Katy Perry – Hydro, Glasgow, Sat 17 May 2014
The pop queen's live show is visually and sonically overwhelming, and jaw-droppingly vast in execution
I’m not meant to be here. I go to a lot of gigs, but most of them are small-scale affairs: filthy, subterranean rooms in which filthy, subterranean people make filthy, subterranean noises, usually for love rather than money. I’ve not set foot in an arena in over a decade. And though I’m not averse to the odd chart tune, I’ve never seen a quote-unquote pop star perform live. My comfort zone is somewhere far from this place. The assembled acolytes, 'the Katy Cats', decked out in tiki print-dresses and electric-blue wigs, can smell my fear, I’m sure of it.
The Hydro is terrifying. Upon entering, I’m hit by a rush of agoraphobia and vertigo. The only other space I’ve seen of comparable size is called ‘outside’, and I prefer to avoid that, too. There are so many people here, each of them encapsulating an entire universe of hopes and dreams and fears, that I’m on the verge of an existential crisis.
The interior of the arena is encircled by Blade Runner-style plasma-screen advertising for watches and banks and airlines and shoes. The screens by the stage run Katy Perry-themed, -fronted or -associated ads for perfume and jewellery and tour-related novelty items. The stalls outside sell £25 t-shirts, £5 programmes, an array of neon wristbands and glowsticks. 'Buy!' they scream. 'Buy them! Buy all of the things!'
However, despite the overwhelming vastness and boot-in-the-face capitalism, the Hydro is an impressive and fantastically well-designed space. Everything’s arranged so that you don’t feel that far from the stage, even though in truth it’s in a different postal zone. If you must cram 10,000 people into one room, this is probably the least unpleasant way to do it.
Perry’s support on the UK leg of her tour are Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, collectively known as Icona Pop. Theirs is a brilliantly brash, gobby, adult-repelling aesthetic, a cyberpunk Bananarama with defiant playground chants instead of melodies. Basically, like a Grange Hill end-of-term show backed up with riot-quelling sonic weaponry. Turns out all-ages, kiddie-friendly pop music is as capable of sonic dominion as any underground noise warrior – our grandkids will laugh at our ideas of what constitutes extremity. Hjelt and Jawo strut and yell impressively, but don’t spark much of a reaction – until they play that one, and ‘I Love It’ brings things to a bouncy conclusion.
Katy Perry certainly knows how to make an entrance. The arena is plunged into darkness, save for a couple of thousand glowsticks making a multicoloured starfield. Neon-luminous gladiators stride onstage and beat out a sparse, supremely heavy rhythm with oversized spears as Perry magically materialises in a pyramid and launches into precision-tooled anthem of empowerment ‘Roar’. Perry’s vocals are oft-derided – and, as many live YouTube videos will attest, with good reason. But tonight, at least, she’s on fine form, hitting every note square in the sweet spot, despite the rigorous physical demands of running and dancing in ankle-imperilling heels.
The already elaborate staging begins to shed its inhibitions in the run-up to 'Dark Horse', with delirious spacey visuals, complete with a Perry made of stars reciting ersatz cosmic nonsense against a swirling morass of psychedelic sound and villainous sub-bass. Suddenly, she rises up through the stage, dressed in Egyptian garb, atop a golden robot horse. Aerial acrobats are hoisted up to terrifying altitudes during a meaty, ominous version of ‘ET’, spiced up with extra dubstep touches. A surprisingly heavy chugging riff leads into 'I Kissed a Girl', its feistiness enhanced beyond all reason by metallic snippets straight out of Iron Maiden’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Mummified dancers with cartoonishly exaggerated feminine contours fall about in slapstick fashion, while flying musicians spurt fireworks from their axes 50 feet above flame-throwing fountains. It’s gloriously over the top… as if the stage designer opened up the double gatefold sleeve of Kiss's Alive II and found it a little too beige.
A huge sunflower umbrella opens over the arena for the obligatory downbeat acoustic section. Perry, dressed like a pink-haired resident of Middle Earth, wields a guitar, chats, cracks jokes, drinks beer and burps – cause she’s just one of us, y’know? Highly rehearsed all this may be, but it works. She’s no impossible symbol of Amazonian perfection like Beyoncé or an aloof artist like Gaga – there’s an ease, humour and big-sisterly approachability to her that totally undercuts any cynicism. It also helps that her solo acoustic version of ‘By the Grace of God’, bland and cloying on record, is disarmingly beautiful in its live simplicity.
Dressed as a hot-pink catwoman, Perry emerges on top of a giant ball of yarn to lead a feline dance troupe through a smoky, jazzy, almost noirish 'Hot N Cold'. Dancing fishbowls, milk cartons and cans of sardines, a snippet of Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, and a giant bowl of milky glitter enliven the otherwise nondescript ‘80s pop of ‘International Smile’. She sings a lesser Prism cut, ‘It Takes Two’, wearing a Yin Yang dress with a 15-foot crinoline, looking like a Victorian bog-roll cosy. It’s very Tim Burton, an endearingly preposterous juxtaposition against the earnestness of the lyrics: ‘Be the change you want to see’. The likes of ‘Teenage Dream’ and the closing 'Firework', however, are free from gimmicks, left to stand alone as immaculately crafted pop gems.
Visually and sonically overwhelming, and jaw-droppingly vast in execution, Perry’s show is utterly relentless, and leaves nary a moment to be bored. It’s the most ridiculous, garish and self-consciously excessive spectacle I’ve ever seen, and admirable for precisely that reason. A sceptic might argue that it’s a lot of expensive, colourful icing on a pretty insubstantial cake, but in the moment, Perry’s repertoire comes across as impressively diverse, with surprising amounts of nuance and emotional heft. Plus irresistible razor-edged hooks the size of Godzilla.
When I arrived, I felt dangerously out of place. When I left I was wearing a tiki-print dress and a blue wig. Make of that what you will.