I Learned to Roar (In a Strip Club)
The first time I ever listened closely to a Katy Perry song, it was at a strip club.
When I moved to Atlanta in 2010 and started covering local hip-hop a year later, I learned of the city’s strip-club culture, how Magic City, Pink Pony and Onyx serve as launchpads for the next radio hits. I was late to the news, but I caught on quickly.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Some songs recall how last night’s havoc began, with cash in the air and almost-bare asses in plain view (“She put that ass up in my hand, and I remote control it.” –Juicy J, in “Bandz a Make Her Dance”). Others provide clear-cut instructions: “Get Low,” “Pour It Up,” “Dance (A$$).” Everyone writes as a spectator, never as a stripper. Definitely never as Katy Perry.
When I agreed to interview a rapper over food from his favorite strip club, Cheetah in Midtown, I knew more about strip club songs than I knew about Katy Perry, multi-platinum pop queen. I’d heard “California Girls” and “I Kissed a Girl.” I watched a video of her performing “Firework” for Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama, and I knew that Kanye West promises to “probe” her in the “E.T.” remix. (I blame my boyfriend Mike, who often quotes a different line: “Cop a Prada spacesuit up out the stars.”) And as I sat at one of the club’s two bars, waiting for this rapper’s lobster tail with fried okra and grits, I knew that “Roar” wasn’t about Cheetah.
But it was at Cheetah that I actually heard what “Roar” is about.
It was 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the strippers outnumbered the customers. When that song played, the stripper in front of me started to sway slowly, kind of listlessly. I couldn’t quite blame her; I tried to imagine how I would dance to that song but came up short. Then she laughed. “Can you imagine being on top of someone and doing it to this song?” she asks.
I laughed with her. She elaborated. “No, seriously. Wouldn’t it be so weird to be on top and be like, ‘And you’re gonna hear me roar,’ goddamnit?”
I paused. “Well, does it have to be weird?”
The next few times that I would hear “Roar,” I was in my car. Each time I scanned the radio, I only heard two other songs more frequently. For months I hated how Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” lazily riffed on old tricks — that Marvin Gaye rhythm, that Michael Jackson whoo! — until one afternoon, I finally heard the part when T.I. raps, “From Malibu to Paris, boo,” as if he was a male Betty Boop. (Now I just let the song play out.) On the other hand, Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home” disarmed me immediately. After being called “soft” for merely flirting with R&B, this rapper went ahead and sang tenderly through an entire R&B song. I would remember when a 13-year-old girl told me that she wanted to meet Drake. “He’s cute and sensitive,” she said. Suddenly I understood.
Robin Thicke and Drake are charming men, but for the exact reasons that inspired “Roar” from the start. Thicke cajoles and whines — you’re a good girl, but the way you grab him, you must wanna get nasty. Drake pleads and begs — you’re a good girl, and you know it, but you act so differently around him. Drake knows exactly who you could be.
Both songs playfully and gently insist that they know us “good girls” better than we do. So do pop critics, actually. When “Roar” debuted, many of them were amused, if not dismayed, to hear it. It was called kid-friendly, likable and cheesy. “This is cute at best, boring at worst,” one review said. Critics complained because they knew that a pop star with pin-up girl curves, a pounding and forceful breakout hit called “I Kissed a Girl,” and cover art where she lays naked on a cloud of cotton candy — was capable of acting much more explicitly adult.
To me though, and in context of a Top 40 playlist, “Roar” sounds as if Katy Perry finally figured out how to respond to people like Robin Thicke and Drake and feels freer because of it. The line I think about most is the very first one: “I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath.” And when I hear that, I think of situations where I stay quiet, mostly at work.
For sound reasons (i.e. rap’s publicized history with hyper-masculinity, misogyny and sexism), friends often ask what it’s like to be a female covering rap. On most days, even though I work from home, I remember that I’m not alone. Danyel Smith ran VIBE. Vanessa Satten runs XXL. Erika Ramirez writes Billboard‘s hip-hop column. I admire these and other female editors, writers, scholars and personalities not just because they are women, but because of how savvy, passionate and thorough they are.
On days when I do feel intimidated, I remind myself that I can always learn more. I can listen to new music, watch documentaries and interviews, ask colleagues for advice, and continue to browse Google Books archives. And when I argue over which Jay Z or Roots album is best, my mind tends to flash back to high school, when I would put down my homework to watch DJ Clue and Lala on MTV2 or Big Tigger and Kid Capri on BET’s Rap City. More often than not, I know that I belong.
It’s easy to forget this, though, especially when I am out reporting or networking. Last month, I called a rapper to talk about how Eminem influenced his lyricism and label. He didn’t wait for me to ask a question first; instead, he rattled off a canned response and asked if that was enough, before he realized that he couldn’t make out what I was saying. “Baby, I don’t know what else to tell you,” he repeated. The more he made clear that baby, he wasn’t listening to a word I said, the more flustered I felt. About 15 minutes later, I thanked him, hung up, called my boyfriend and cried.
After that I thought about a troubling song I heard before “Roar” debuted, “U.O.E.N.O.” by Atlanta upstart Rocko. Several months ago, Reebok dropped Rick Ross from his endorsement deal because of a line he spits in that song: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Rappers had quickly filed into the studio to record remixes without Ross’s date rape verse, but Atlanta’s three hip-hop radio stations continued to play the original version. So did this one DJ, when I was at a private dinner party of 50 or so for Trinidad James. Heads nodded, hips swayed. Men and women mouthed the hook. I felt sick, and even though I was standing next to the editor who assigned my first rap reporting job, I felt afraid to even tell him why.
Fast-forward to October: For five days Atlanta hosted A3C, one of the biggest hip-hop festivals in the nation. By the last day, I had checked out 20 showcases to see and report on 50 rising rappers. I swapped business cards and shook hands and struck up conversations with dozens of artists, producers, managers and spectators. The festival’s scope overwhelmed me; nearly 500 acts would perform at 25 different locales. However, the festival’s diversity — and the slightest possibility that Atlanta chart fixture 2 Chainz and L.A. underground king Peanut Butter Wolf could run into each other — excited me. Covering A3C was wonderfully exhausting.
When I arrived on the last day, I walked up to a food truck and ordered a wrap. “Please, smile for me,” the cashier said, twice. All I could think to do is pretend not to hear him.
What irks me most about such incidents is that I can’t ever think of what to say back. “Roar” has put this into lilting and sparkly perspective. I do as Katy Perry used to do — I bite my tongue and hold my breath. In its music video, I would be the Katy Perry who stumbles through the wreckage of a plane, then rainforest thickets with bags that my dopey boyfriend refuses to carry because he needs a hand free for selfies. Now I realize that, until I figure out how to not yell or cry, but to politely but firmly correct such sexist behavior, then I can never be the Katy Perry who flexes and swings on vines as she quotes Muhammad Ali and that fuckin’ Rocky III anthem to belt off her inspiring reality.
And because of “Roar,” this No. 1 pop hit that I could have easily refused to take seriously, I will. Whenever I hear that song now, I remember leaving Cheetah that day. The sun blinded me, because Cheetah was pitch-black and I was leaving before rush hour. On the way to my car, I kept thinking of what that stripper had said: “Wouldn’t it be so weird to be on top and be like, ‘And you’re gonna hear me roar,’ goddamnit?”
If I ever do see her again, I would admit at least this much — no, I had never said anything like that before, at least not without laughing at myself. But it’s like every time I see a story of mine run, when I glance at the byline to remind myself that I wrote it. I may write about rap for a living, but I will quote Katy Perry to make a point.