In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Katy Perry- “Firework”
HIT #1: December 18, 2010
STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks
If there’s one trend I’ve noticed during music at the end of 2010 it’s female singers doing songs of empowerment for insecure and helpless people from Kesha’s vaguely pride empowerment “We R Who We R” to P!nk’s celebratory underdog empowerment “Raise Your Glass.” So when Katy Perry hit #1 with “Firework,” the third #1 single off of Teenage Dream, it was pretty easy to see these songs as part of a pattern. Unlike those two previous smashes, “Firework” isn’t tying itself to a particular movement or group of people. Instead, it pulls off that classic lyrical trick of being about something specific while also being generic and broad enough to appeal to all people regardless of their situation. It’s that trick that’s made “Firework” last in popular culture for the last decade from animated animals performing in a circus to Kim Jong-Un riding around in a military tank.
Perry has stated she got the idea for “Firework” from her then-boyfriend, actor Russell Brand, who she would marry by the time of the song’s release, who showed her a paragraph from Jack Kerouac’s classic book On The Road after talking about her wish one day of being shot out into the ocean when she dies like a firework which she described as, “people that are buzzing and fizzing and full of life and never say a commonplace thing. They shoot across the sky like a firework and make people go, ‘Ahhh.’ I guess that making people go ‘ahhh’ is kind of like my motto.”
From what I could find the quote is the narrator expressing admiration for the character Neil Cassidy which goes, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes, “Awww!””
You can’t hear any of that inspiration in “Firework” of course. Perry takes this inspiration and comes out with a soaring emotional dance-pop power ballad with a pulsing beat and strings. Lyrically, “Firework” is Perry talking to people who feel helpless using various metaphors to describe their feelings of despair like a paper bag and house of cards caving in. She then gives them hope by saying they’re original, they’re the rainbow after a hurricane (in my experience what comes after a hurricane is usually destuction and despair), they have the door to lead them to the perfect door. She then encourages them to ignite the light and let themselves shine like a firework on the Fourth of July where people go “ahh” in amazement.
Unlike Perry’s other hits at the time, Dr. Luke and Max Martin had no involvement with it. Instead, “Firework” was written by the production duo Stargate, fellow producer Sandy Vee (Both of whom produced “Firework”), and songwriter Esther Dean all of whom in 2010 had written and/or produced many of Rihanna’s hits including the #1 singles, “Rude Boy,” “What’s My Name?,” and “Only Girl (In The World).” Stargate wanted to use “Firework” to show off Perry’s vocal talents in a way that her previous hits had not wanting to show the public she was a better singer than they were giving her credit for. To achieve this, they encouraged Perry to not do any fancy vocal takes or effects and to deliver the song in the rawest way possible. They said Perry recorded her vocals in 10 minutes and decided it was good enough for the final cut.
So what we hear on “Firework” is Perry singing along to a song in a rough take that could have easily been spruced up more. To give Katy Perry credit, she sounds like she means every word she sings and delivers the song with the emotion and power needed for a song like “Firework.” It’s got a big chorus and you need someone with a powerful voice that can deliver it effectively. Like I said before, she’s never been a spectacular singer and it doesn’t change here especially where she strains her voice again hitting those big notes she can’t exactly hit. But it works fine enough for a song like “Firework” that demands a singer who can give it their all and put their heart into it.
The production also helps to convey the emotion. The verses have this low-mix synth that holds back giving off the feelings of despair Perry sings about. As it builds toward the chorus, you get chugging strings that do its best to build up all the emotion before exploding into a dance-pop thump which all adds to the soaring and inspirational feel giving the song the energy needed to pull off its message. It’s enough to get you swept up in the emotions of the song in that old power ballad kind of way. All the parts hit at the right moments.
In a way, the success of “Firework” helped change Katy Perry’s formula for future success. Up until this point, she’d mainly been known for singing mindlessly silly upbeat pop jams but with “Firework” she uncovered a new formula for success, generic empowerment anthem ballads. These types of songs would take up much of her later hits some of which will appear in this column. It’s that broad uplifting genericness that’s made “Firework” survive for the last 10 years. As Perry herself put it, “People are coming back and almost adopting it as their own anthem, and it’s hard, I think, to write an anthem that’s not cheesy. And I hope that this could be something in that category. I hope this could be one of those things where it’s like, “Yeah, I want to put my fist up and feel proud and feel strong.”” So “Firework” is a pretty generic uplifting empowerment song but it’s a fine one at that.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2012’s Madagascar: Europe’s Most Wanted where the characters perform in a circus set to “Firework”
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2012’s Rust and Bone where Marion Cotillard does a dance routine to “Firework”
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2014’s The Interview where James Franco and Randall Park ride around in a military tank listening to “Firework” where Park, as Kim Jong-Un, first acts embarrassed when Franco discovers Katy Perry on his sound system
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Reese Witherspoon singing along to “Firework” while looking after her children in 2016’s Sing
PROGRAMMING NOTE: From now on, I’ll be alternating each week between The Ones of the ‘10s and The Album Champs so I can focus on each series one at a time. Thank you everyone for all of the support!