When Katy Perry debuted "Part of Me," a track from her upcoming Ultimate Confection reissue of her commercial juggernaut Teenage Dream, at the 54th Grammy Awards, everyone wanted to know one thing about it: Is it about Russell? After five (almost six) straight #1 singles, the conversation about Katy turned late last year from her fantastic chart success to her tumultuous personal life, after her and comedian hubby Russell Brand announced that they were getting divorced. Suddenly, Katy's gumdrop world of sugar-sweet pop music and fantasy music videos was overcast by a headline that cast her as a figure of sympathy, even a victim, for arguably the first time in her career as a pop star.
How fortuitous, then, that Katy's first single after her marriage's dissolution should be a breakup song: "Part of Me," an anthem of perseverance after the ending of a bad relationship. The question then, again: Is it about Russell? And the answer, of course: Yes, even though not really. The song was certainly not written with her divorce from Russell in mind—it was initially composed by Katy, frequent collaborators Max Martin and Dr. Luke, and special ringer Bonnie McKee as part of the original Teenage Dream recording sessions back in 2010, and had leaked online as early as December 2010, a year before the duo's marriage was dissolved. But just because the song wasn't written for Russell Brand isn't to say that it isn't about him—the song has taken on entirely new significance from Katy's divorce, and with her debut of the song at the Grammys, it seems virtually impossible to imagine the song not being at least partially directed towards Katy's ex.
The fact that Katy premiered "Part of Me" at the Grammys, in a performance that launched the song nationally and helped send it to #1 on the charts in its first week of release, is one that can not be ignored when discussing the significance of the song and its lyrics. First off, it demonstrated Katy's confidence in the song and (arguably) its personal significance to her—most artists don't waste a performance on music's biggest annual stage on a bonus track from a reissue of an 18-month-old album unless they really, really mean it. It was especially telling that Katy started her performance with a snippet of the already year-old hit single "E.T.," before the music cut out and "Part of Me" began. As she says herself in the song's lyrics, "That was then, and this is now."
Second off, there are a number of lyrics in the song that direct attention to Katy herself—how she's doing, how she's looking, and so on—all of which take on added meaning in a much-watched live context, where one can actually see Katy and tell how she's doing, looking, etc. Virtually the entirety of the bridge details how fabulous Katy is looking, even using some Katy-specific vocabulary, since her man's departure—"I'm sparkling / A firework, a dancing flame / You won't ever put me out again / I'm glowing, oh woah oh." That kind of direct address can't help but seem meaningful when Katy is singing it to a national TV audience, where her man is obviously at home (we assume) watching her, keeping tabs on how his old flame is doing, as we all do. And in just in case the address isn't direct enough, Katy literally commands her subject "Now look at me!" at the beginning of each chorus, forcing him to view her as she is, and to pay attention to the part of her that he's "never gonna ever gonna take from" her.
The other effect of performing the song at the Grammys is for our sake—to get us to sympathize with Katy's "side of the story" before Russell has a chance to win us over. From Katy's highly vague recounting of events—she never mentions anything specific that she or her ex did to end the relationship, only claiming to have been chewed up and spit out ("Like I was poison in your mouth") and that she "fell deep" while her man allowed her to drown—their relationship appears to have been more "Since U Been Gone" than "I Will Survive." Katy's man may have been a shit-heel, but she never shows any signs of having been afraid and/or petrified to live without him by her side—she's already onto bemoaning that she fell for that stupid love song, and putting him out of sight, out of mind. It makes sense—a pop star with an image as strong and confident such as Katy's probably would've changed that stupid lock on Mr. "Survive" at the first sign of wrong-doing, and we admire her more for it.
The most interesting thing that Katy does with us as listeners comes in the song's bridge, however. After all that talk of sparkling and fireworks—hey, it certainly worked for Katy once already—Katy drops an absolute bombshell: "So you can keep the diamond ring / It don't mean nothing anyway / In fact you can keep everything, yeah yeah / Except for me." The entire song, we've been waiting for something specific to tie the song directly to Russell—any kind of indication or hint that the song is, as we suspect, intended directly towards him. Smartly, Katy and company save the "AW SHIT!" moment for the song's bridge, just as it's leading up to the climax, all but ensuring that now we're totally pumped to sing along with the final chorus—especially after Katy switches the usual "Now look at me" lead-in for the "EXCEPT FOR ME!" capper.
All right, so how much of this is actually intentional? Is Katy really using this song to steer the post-divorce public dialogue in the direction she wants? Did Russell really chew her up and spit her out? Does Katy really hope that he was at home watching during the Grammys, soaking in every moment of her fabulousness and ruing the day that he decided to let her slip away? Very likely not—at the least, we don't know for sure, and we may never know. But it doesn't matter—what matters is that we couldn't help think about all of this from the very first time we heard "Part of Me," and that we'll never be able to fully disassociate the song from its real-world circumstances at any point in the future. And if Katy didn't get any kind of post-breakup advantage out of it, at the very least she did get her 7th #1 from it—and that, we assure you with complete confidence, was entirely intentional.