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Why Did I Walk Around In the Rain All Morning Looking for This Sad Katy Perry Disco Ball?

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Image: Emmanuel Hapsis

Following celebrities on Instagram is a double-edged sword. Britney Spears' inspirational quotes can add a nice little moment of levity to your day; other times you get to be among the first (three million) people to know about Beyoncé's pregnancy.

And sometimes? Sometimes you wind up tromping around San Francisco in the pouring rain looking for a disco ball chained to a bench, just so you can hear Katy Perry's new mediocre single a day before the general public.

The new song, you see, which Katy is slated to perform at the Grammys this Sunday, is called "Chained To the Rhythm." In a board room somewhere in New York or Los Angeles, a team of highly paid executives decided the best way to visually represent this motif in a low-cost, hashtag-friendly marketing gimmick format was to chain plastic disco balls with headphone jacks in them to benches around the world, then tell people to go find them.

It all sounded incredibly stupid. Of course I went.


If you'll indulge a brief attempt at justification: This kind of marketing is interesting to me because it's at once a product of our times and incredibly old-timey. Remember when we lined up outside record stores to buy a new album the day it came out? You had to go to a physical location to consume the new music, and there you met other people who cared as much about that artist as you did. It was a collective experience. An event.

Events are harder to come by in the internet age, as evidenced by the fact that the most interesting way anyone's come up with to generate hype for an new album in the past few years is just "not announcing it." Even with a lavishly executed multi-media rollout like Lemonade, the consumer experience was first and foremost a solitary one -- we experienced it alone, behind different TV and computer screens, then texted our friends or went on Twitter to talk about it.

This was different. It was participatory. Katy wanted me to look at a map, then go find the disco ball -- at which point I would surely find a horde of Katy Perry fans. We'd take turns listening to the song, share thoughts about it, post on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat (thereby doing the viral marketing work for her), and go on our merry ways, secure in the knowledge that we were part of something special, something bigger than us -- a community. Real Katy Perry fans call themselves KatyCats, I believe? I'm too old to have ever identified by one of these pop star stan name things, but I get it. And here was a chance to see firsthand.


Except that it was pouring in San Francisco today. The interactive map showed the ball in Dolores Park, perched on a bench up near the southwest corner, looking down over the playground. So off I went, umbrella in hand, happily listening to "Firework." I wondered what kind of Katy Perry fans I would meet, and whether or not we would be instant friends. I reached the top of the hill. The disco ball was nowhere to be found.

I dutifully checked #ChainedToTheRhythm on Twitter. In other cities -- London, Paris, Tokyo -- the internet was spilling over with images and short videos of Katy Perry fans showing up, plugging in, and experiencing the previously aforementioned rhythm.

As for San Francisco: It seemed the ball had been here up until about 45 minutes earlier; there were several tweets with photos from happy, headphoned people with checkmarks next to their names (professional Katy Perry fans??) that showed I had indeed found the right bench. But all it bore now was this symbol.

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I had no idea what it meant. I checked the interactive map to see if the disco ball icon in San Francisco had moved. It hadn't. It started to rain harder. I sighed and headed for the office.

Then, idly scrolling various Katy Perry-related areas of the internet as I walked, I found a tweet from a Katy Perry fan who had managed to hear the song just before the disco ball had mysteriously disappeared. "They are taking it to the Castro fyi," read his missive -- a distant, 140-character message in a bottle. An Instagram post confirmed this, locating the ball more specifically near the Castro Theatre. A vision: all the Katy Perry fans partying in front of the theater, having fun, listening to "Chained to the Rhythm" just a mile away, without me. I turned around and headed for the Castro, full of renewed vigor for the comrades I'd yet to meet.

At this point I sent a text message to a few friends, just in case I was killed in a freak accident and no one could determine why I was walking around in the rain instead of at work at 11 on a Wednesday, an interactive map of Katy Perry-themed disco balls on record as the last thing I'd ever Googled. "I'm walking around in the rain trying to find a disco ball that's playing the new Katy Perry single," I explained. No one seemed concerned.

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I spotted it not long after rounding the corner of 17th and Market. There, chained to a metal post outside of Hot Cookie, next to a pink sign explaining through the universal language of emoticon that one needed only headphones and this marketing gimmick to achieve happiness, was a shimmering, welcoming disco ball.

No one else was there.

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Kneeling down to the wet cement, I briefly investigated the ball's physical properties, not unlike a monkey learning about a rock's potential at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I disconnected my earbuds from my phone -- "Teenage Dream" would have to wait -- and just as I was about to plug into the headphone jack, a young woman with an umbrella appeared, asking if she could take my picture.

Cory was a brand-new intern with Universal Music Group, and it had been her job to put the disco ball together earlier that morning, audio player inside, then babysit it all day long, taking photos of people listening to "Chained To the Rhythm" and sharing them accordingly on social media. She explained apologetically that she had been at Dolores Park earlier, until an officer from San Francisco Rec and Park came by and asked if she had a permit. She did not. He directed her to unchain the rhythm, so to speak, and move on.

So here she was outside Hot Cookie. She had called her boss to discuss the new location, but she certainly didn't know how to update the interactive map. So far only two people aside from me had found the rhythm as it was currently chained at its new location. Cory legitimately felt terrible about this. I tried to tell her it was no big deal. I refrained from telling her about all the new Katy Perry fan friends I was now never going to make. It wasn't her fault. I pressed on. I plugged in.

Here is my review of what turned out to be only part of "Chained to the Rhythm," as I heard it absolutely blasting on loop out of a plastic disco ball with no apparent volume control features in the middle of a downpour while balancing an umbrella with a record label intern taking pictures of me on Castro Street: "Chained to the Rhythm" sounds like if Lady Gaga's "Alejandro" and Sia's "The Greatest" and  Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music" had a baby, only worse.

It's less a devil-may-care disco tune than an aggressive, bludgeony club banger. There's a hook, and it's energetic, but not exactly uplifting. Sia wrote it, so it has a bit of that ominous minor-chord edge that suggests "you will dance to this for the next two years but also you're going to feel vaguely anxious every single time." With some help from the internet, the lyrics include the following:

We wear those colored glasses on, and the party on
Turn it up it's your favorite song
Dance, dance, dance to the disco show
Turn it up put it on repeat
Stumbling around like a wasted song**
Me? Yeah, we think we're free
Drink, this one is on me

We're all chained to the rhythm, to the rhythm, to the rhythm
Aha, so good
We wear those colored glasses on, and the party on
Turn it up, it's your favorite song
Dance, dance, dance to the disco show
Come on, turn it up, keep it on repeat
Stumbling around like a wasted song
Me? Yeah, we think we're free
Drink, this one is on me

This imagery, given our current sociopolitical climate, is certainly open to interpretation. What does it mean, exactly, to be chained to the rhythm, robbed of our individual free will -- that supposedly quintessentially American value -- but lulled into believing the choice to dance is our own? Is the rhythm capitalism? Is it fascism? Colored glasses, y'all. We think we're free, indeed.

The good news is that you will have six months to three years to ponder these questions and more, as this song is sure to be ubiquitous within the next week. And I, according to the laws of pop music, will probably love it after I've heard it 12 to 15 times.

For now, I give it a solid B-minus. I thanked Cory for her time and went on my way, but as far as I know she's still out there, babysitting the damn thing, so if you have any interest in Katy Perry or overly forced interactive corporate marketing strategy, you should really go visit her out there.

As for me: I don't know if I got the nostalgic, collective musical experience I was hoping for today -- but after I publish this, I'll share it on Twitter, hashtag it correctly, and tomorrow I might wake up with a handful of hardcore Katy Perry fans mad at me from all over the globe. If that's not evidence of a social media-driven marketing event successfully bringing people together and starting conversation in the year 2017, I really don't know what is.

(**Full disclosure: Until the internet corrected me I thought "Stumbling around like a wasted song / me?" was actually "Stumbling around like a wasted zombie," which would have been better.)



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