The Ones of the ’10s: Katy Perry’s “Roar”

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- “Roar” 

HIT #1: September 14, 2013

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

In August 2013, MTV hosted its 30th annual Video Music Awards at the newly opened Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, New York. Lady Gaga performed. So did Kanye West and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Drake and Bruno Mars. So did Justin Timberlake who was being honored with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award performing a medley of his greatest hits and even got in a mini-reunion with his old boy band *NSYNC. And so did Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke who provided the most noteworthy performance of the show singing Thicke’s current #1 song “Blurred Lines” in a sexually driven performance where Cyrus twerked against Thicke with a foam finger. (Miley Cyrus will be in this column very soon.)

Nowadays, Cyrus and Thicke’s performance is what people remember the most from the 2013 VMAs but for the very last performance, we have Katy Perry performing her latest song that had just started to make its chart impact. The song was a big empowerment anthem and an announcement of return with a big and loud hook. Ultimately, it was the kind of song that many expected from Katy Perry. In her performance, Perry is dressed as a boxer in a boxing ring under the Brooklyn Bridge with the bright lights of the Lower Manhattan skyline in the distance. She’s doing choreographed moves with backup dancers dressed as boxers before jump roping and receiving a belt at the end standing triumphantly as the winner. For a performance meant to promote a new single, it did the job.

In a way, it made sense why “Roar” and its performance sound the way they do. Katy Perry was following up her career landmark Teenage Dream. Teenage Dream isn’t anyone’s favorite album. Critics gave it mixed reviews and it didn’t sell as well as you’d expect an imperial phase album to sell. But it was the singles that mattered. Teenage Dream became the ultimate singles album landing five songs at #1, tying the record with Michael Jackson’s Bad for the most #1 hits off an album. It even had a sixth single that while not #1 still made the Top 10. (That sixth single, “The One That Got Away,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.) All of this coming at a time when these type of hit-packed albums are in short supply. Perry and her team heavily outperformed themselves.

Once you’ve reached that amount of success, there’s no following that. Don’t even think that you can pull it off again. But Perry, like many acts coming off their imperial peak, come back with a song that Youtube reviewer Todd in the Shadows described as the “I’m back bitch” single, a leadoff single from the artist that with their immense star power is too big to fail regardless of quality. This is not to say “Roar” is a good song. Far from it. But it’s understandable why “Roar” exists even if it’s a nothing of a song.

Katy Perry didn’t exactly go quiet when the hits from Teenage Dream dried up. She immediately capitalized on its success by releasing a reissue Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection in March 2012 which featured several new tracks with its lead single “Part of Me” becoming an instant #1 hit debuting at the top spot. There was also a second big single, “Wide Awake,” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 6.) There was also a hit concert film Katy Perry: Part of Me that going from its Wikipedia summary essentially shows her at the peak of her fame. But now it was time to move forward and follow up the career blockbuster.

For her next album Prism, Perry basically brought back the people involved with Teenage Dream. It followed the same template of catchy hits but marketed with a mature feel to further her range as an artist. All of this applies to the lead single and opening track “Roar,” an empowerment song in catchy pop song form. Like with a lot of the Teenage Dream hits, Perry co-wrote it with songwriting partner Bonnie McKee, and regular producers Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Cirkut. 

For the two main songwriters, Perry and McKee, “Roar” had a personal meaning to them. Perry said she wrote the song after going into therapy and as a way of expressing herself, “It’s a bit of a self-empowering type of song. I wrote it because I was sick of keeping all these feelings inside and not speaking up for myself, which caused a lot of resentment. Obviously, I’ve been through a lot of therapy since my last record and that’s what this is about.” In an interview with Songfacts, McKee explained about “Roar” being a major expression for how she felt in her life,

“And then “Roar” was a really important one for me as well, because I spent a lot of time in my life, believe it or not, taking orders. Even though I seem like I’m very strong-minded and hard-headed, I am a people pleaser, and I feel like that has gotten in my way in my life – I feel like I’m living for other people and fulfilling other people’s destinies and wishes and just taking commands. So “Roar” was a very important song for me, especially at that exact moment in my career, to really come out and say what I needed to say. It was born out of an abusive professional situation, and it paid off. So, it’s nice when you have a feeling and you put it out there. It felt like literally roaring. I felt like I had something important that I needed to say, and it was a big fuck you to somebody. Then it went on to be a #1 hit forever and ever, so there’s something really gratifying about that. It feels like it comes full circle emotionally when a song like that works.”

You can hear some of that backstory in the song. Perry sings about once being afraid to fend for herself with someone holding her down but eventually got stronger and is not afraid to show it. She went from zero to her own hero and now she’s dancing through the fire and louder than a lion. But without the backstory, you wouldn’t get any sense of what Perry and McKee were talking about listening to “Roar.” It expresses its theme of empowerment in the most cliched way possible by using already established quotes, “Now I’m floatin’ like a butterfly/Stinging like a bee.” It even references two prior #1 songs in its chorus with “I got the eye of the tiger” obviously coming from Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and “You’re gonna hear me roar” coming from Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” 

(In his own Songfacts interview, Survivor’s Jim Peterik was kind about his band’s song being referenced, “I was very conflicted with that. I called my publisher and we were checking out the options: ‘Do we have a lawsuit here?’ I thought her song was very good, but that’s kind of beside the point. And bottom line is, it would have been a tough case to win. So instead, I embraced it, and I started looking at it as a positive thing.”)

Aside from the lyrics, the production and Katy Perry are also issues. The twinkly pounding piano chords and the arena rock level bombast on the chorus are all fine enough but with the generic pop production evaporate instantly after listen. It’s the kind of song that easily fills time on pop stations never asking much of you beyond it. And Katy Perry just isn’t strong enough of a performer to elevate what’s already a mediocre track. You don’t get much of a sense of struggle from her delivery. Hearing her sing “And you’re gonna hear me roar” along with “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” and how she builds up on the bridge singing the title just doesn’t register the way it should. Perry, to her credit, does try her best but it still isn’t enough.

In making the music video for “Roar,” the two directors, Grady Hall and Mark Kudsi, created a jungle-themed epic filming over two days at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. You can tell from watching that a lot of money was put into the video. In it, Perry and her boyfriend survive a plane crash in a jungle and stumbles out trying to figure out where she is as her boyfriend takes pictures before getting attacked by a tiger. Soon, Perry becomes acquainted with the animals and transforms into the Queen of the Jungle. The video ends with Perry waking up on what looks like a flying plane before coming out and seeing her in the jungle again with the animals around her. Even if you’re like me and don’t like the song, you gotta admit it’s an impressive video to watch. (“Roar” is one of those videos that interrupts its song for action throughout which is why it’s not embedded at the top of the post.)

Like the song it replaced at #1, “Roar” quickly became subject to allegations of plagiarism. People began noticing similarities between “Roar” and Sara Bareilles’ similarly inspirational song “Brave” released four months before Perry’s song. Perry and her team immediately shot down those claims noting “Roar” was written and recorded before “Brave” was released in April 2013. In interviews, Bareilles, who is close friends with Perry, didn’t mind the similarities and was happy at the attention the controversy brought to her song. 

Really, “Roar” was the best thing that could happen to “Brave.” Before the controversy, “Brave” hadn’t performed that well on the Hot 100 peaking at #66 during the summer. After people started making the comparisons to “Roar,” Bareilles’ label began pushing “Brave” as a single leading to a second life on the charts thanks to steady sales and radio play. It wasn’t until February 2014 when Bareilles performed the song at that year’s Grammy Awards when it finally hit its chart peak of #23, despite its huge cultural prevalence. (Sara Bareilles’ highest-charting single, 2007’s “Love Song,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10.)

Regardless, “Roar” did what it was intended to do in extending Katy Perry’s hit-making streak. Prism debuted at #1 upon its release in October 2013 and while it didn’t do Teenage Dream business it still did good enough to go double platinum. And Katy Perry wasn’t done yet. She’ll be back in this column soon.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the needle-drop moment from 2014’s Horrible Bosses 2 where “Roar” plays as the ringtone on Christoph Waltz’s phone when Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day call him with an FBI agent commenting on the song:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Katya and Kennedy Davenport lip-syncing to “Roar” on a 2015 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Roar” soundtracking an intense fight scene on a 2016 New Girl episode:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s prior The Ones of the ‘10s subject Kelly Clarkson opening a 2019 episode of her talk show by singing “Roar:”

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lauren Graham singing “Roar” on a 2020 episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist:

Tagged with: