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Live review: Katy Perry at the Nokia Theatre

Katy Perry performs in Los Angeles in August 2011

Teenagers have no shortage of opportunities for mortification via social media today. But just before Katy Perry’s fizzy two-hour set at the Nokia Theatre on Friday, they had a new one to worry about: the Smooch Cam. 

The camera trawled the audience looking for couples and prompted them to plant one on each other for the audience’s approval via jumbotron. Some were sweetly awkward, some were lascivious, and (as appropriate for a singer whose first hit extolled casual bisexuality as boyfriend-enticement) there was at least one three-way all-girl makeout. 

Perry’s music is a similar prompt to PG-13 bad behavior, but with a deep wink at the ways having fun is often a performance. In her single “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” she may lament that “pictures of last night ended up online, I’m screwed.” But who is she kidding? This is the generation of “Pics or it didn’t happen.” 

And needless to say, Perry takes a good photo. Her current pop persona lies somewhere between the pinups painted on WWII-era fighter planes and a knowing cute-overload culture in which grown men can watch “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” without ending up in a police database. 

Katy Perry at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in August, 2011

But the hillocks of peppermint and ravines of whipped cream that adorned the Nokia stage on Friday are just part of Perry’s latest incarnation, after byways in earnest Christian rock, L.A. hipster-baiting and playing side stages on the Warped Tour with a No. 1 pop single. More traditional musical virtues brought her career to the level of suspended platforms made of cotton candy –- namely, a torchy voice that could do Sarah Vaughan or synthpop justice and a deep understanding of how to let your character inhabit songs (particularly those produced by the pop Justice League of Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Benny Blanco and Bonnie McKee).

This put four singles from her excellent 2010 album “Teenage Dream” atop the Billboard Hot 100 (and “Last Friday Night” is threatening to do the same, and would make her the first artist since Michael Jackson to put five singles there). Her three-night Nokia stand is meant to codify her as a major arena star, and Friday’s set was a firehose of sugary pop savvy. 

From the little lyrical pause in “Let’s go all … the way tonight” in the unimpeachable “Teenage Dream” to the burlesque-y deconstruction of “I Kissed A Girl,” Perry proved adroit at navigating the little things that make a good song great, or a decent one much more interesting. Even if bits of it felt like fantasy projection (is there a real woman who adores male anatomical aesthetics as much as the song “Peacock” implies?), Perry plays it all with such cutesy conviction that you’re powerless before the sheer show and skill of it. 

The rapid-fire costume changes of “Hot N Cold” set some kind of land-speed record, and an acoustic-ballad take on “Thinking of You” proved Perry the rare star that doesn’t need to depend on backing tracks. Perry repeatedly alluded to her career’s start at Hotel Café’s folk scene in Hollywood, and her chops from that era cut through the cream cannons and line-dancing gingerbread men.

But the set hit a wall late, where against all Perry’s strengths of precision and personality, the show spun out into an acoustic karaoke ramble of top-40 singles (albeit, an in-the-flesh Rebecca Black cameo made some tween heads explode). And though the dragging, rap-dabbling “E.T.” was a major hit, even Perry seemed bored pleading for some space-boyfriend to “fill me with your poison.”

She seemed to notice that. “I punked you a couple time with that serious [stuff],” she joked, just before steering the set back into the seltzer-bomb raveups of “Firework” and “California Gurls,” whose summer-song ubiquity perhaps distracted from its textbook radio confection pleasures. 

It’s telling that her million-dollar, ice-cream-hangover radio hits about downing shots and casual group sex felt most authentic and resonant. “It’s a blacktop blur, but I’m pretty sure it ruled,” she sang on “Last Friday Night.” If she has any doubt about that, surely someone took pictures to prove it.  

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-- August Brown

Photos: Pop-star Katy Perry performs Nokia Theatre in downtown L.A. Friday. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

 

 
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