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Fleeting Wisdom From Pop Culture: My Take on Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake”

**Author’s note: I do not personally know the individuals I speak of in this post, so keep in mind this is speculation based on limited public knowledge, combined with my personal experience, and the testimony and background knowledge of others who have been through similar experiences. In other words, this has about the same factual equivalency to any other celebrity gossip article in the media.**

I think it’s a rare treat when “popular culture” has anything to offer in the way of insight, so this is a shout out to Ms. Katy Perry for putting this out there!

I’ve read a few articles that say the song and video are about the pitfalls of fame, and others that it was about the ending of Katy Perry’s marriage, and while either of those things may or may not be true, it certainly parallels the experience of being in a relationship with a narcissist eerily well.

To check out the lyrics for this song, click here.

The song and video contain some pretty powerful imagery, which seem to allude to some concepts commonly found in modern psychology. In trying to figure out why I have a lifelong history of being surrounded – and indeed attracting – narcissists (or worse), I know these themes have come up again and again in dozens of self-help and psychology books.

In the video, we have two main characters, adult Katy, and little Katheryn, who, in my opinion, represents Katy’s “inner child”.

At the start of the video, we see Katy in her dressing room after a video shoot. She gazes into the mirror, and then the scene transforms into a dark labyrinth, with Katy wandering about, seemingly lost and confused, when she comes upon a brightly colored strawberry that she immediately bites into. The ingestion of the fruit seems to trigger the labyrinth walls to start closing in, then these walls recoil as Katy pushes back. We also see a beam of light shoot out of Katy’s chest skyward, like an emergency flare coming from the middle of the maze.

From a symbolism perspective, the strawberry might be analogous to the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil”, as illustrated in the Bible, for example. While there are many ways to look at this one, I see this moment as the “turning point”, the moment of realization that something has gone terribly awry in her life. The light shooting out of Katy’s heart like a beacon, in my opinion, is symbolic of crying out, to a higher power, to God, to the universe, for guidance, for comfort, for answers. In my own life, in realizing that things were not as they seemed, that a person I thought I loved was not at all who he appeared to be, I have had moments like that. It’s heartbreaking, confusing, and overwhelming – you feel utterly lost, alone and desperate.

Soon, through a narrow rift in the wall, we find Katy face to face with Katheryn. Katy takes it upon herself to protect little Katheryn and find a way out.

This is where the idea of the “inner child” comes in, perhaps where Katy starts to look at her life and how she got to where she is now. How we choose and view the world as adults is often a continuation of patterns that have their roots in childhood.

The pair are next seen walking down a bright hallway, Katy now in a beautiful dress (if you look closely, the dress is also made to resemble a tree), still in the labyrinth, with fancy mirrors all along its length. Katy and Katheryn get to yet another dead end, and find that the last mirror is actually a one-way pane of glass, through which they can dimly see a cadre of menacing paparazzi photographing them. Katheryn turns around to see the floor crumbling out behind them.

This scene may support some references I’ve run into about the video being about the pitfalls of fame, but in keeping with the concept of adult choices having childhood roots, I see the hallway as symbolic of a narrow direction that perhaps a person may be pressured towards (for example, a specific career choice), the mirrors reflecting self-consciousness of how one is perceived by others, and the presence of dogged paparazzi as a violation of privacy, and the twisting of one’s image no matter how one presents oneself. The crumbling floor, to me, is a metaphor of the fragility of a life built upon other people’s expectations.

How this relates to being in a relationship with a narcissist, or growing up in a narcissistic family, is that we are subjected to control, at the expense of our true selves. Our natural need to find our own way, to express ourselves freely, to explore our own likes and dislikes, to learn who we are as part of but distinct from the rest of our family of origin, is pushed aside in order to meet the needs of our caregivers. I see the “tree dress” as a symbol of Katy’s connection to the influence of her family, but clothing is essentially superficial. A person can choose behaviors and a life path that accords with the family’s expectations and “image”, but those choices may not reflect that person’s inner desires and dreams.

This morphs into the next scene, where Katheryn pushes a nearly catatonic Katy in a wheelchair through some double doors, into a hallway towards an exit sign, in what looks like some sort of mental institution. Between her and the exit door, Katheryn confronts a couple of imposing creatures who suddenly appear, having bodies of men with bull-skull heads and small bells hanging from the horns, dressed in white shirts and pants, and gloves. Katheryn looks them up and down, then with defiance, stomps and yells, “GO!”, at which moment these “minotaurs” disappear and Katy wakes from her trance-like state. Katy rises from her chair, grabs Katheryn’s hand, and they run through the exit door.

I have no doubt the the bull symbolism goes much deeper than I know, but I will take from it what speaks to me. A “death of self” is often what is experienced in narcissistic relationships. Having both Katheryn and Katy present in this scene, I think, supports that this squelching of self has been a feature of her childhood as well as young adulthood. Perhaps Katheryn’s rebellion against the seeming authority of these beings in the video is a way of recognizing how Katy’s vulnerability as a child made it easy for her to be controlled by others – but as the lyrics say, “…I wish I knew then, what I know now, wouldn’t dive in, wouldn’t bow down.” As an adult, Katy has enough life experience to recognize the huge personal cost of being controlled, and would want her “inner child” to know that she has more power than she thought she did, hence Katheryn’s authoritative dismissal of the bull-man creatures. In some schools of thought, nurturing the “inner child” that was controlled or neglected is an important part of the healing process.

On the other side of the door, the pair walk into a bright, sunny space of tall hedges and beautiful flowers everywhere. There they encounter a hedge trimmed in the shape of a cat with hypnotic spinning eyes, and there appears a handsome man, presumably a prince, dressed in white, riding a white unicorn. The prince charmingly approaches Katy, all the while crossing the fingers of one hand behind his back. While it seems that Katy doesn’t see the crossed fingers (in schoolyard practice, crossing one’s fingers behind one’s back when one tells a lie supposedly absolves the liar of responsibility for the lie’s consequences) she swings at and knocks out this fellow, much to Katheryn’s amazement.

I see this final scene as the result of having come through these life experiences with the newfound knowledge it takes to better discern in the future. It IS possible to make better judgements and decisions once one has awareness of dysfunctional conditioning from childhood, and of unhealthy patterns later in life. In the video, Katy sees someone presenting himself to her as literally “too good to be true” and even though she cannot see with her eyes that he is lying or manipulating her (by the fingers he crosses behind his back), she is still able to discern that he is bad news. This ties in well with some of the lyrics at the beginning of the song, “…and now it’s clear to me, that everything you see, ain’t always what it seems…”

Katy sees Katheryn off outside the labyrinth, and then the scene goes back to Katy’s dressing room.

To those of us who can relate (I’m sure that includes the few gracious souls who follow my blog), it will come as no surprise that Katy’s famous ex husband, Russell Brand, is quite well known for his self-centeredness, even outright describing himself publicly as “quite narcissistic”. (In my own experience, if someone directly tells you he is a ______________(insert applicable Cluster B personality disorder), you’d be wise to listen and conduct yourself accordingly.) If Ms. Perry penned this song mostly by herself, she likely has plenty in common with the rest of us survivors of narcissistic abuse, and has sought to gain an understanding of her issues through self-education and/or good therapist(s) who “get it”.

There are some stray bits in the lyrics that I think are significant.

People who aim to control us often “butter us up” – bestow flattery on us – to get what they want. This is a very common tactic with narcissists and psychopaths, and other manipulators. They look for our vulnerabilities, and exploit us through them, often by paying us lots of attention when we are feeling lonely, or by being our “cheerleaders” when we lack confidence. Some well-intentioned people do the same thing, but disordered people often use “building us up” as a tactic to get what they want from us, without true regard for us after they’ve achieved their goal. We are but a means to an end. “…Gravity hurts, you made it so sweet, until I woke up on, on the concrete…” and,  “…Falling from Cloud 9, crashing from the high…” It’s also interesting to note the reference to this as a “high” – that this “feeling good” is artificial in some way, maybe because it is coming from external validation from another, instead of from within. Some disordered people even experience what has been referred to as “duping delight”. They enjoy pulling one over on us, then watching us fall, just because they can, often just for the sport of it. It’s all about control and power.

The lyrics also seem to refer to the importance of awareness, healing, and developing healthy self-esteem. “…I’m wide awake, not losing any sleep, I picked up every piece, and landed on my feet, I’m wide awake, need nothing to complete myself, no…” This comes across as a hard lesson learned. That not feeling whole, in and of oneself, leaves one vulnerable to the wolves.

Lastly, the part I find most interesting in the lyrics is this: “…yeah, I am born again, out of the lion’s den, I don’t have to pretend, and it’s too late, the story’s over now, the end…” If you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissistically disordered person, or grew up in a narcissistic family system, the reference to the “lion’s den” is easy to relate to. The lion is a strong predator, the den is his home, and a trap, of sorts. Freeing oneself from dysfunctional relationships and control is ultimately liberating. In this case, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Katy is referring to both her marriage, and her home life growing up… I just happened to look up the website for Keith Hudson Ministries (Keith and Mary Hudson are Katy Perry’s parents, and both are fundamentalist Christian pastors), and immediately took note of their chosen logo. Coincidence?

My interpretation of the song may be totally off the mark, but I find it interesting (and inspirational) nonetheless.

**This is totally anecdotal, but myself and several friends who grew up in narcissistic family systems have many things in common. All of our parents are committed churchgoers (denominations and even religions vary, but this is a common thread). At minimum they all go to church every week, without fail. Several among our parents have lives that revolve almost entirely around their respective churches and their ministries. All our households were quite strict in terms of what music we were allowed to listen to, what books we were allowed to read, what television shows we were allowed to watch. Sex education, except for one or two of us, was avoided altogether, or left to the school system to provide. A few of us were home-schooled. For every one of us, how we looked to the outside world was of paramount importance to our parents. We were all taught to serve and to give until it hurt, to do our best to be well thought of by others, to “turn the other cheek” when faced with tormentors. We were fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated, yet we were repressed. Our parents were nearby, but emotionally distant, leaving us seeking to fill the void. Most of us could not wait to move out of our parents’ homes. Half of us became pregnant in our teens, most of us went on to marry controlling men and/or men with addictions. All of us work in occupations where we are of service to or solve problems for others in some way. Most of us are spiritual, but no longer adhere to our parents’ belief systems.**

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