Katy Perry kissed a girl. She liked it, and now she's a huge pop star. If things broke the same way for boys, Aftermath would have been a huge pop star for the past 19, 20 years. But we're not bitter.
After bailing on two previously scheduled Houston shows - once due to illness suspiciously around SXSW (though she canceled those dates too), the other the day before appearing on the American Idol finale - Perry greeted the more-or-less sold-out crowd at Verizon Wireless Theater Sunday evening with "Oh my God, finally! What's up Houston?" Perry gets the usual all-hooks-no-heft brushoff from most critics, but she's an engaging performer (to put it mildly) with real pop smarts who knows her history. She chose the Beach Boys' "California Girls" for her entrance music Sunday - kudos for not using the more age-appropriate David Lee Roth remake, girl - and, clad for most of the evening in a form-fitting bustier seemingly sculpted out of sequins and pink pleather shorts that left only the color of her underclothes to the imagination, hardly stopped moving throughout her nearly 90-minute set.
Perry's music cleaves to a distinct formula, Cheap Trick's outsize power-pop plus Avril Lavigne's fiesty sk8er-grrl rock, but it's deadly effective and sweeter than an ice cream cone. Opener "Fingerprints" was breakup song as sugar rush; Verizon was no place for diabetics Sunday, nor people who don't like pink - both the color and the pop singer who is Perry's closest analogue and antecedent. There were a few curveballs, though. "Mannequin," which she dedicated to "all the boys who were born without the parts" (huh?), began as a breezy synthesized reggae groove before blooming into a sleek rocker that betrayed the Go-Go's on her iPod and made Aftermath worry she'd have an aneurysm if she kept up that level of pep-squad-on-crystal energy for much longer. She strapped on an acoustic guitar for earnest ballad "Thinking of U," lit by the blue-green glow of a couple thousand cameraphones set on "record" and about the closest thing there was to a lag Sunday night.
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With only one album under her tightly cinched corset, Perry had to find some way to flesh out her set. Smartly, she did so by playing to Sunday's secondary market - the hundreds of parents on hand. Early on, she dipped into the '60s for the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman" - dancing around a dumpy-looking mail carrier who delivered what turned out to be "a phone bill" - and the Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup" that, of course, most of her fans no doubt recognized from There's Something About Mary. Towards the end, she sent out a song to "all the moms and dads"; Aftermath mistook the opening riff for Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl" or .38 Special's "Hold on Loosely," but it turned out to be the Outfield's "Your Love." She gave Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" her all, and it's not hard to see her turning into a female Freddie Mercury someday; she's about halfway there already.
But even Perry's originals were recognizable. The vaguely R&B "Ur So Gay," the best sendup of metrosexual indie-rock culture recorded by a pop starlet this decade, gave Aftermath bizarre visions of Beyonce covering the song and was interrupted halfway through by a sax solo straight out of Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." A Pulp Fiction surf-rock riff scored some of Perry's exhausted younger fans being carried out of the theater by their dutiful parents, and her current No. 1, "Waking Up in Vegas," came off as Debbie Gibson run through a Green Day blender. Perry has hit on the perfect recipe for post-millennial pop success. Her lyrics are spicy enough to get her adolescent fans wearing "I Kissed a Girl" and "Ur So Gay" T-shirts all a-Twitter, but pull up well short of offending her elders. Her music, meanwhile, sounds just as catchy coming out of a poolside radio as an MP3 player. And yes, at present, her songs are about as deep (and irresistible) as the average episode of Gossip Girl, but Sunday she showed both the instincts and energy to be a formidable pop presence long after her fans have outgrown their cherry Chapstick.