When she made her Pittsburgh debut in 2008, Katy Perry did not come across as The Girl Most Likely to Succeed.
Maybe it was because she was surrounded on that late July day by Pennywise, Against Me! and Every Time I Die on the Vans Warped Tour at the First Niagara Pavilion.
It was a case of Warped kingpin Kevin Lyman just wanting to throw a bubblegummy pop act on the punk/emo bill. “The funny thing is, I booked Katy Perry off her demo tapes,” he said at the time.
That booking was in October 2007, an uncertain time for the Santa Barbara, Calif., native. She’d been signed by Columbia in 2004 and dropped two years later (their loss). Capitol had picked her up in April 2007 and was building toward the April 2008 release of “I Kissed a Girl.”
By the time she got to Burgettstown, she had a No. 1 hit and a huge crowd of mainly young girls watching her frolic in a floral dress on the covered Pavilion stage. She seemed "like a one-hit wonder out of her league.”
That’s what I wrote in the PG review. Sounds kind of dumb now, but it was true. One hit. And she was surely out of her league next to the seasoned road warriors on that tour. Her experience had been playing coffeehouses and church gigs under her real name, Katy Hudson (changed so as not to be confused with actress Kate Hudson). She would later say that being thrown in front of those Warped crowds was a trial by fire that would serve her on future tours.
Six sensational years later, Katy Perry is a 17-hit wonder with two chart-topping albums, the most digital sales of any artist (72 million) and most Twitter followers of anyone on the planet (54.5 million). She’s now on her third headlining tour, playing Consol Energy Center tonight.
Pittsburgh didn’t get the first of those, the Hello Katy Tour in 2009. It was a theater/club run, on a stage with a white picket fence, big flamingos and inflatable fruit, that focused on songs from major-label debut “One of the Boys” mixed with covers of “Please Mr. Postman” (The Marvelettes), “Build Me Up Buttercup” (The Foundations) and “Don’t Stop Me Now” (Queen).
When that wrapped, she went right into the studio to record the album that made her a superstar, “Teenage Dream,” led by the beachy single of the summer, “California Gurls,” in May 2010. It went No. 1, followed by the lustful title track, soaring ballad “Firework,” Kanye duet “E.T.” and party rocker “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” making it the first album since Michael Jackson’s “Bad” in 1987 to score five No. 1’s.
The California Dreams Tour, which sold out the Petersen Events Center in June 2011, was a spectacle of Madonna/Gaga proportions that placed her on a Candy Land stage, surrounded by a colorful swirl of dancers and mimes. It was more flash than music — her silver bra doubled as a whipped cream bazooka! — but it had its stripped-down parts where her personality shone through. She managed to relate to fans like a real person who cared about them, on stage and at the meet-and-greets, as seen in the concert film “Part of Me.”
Meanwhile, her personal life was the opposite of lollipops and candy canes. As we saw in the film’s touching scenes, she managed to push through the latter part of the tour in the throes of her painful separation from husband Russell Brand, who sent a breakup text.
This time around, another breakup, with John Mayer, and another chart-topping album, “Prism,” released in October and launched in August with the No. 1 single “Roar.”
The way she prepped fans for an album that would be “real [expletive] dark,” you’d have thought she hired Trent Reznor. Instead, it's more Top 40 dance-pop from the Dr. Luke/Max Martin factory with some world music touches, although there is the moody single with “dark” in the title, “Dark Horse,” and a dark verse from Juicy J.
The Prism Tour, bumped up to the bigger Consol, follows suit with, among other visual frills, dancing mummies, a giant birthday cake and an inflatable car. In short, she and her fans are hooked on the spectacle, but the part of her that was daring enough to get in front of Warped crowds hasn’t been lost.
A few months ago, on Australia’s “Wake Up Today,” she was asked, “What do you say to people who say, ‘Well, Katy Perry, she’s just a star. There’s a lot of froth and bubble there but not much meat in the sandwich.’”
The girl who can melt your popsicle quickly shot back, “Sweetheart, if I was all froth and bubble, I would have been gone in a second.”
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg