The song is Passenger, co-written by Katy Perry.
Asked about the difference between herself and some of the other pop stars, Perry suggests that it's her lyrics. "I'm masquerading as a pop star," she says. "I'm really just a singer-songwriter."
She mentions being inspired by Alanis Morissette, speaking of emotionally naked roars. "When I don't fit into my cupcake bra or my peppermint dress, I'll always fit behind my guitar." As she says that, she flutters her eyelashes and smiles. The interview is over, and she knows she has just handed me a tidy sound bite. Goodnight, Katy Perry, and gesundheit.