Katy Perry’s Firework – A Rhetorical Criticism of the Song/Music Video

By: Clare Danner

Academic, 2019

Popstar Katy Perry’s mega-hit song Firework was released as part of her 2010 album, Teenage Dream. This album was nominated for three Grammy Awards, and Firework was nominated for two Grammy Awards, itself: Record of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance (Recording Academy 1). Clearly, this song was very well-received by the public, which I believe was in large part due to the positive message of the lyrics, as well as the unique visuals of the music video. Throughout this rhetorical criticism, I plan to analyze the content and nature of both the lyrics and music video of Katy Perry’s Firework, majorly from a visually critical perspective. Most importantly, I hope to determine why the audience might have had such a favorable reaction to this artifact based upon the lyrics of the song and the visuals of the music video.

I chose to analyze this particular artifact because I am an ardent Katy Perry fan and Firework is by far my favorite song of hers. I also consider Firework’s music video to be one of the most powerful and unique I have ever see. I knew analyzing Firework for this assignment would help me to determine why fans like me find it so easy to call this song and music video one of our favorites.

Brief Description of the Text:
Throughout the duration of the song, “firework” is used as a metaphor. Katy Perry is reminding her listeners that they are “fireworks,” or that they are important and worthy of love. During the nearly four minute music video, viewers are introduced to six nameless characters, all with distinct storylines. The first character is a young boy who is comforting his little sister while their parents are fighting in the other room. The second character is a teenaged girl who is embarrassed to go swimming because of her weight. The third character is a child with cancer who is reluctant to leave his room because he has lost his hair as a result of chemotherapy. The fourth character is a homosexual young man who feels out of place at a party when his heterosexual peers are dancing with their girlfriends around him. The fifth character is a woman laboring to give birth. The sixth character is a teenaged boy who is getting beaten up by his classmates because he likes to do magic tricks.

At the beginning of the music video, all of these characters are clearly facing hardships. Once they remember that they are “fireworks” per Katy Perry’s song, however, they gain motivation and self-esteem. The young boy breaks up his parents’ fighting, the teenaged girl goes swimming, the cancer patient leaves his room, the homosexual man kisses his male love interest, the mother gives birth, and the young magician stands up to his bullies. Katy Perry, the six nameless characters, and several other young people are shown glowing like fireworks, and run through the city happily and without reservation.

Rhetorical Method of Analysis:
From the lyrics of the song alone, I am able to perceive Katy Perry’s goal when writing and performing Firework: to “lift up” her listeners, reminding them of their self-worth when they are suffering or faced with difficult decisions and situations. However, the combination of these positive lyrics with the visuals of the music video allows Katy Perry to comment on many social issues in addition to uplifting and encouraging her listeners. For this reason, I will utilize primarily the visual critical perspective, as delineated by Barry Brummett in chapter 5 of Rhetoric in Popular Culture. In addition to analyzing specific portions of the song and music video in a general sense – that is, per my specific interpretation and personal experiences – I will analyze the artifact based upon focal points of meaning attribution, focal points of collective memory and the community, and point of view (Brummett 196-201).

Rhetorical Analysis:
Firework’s music video is nearly four minutes long, clocking in at 3:53. This seems to be a very appropriate amount of time, as the full song is able to be played and the stories of the six nameless characters of the music video are able to be told from start to finish.

The video opens with a panning view over a city at nighttime. There are no distinct, signature buildings included in this panning view of the city; no structures like the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower are shown. There are structures that would be present in any city in the world: bridges, skyscrapers, churches, and roads with many cars driving on them. I believe the director of this piece chose to refrain from setting this music video in any specific location so as to allow each viewer to determine a location for themselves. I, for example, think of downtown Indianapolis when I see this panning view. I am from Indianapolis, so whenever I see a city that seems somewhat metropolitan in nature, Indianapolis is the first place that comes to mind. Someone who is from Chicago, on the other hand, might see this panning view and be reminded of downtown Chicago. If the camera panned over the Statue of Liberty during the introduction of the music video, I would immediately feel disconnected as a viewer. I would think to myself, “I’ve never been to New York City,” and the music video would seem foreign and unrelated to me because of its location. The fact that this piece allows listeners/viewers to perceive elements of themselves within the song and music video is one of the reasons I believe this song was so well-received by the public at the time of its release, and why it continues to be a hit seven years later. The fact that the director of the music video refrained from framing the context of the video in terms of location was a deliberate and wise choice, as it immediately allowed the location of the video to apply to many populations and demographics.

After this panning view of the city, Katy Perry enters the screen for the first time. She is on top of a building, and she is dressed in an ornately-decorated white dress. The first sentence of the song is a rhetorical question: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” The camera cuts to an overhead shot of Katy Perry standing on top of a building. Viewers notice that her dress is loose-fitting, and the skirt portion does look somewhat like a plastic bag. Further, Katy Perry’s skirt is being blown by the wind, aligning with the lyrics of the song. The director of the music video is making a rhetorical choice by having Katy Perry dress this way. As Brummett states in his section on visual rhetorical criticism, “For images, like language, have a structure – they appear in contexts – and they must be interpreted so as to extract meaning from them” (Brummett 197). Without a visual representation of Katy Perry as a “plastic bag” through her clothing, I would venture to guess that the majority of listeners would answer Katy Perry’s rhetorical question at the beginning of the song with “no.” If I had not watched the music video and merely listened to the song, I would respond to this rhetorical question negatively rather than affirmatively: “I am in no way similar to a plastic bag, so how could I have ever felt like one?” Seeing Katy Perry dressed, at least to some degree, like a plastic bag allows me to equate plastic bags with fragile, struggling people, and this is achieved through the use of visual rhetoric.

Almost universally, plastic bags are used to symbolize garbage. With that in mind, it makes sense that Katy Perry would ask her audience if they have ever felt like plastic bags. This is the equivalent of her asking, “Have you ever felt like garbage?” Certainly, many audience members would respond affirmatively to this question.

As we have learned from George Lakoff in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, merely using a word or phrase in a question creates a frame for the audience. By using the word “plastic bag,” in her rhetorical question, Katy Perry creates a frame. Her question is closed-ended: you either have or have not felt like a plastic bag (garbage) before, and even if you have not, some of your fellow audience members certainly have.

The motif of floating plastic bags was made famous by the R-rated, 1999 film American Beauty. All the characters in American Beauty are unhappy with themselves as people, which in turn makes them unhappy with their lives. Their lack of self-confidence causes them to feel like garbage, so it makes sense that a plastic bag, which symbolizes garbage, would float across the screen with frequency throughout the film. The argument can be made that the first line of Katy Perry’s Firework is a direct reference to the film American Beauty.

Within the first minute of the music video, viewers meet the first nameless character: a young boy, comforting his sister while his parents are fighting in the other room. Because there is no dialogue to accompany the fighting we, as viewers, do not know what the parents are fighting about. In reality, we are not even certain they are fighting – the director of the music video merely frames the scene like a fight through the use of visual rhetoric. The parents are gesturing at one another, implying that they are seconds away from a physical altercation. The young girl covers her ears, implying that the parents are shouting. As Americans, and even as human beings, we are familiar with what a fight looks and sounds like: there is generally a significant amount of gesturing, and the conflicting parties usually raise their voices at one another. We know this because we have been witness to and participated in fights ourselves, so we expect a fight to look and sound a certain way. Because the element of dialogue is not present in this music video, the director had to make certain rhetorical choices. These rhetorical choices (instructing the “parents” to gesture at one another and instructing the little girl to cover her ears) help to create the frame of an argument.

Next, we meet the second nameless character – a teenaged girl who is embarrassed to go swimming because she is overweight. We see the girl’s skinnier, prettier friend gesturing toward her from the pool, clearly inviting her to jump in. Again, the use of gestures is an important rhetorical choice. The girl’s skinnier, prettier friend is not able to audibly say, “Come here!” Instead, she must communicate through a gesture, and the meaning of said gesture must be universally shared by the audience in order for the message to be perceived. The concept of a homely girl having a skinnier, prettier friend is also an important rhetorical choice. Especially in America, girls tend to feel insecure about their physical appearances. They wish they could be “pretty like the other girls,” and often feel inferior to the females with whom they are friends. As many of Katy Perry’s audience members are teenaged girls, it is likely that they have experienced the feelings of self-loathing and inferiority that the overweight girl is shown to be experiencing. For this reason, this particular scene and its rhetorical components appeal especially to the audience’s emotions – they are able to sympathize with this character, even though she is nameless.

In chapter five of Rhetoric in Popular Culture, Brummett states: “Images can be constructed…so as to encourage certain attributions of meaning and to discourage others.” The third nameless character is a young boy, and through the rhetorical choices of the music video’s director, we can come to the conclusion that he has cancer. The young boy is bald, wearing a hospital gown, and lying in a hospital bed. We do not simply assume that he has shaved his head for fun: because he is in a hospital bed and wearing a hospital gown, we infer that he has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy treatment, causing him to lose all his hair. We see him look longingly out the window, and we can further infer that he has not been outside for a long time.

When Katy Perry sings the refrain of the song for the first time (“baby, you’re a firework…come on, show them what you’re worth”) at minute 1:09 of the music video, sparks shoot forth from Katy Perry’s chest, representing fireworks. The portion of Katy Perry’s body from which the sparks shoot forth are significant in a rhetorical sense, and a number of conclusions can be drawn about this choice on the part of the director. Often, one’s chest or bosom represents his or her heart. The heart is often equated with the soul of the human person – the essence of who they are fundamentally. Therefore, the fireworks shooting forth from Katy Perry’s chest symbolize her true nature: she is bright, powerful, and beautiful, just like a firework. This is yet another example of how Firework serves as a metaphor for human nature, as well as for self-confidence and self-love.

Not only might the director have chosen to have the fireworks shoot forth from Katy Perry’s bosom in order to represent the heart, soul, and human nature as a whole – the director might have wanted to draw attention to Katy Perry’s breasts, thereby attracting male audiences. Although this song and its message are extremely G-rated, there were other songs released on the Teenage Dream album that were far from G-rated, reminding audiences that Katy Perry has no qualms about being sexualized. The music video for her song California Gurls, for example, features a completely nude Katy Perry: the popstar is clad with nothing more than smoke, as the singer is made to look as if she is lying on a cloud. Judging from this, I do not believe I am wrong to assume that the director’s decision to have fireworks shoot from Katy Perry’s breasts was deliberate. Although the lyrics of Firework and its music video are meant to convey a very positive, uplifting message, it makes sense that Katy Perry would retain at least a degree of sexuality. Certainly, the director’s motives behind the fact that the fireworks issue forth from Katy Perry’s bosom are up for interpretation.

During the music video, a pivotal scene is when the cancer patient is walking toward the doors of the hospital. As he is walking, he passes a delivery room where a woman is laboring to give birth. Fireworks are issuing from every part of her body, and fireworks burst forth from the newborn baby when he is born, as well. Since fireworks have been positioned as representations of beauty, power, and love at this point in the music video, it is clear that Katy Perry and the director of the music video are commenting on the inherent goodness with which every human being is born. The newborn baby is especially bright, as he has not yet been corrupted by the evils of the world. Most importantly, he still retains the self-love that Katy Perry is attempting to promulgate with her song – he has not begun to question his worth in light of societal norms.

Similar to my assertion that the issuing of fireworks from Katy Perry’s bosom is intended to be sexual, it is not difficult to assume that some of the lyrics leading up to and included in the refrain are intended to be sexual, as well. The music swells leading up to the refrain, and Katy Perry’s volume crescendos higher and higher as she sings: “You’ve just got to ignite the light and let it; just own the night, Like the Fourth of July.” This crescendo, as well as the feelings of suspense and excitement that are initiated in audiences before Katy Perry bursts into her full-on refrain (“baby, you’re a firework” etc.), seem to parallel sexual tension before climax. This is also easy to assume when the latter part of the refrain involves Katy Perry singing, “Make them go ah, ah, ah, as you shoot across the sky.” The word “shoot” has a sexual connotation, and can certainly be interpreted as a reference to the male orgasm. This interpretation is based upon Brummett’s mention of community on pages 199 and 200 of Rhetoric in Popular Culture: because of the community in which we reside and the promulgation of sexual euphemisms for entertainment or humor – especially within the teenaged demographic, Katy Perry’s target audience – it is easy to draw conclusions of this nature about this aspect of the song.

Based upon my rhetorical analysis, I am able to draw several conclusions about why this song is especially persuasive, as well as why it remains a crowd favorite seven years after its 2010 release date. As previously stated, this song and its music video allow audience members from many different demographics to “see themselves,” at least to some degree. People are generally self-interested, especially people of the teenaged variety, which is Katy Perry’s primary audience. If young listeners/viewers do not see how a text applies to them, they usually do not care to spend their time interpreting it. Both the lyrics of the song and the visuals of the music video appeal to young people, making the audience more apt to be persuaded by the artifact’s message.

Firstly, the fact that the music video is not set in any specific location allows people from all cities in America, as well as around the world, to assume the story of the music video is taking place in his or her own hometown. The decision to pinpoint a specific location would have isolated a particular demographic, and less audience members would have considered the text and its message applicable to them. If the music video had been set in New York City, for example, some viewers/listeners might have believed the text’s message was strictly reserved for residents of New York City.    

Viewers are introduced to six different nameless characters when they watch the music video, and each of these characters represent a different hardship or social issue commonly faced by young people. Presenting six different hardships or social issues rather than one hardship or social issue was an important rhetorical choice on the part of the director. Had the director chosen to follow only one character and its social issue for the duration of the music video (just a closeted homosexual, for example), less audience members would be able to interpret the application of the text’s message to them. By exploring six common hardships/social issues rather than just one, a higher number of listeners or viewers would be able to see their own lives reflected in the text.

Finally, the incorporation of pop culture references makes this text even more persuasive. As I asserted during my rhetorical analysis section, the 1999 film American Beauty is referenced in the first part of the music video. Seeing as a plastic bag was positioned as a metaphor for trash in American Beauty, it proved to be very effective in a music video where Katy Perry is attempting to do the same thing. Additionally, both Katy Perry and the director of her music video had the audience and the audience’s preferences in mind when they utilized sexual innuendos and sexual metaphors, both in terms of the lyrics of the song (“ah, ah, ah” suggesting climax, etc.) and the visuals of the music video (fireworks shooting forth from Katy Perry’s breasts, etc.). The community of listeners/viewers to which Katy Perry is hoping to appeal – i.e. teenagers – is greatly concerned with and interested by sexuality. Therefore, Firework as both an aural and visual medium is immediately more persuasive when the text appeals to the audience members’ previously established interests and preferences.

In summary, Firework and its accompanying music video are meant to be applicable to many demographics simultaneously, and Katy Perry and the director of her music video succeed in doing this. The song and music video appeal to audience members from many different walks of life who possess many different points of view, allowing the text to persuade a larger number of listeners/viewers.    

On page 119 of Rhetoric in Popular Culture, Brummett states: “Public issues must be metonymized into the signs, texts, and artifacts of popular culture” (Brummett 119). In Firework’s music video, various forms of insecurity are metonymized in the form of nameless characters. Young women feeling insecure about their bodies is metonymized by the overweight girl who is afraid to go swimming. Closeted homosexuality is metonymized by the young man who feels uncomfortable when his heterosexual peers are dancing with and kissing their girlfriends at a party. Young people being bullied for doing the activities they love is metonymized by the young magician getting beaten up by his classmates. In the music video, the director implements the strategy of metonymy by putting a face with each social issue, a very effective visual rhetorical method. It can be effective to talk about or comment on these social issues, but it is even more effective to present these social issues visually.

The message of Firework is empowering, both in terms of the lyrics and the visuals of the music video. At the beginning of the music video, the six nameless characters do not have power – someone or something else has power over them. The child with cancer, for example, is ruled by the embarrassment and fear brought about by his ailment. The cancer has power over him; he does not have power over the cancer. Katy Perry describes this feeling of powerlessness during the exposition of her song, when she asks her audience three rhetorical questions: 1) “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” 2) “Do you ever feel so paper thin like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?” 3) “Do you ever feel already buried deep, six feet under scream but no one seems to hear a thing?” By asking these questions and using similes and metaphors, Katy Perry creates a frame of powerlessness. As she moves into the refrain of the song however, her audience becomes empowered. They are reminded that they are “fireworks” – beautiful, strong, and worthy of love. This is visually represented when the six nameless characters begin to glow like fireworks; they are becoming empowered, and gaining the confidence they need to overcome their hardships. The young boy attempting to comfort his little sister while their parents are fighting in the other room, for example, glows and runs into the room, physically separating his parents. He is no longer powerless, and we can tell he has been empowered both because he is glowing like a firework and because of the actions he takes.

As Brummett states in chapter three of Rhetoric and Popular Culture, “Objectivity is not possible for the rhetorical critic” (Brummett 121). As I completed this assignment, I certainly found this to be true. Because I am a fan of Katy Perry and consider Firework to be one of my favorite songs, my writing tended to present the song and the music video as very successful in terms of persuasive and rhetorical techniques. If I hated Katy Perry instead, I might frame the popstar and the director of the music video as very unsuccessful in terms of persuasive and rhetorical techniques. I agree with Brummett when he asserts that perspective and point of view contribute greatly when acting as a rhetorical critic.