Katy Perry—announced Thursday as the host of the next MTV Video Music Awards ceremony—has a fair amount to prove. The singer’s gift for generating content and controversy has never been in question. But lately she’s had a hard time shaking off a lengthy hiatus from recording. Witness, her first album in four years, has not generated the sort of culture-moving hit that tends to win Video Music Awards.
What’s more, Perry has lately sought to showcase herself as the sort of singer—the sort of artist, perhaps—for whom awards shows aimed at teens are no longer relevant. The release of Witness came with a 96-hour livestream in which Perry documented her path toward fulfillment and growth, including yoga, meditation, and frank conversations about the ways in which she’d appropriated culture in the past. As a look at the way a culture-moving figure sees herself and the dissonances between that self-image and the soft, kooky public persona, it was as riveting as frank exhibitionism can get. Even if Perry more than occasionally attempted to have things both ways. On a Witness single, “Swish Swish,” Perry repeatedly mocked a rival who seemed, pretty plainly, to be pop-world nemesis Taylor Swift. Performing the song at the end of the livestream, she changed the lyrics to wish the Swift figure “good luck on your journey.”
The VMAs present Perry the opportunity to try to resolve these two selves—the woke, purposeful-pop chanteuse who campaigned for Hillary Clinton and now spends her days pondering her impact on others on the one hand, and the attention-loving pop star who performed “I Kissed a Girl” at the Super Bowl on the other. The most recent pop star to so explicitly walk this same tightrope was Miley Cyrus, who, not coincidentally, hosted the VMAs two years ago. Like Perry’s, Cyrus’ lyrics and her looks were so repeatedly on the edge of taste that they became effectively wallpaper. Like Perry, Cyrus ditched the act to muted effect, and seemed at times insincere in her protestation that she’s really grown up now. Cyrus’s hosting gig was topped off with a performance of a new song about how she loves world peace. It’s better remembered for an aggressively stagy argument with Nicki Minaj in which the rapper came out ahead.
Perry’s and Cyrus’s peers haven’t faced quite the same negotiation, because none of staked quite so much on being authentically inauthentic. For Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, their agency in creating their work has been a part of the story from the beginning. For Rihanna, sheer commitment to a pose has made her a more and more compelling music icon. Perry, whose catalog includes some of the decade’s most durable hits, has an image so mutable that it could credibly sell any song. But wholesale reinvention, as the camera documents it all, is a trickier thing.
The VMAs will be, if nothing else, an interesting preview of Perry’s forthcoming gig as a judge on American Idol, another gig that seems haphazardly chosen if Perry’s goal really was to be a life of quiet contemplation. Further, it represents a chance for MTV to age up its flagship awards show a bit. Past VMA ceremonies have hinged upon one or multiple storylines—Cyrus vs. Minaj, Swift vs. Kanye West, Beyoncé over all. A network that’s lately sought to get attention by applying a “woke” filter to its awards shows—removing gendered categories from its Movie and TV Awards, for instance, and adding a “Best Fight Against the System” category to the VMAs—chose a potential narrative cannily. Perry is a host whose work, of late, tries to speak to political concerns in a voice that wants, above all, to be heard.