The Troubling Message Behind Katy Perry’s “Firework”

Although I, admittedly, find myself bopping to the beat if one of her songs comes on the radio, the lyrics in much of what Katy Perry sings are quite…unkosher. But there is one of Katy’s songs that most people would agree has a positive, inspiring message: “Firework.”

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?

Do you ever feel already buried deep six feet under?
Scream but no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there’s still a chance for you
‘Cause there’s a spark in you?

You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine
Just own the night like the 4th of July

‘Cause, baby, you’re a firework
Come on, show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y

Baby, you’re a firework
Come on, let your colours burst
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh”
You’re gonna leave ’em all in awe, awe, awe

Boom, boom, boom
Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon

While I would also agree that there is an overall positive message in this song, and it is certainly better than the drunken debauchery that Perry sings about at other times, I am drawn to the similarities and differences between “Firework” and “This Little Light of Mine,” which is nearly a hundred years older and was written as a children’s gospel song. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” is essentially all the second song is comprised of. Both pieces beautifully describe the spark or light within every human being which a very Jewish idea. But then the songs diverge. With the older, religiously themed song, the goal is to shine your personal light onto the world. The light I envision in “This Little Light of Mine” is a candle, with a pure, modest glow. Even though a candle’s flame is meager, when brought into darkness, a little light can cause great illumination.

Compare that image to Perry’s song where the idea is to “own the night,” “show them what you’re worth,” and go “boom, boom, boom.” The drastic difference in how to use your God given light makes me wonder where our society has come in these last hundred years. Our culture is obsessed with attention. Reality TV shows. Viral internet videos. Fame. Tabloids. Paparazzi. When you think about how loud and in your face fireworks are: they dominate the sky, you hear them even if you’re not in the mood to hear them. It troubles me to think that the “fireworks” model of light has become the new model when our society thinks of greatness.

As a public figure whose mission is to rebrand Orthodox Jews and Judaism to the world, I do get noticed and, unfortunately, it makes the good that I’m trying to accomplish a little less worthwhile because the ego likes honor. That’s not to say that it’s the honor that motivates me – on the contrary, it’s the mission that I believe in with my heart and soul. But the very essence of the mission requires publicity, and I am aware that any act which brings public acclaim diminishes the greatness of the act to some extent.

On the other hand, there’s a woman I know who for years cared for her sick father, and now in the wake of his death, devotes a tremendous amount of time and energy in caring for her mother and her younger siblings, and no one is writing her up in newspapers and no one is seeing her face on a screen, and not too many people are thanking her for her devotion. Because of her commitment to her own family and to her mother and siblings she doesn’t have much time for anything else. She’s always telling me how great she thinks I am, but when I look at what she does in her modest, thankless way, I see true greatness.

In reality, those quiet acts of kindness, the ones that never get publicized, the ones that don’t get recognized, the ones that don’t leave the doer with any glory – those acts are precious in a way that attention getting acts can never be. That’s not to say there’s not a time and a place for actions that get noticed, but Judaism believes that God is hidden and in our attempt to emulate the Almighty, we should try to live in a way that doesn’t scream for attention either. As our sages so wisely say “if one seeks his own honor, his honor runs away from him,” (Pirkei Avos). So be the firework if and when life requires you to be, but try more often to be the candle and let your little, but powerful light shine.

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  • Avatar photo bill price says on July 4, 2013

    your spreading of wisdom is just a candle to me. i must look for you in my email. you are a subtle light, which i must seek. and i will.

    may you be quietly blessed


  • Avatar photo Sharon Langert says on July 4, 2013

    This is one of you nicest posts. I really really enjoyed it! Have a great Shabbos!

  • Avatar photo jasmin says on July 5, 2013

    beautifully written, thank you!!

  • Avatar photo Sara says on July 9, 2013

    This is one of the most thought provoking posts I’ve seen on here, Allison. It makes so much sense. Why would anyone want to be a firework that’s attention getting, but gone in the blink of an eye when they could be a candle that burns and burns? Unfortunately, we have too many fireworks lately.

    Also, I completely understand why Katy Perry’s lyrics are not kosher, although I’m not Orthodox myself. But I’m curious, what, if any, popular singers/songs have kosher lyrics? Maybe that could be another topic.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 9, 2013

      Thanks! In terms of popular singers with kosher lyrics, there’s a camp within the Orthodox world which does not believe in partaking of anything secular in terms of media/knowledge, etc. This is not my camp. Though I do get where they’re coming from to some extent because when you start partaking, subjectivity comes in and often so does laziness and carelessness.

      My camp is of the partaking of secular media on a case by case basis. What songs does that include? The ones that aren’t explicitly sexual, I guess. There are a few songs like that left! Like I said though, the down side of this approach is once you open yourself up to secular music and turn on the radio do you find yourself keeping a song on and joining Katy Perry and others in song as they glorifyi drunken debauchery without even realizing it?! 🙂 If you’re going to do the “partaking of the world” approach, you need to be constantly checking yourself, have close friends with similar values, be intellectually honest, etc.

      • Avatar photo AriellaK says on July 4, 2014

        I recently switched over to country because the lyrics tend to be much more tame and positive sometimes too. There is still some sexual references but it’s hidden, much more subtle, not the same as the rest of the songs on the radio.

        At least I feel like I’m doing better when I choose to listen to country instead of top 40.

  • Avatar photo Sharon says on August 21, 2013

    Just so you know, the song “This Little Light of Mine” was never a song for children only. In fact, it was one of the songs sung by civil rights protesters.

  • Avatar photo Sue Haley says on July 5, 2014

    Considering Katy Perry's very Christian, almost fundamentalist, upbringing, it seems a natural progression from assimilating songs from her childhood into what she writes as an adult. She's said in interviews that she expected to be the next Amy Grant, but her early adult Christian pop never took off. She did have to away from her 'light' and introduce more racy, common themes to get where she is now. I pray that inside her heart there remains that child who loved the Light of HaShem.

  • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on January 9, 2015

    “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine” is just the repetitive chorus. The full song has many verses, and is based on Jesus’ saying “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” This is the same Jesus who said to do good works in secret such that your left hand does not even know what your right hand has done, so this may seem to be a contradiction, but what he is saying is “when you accomplish something important and your motivation is love of God, share it with others so it will serve to glorify God.” It would seem very apt for you Allison. 🙂


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