‘Firework’ is one of Katy Perry’s best-known songs, and its lyrics were inspired by a classic work of literature, so we thought we’d consider Katy Perry’s song from a broadly ‘literary’ perspective. What is the meaning of the song’s lyrics? And which literary classic influenced the writing of those lyrics?
‘Firework’: song meaning
The song’s meaning can perhaps best be summarised as follows: it’s am inspirational song addressed to anyone and everyone who has ever felt fragile and insignificant. Perry encourages these people to discover (or rediscover) that ‘spark’ within themselves which is their true spirit or essence, the thing which will bring them alive and show the world what they are capable of.
The song’s opening verse contains some powerful imagery, although it’s a risky strategy for any song to open by comparing someone to a plastic bag (other than in jest). Whether this image was inspired by a scene in American Beauty or not, it does nevertheless convey the idea of someone who feels themselves to be both worthless and aimless, drifting or floating along, passively letting the elements dictate their direction for them.
The image of being ‘buried deep’ is a clever image which hints at the idea of being both overlooked and overwhelmed by life, and this phrase nicely epitomises the song’s meaning as a whole.
But the song is much darker than this. Being already buried deep suggests being dead already: they are alive, but only in name. They feel dead. Indeed, the idea of being ‘six feet under screams’ reinforces the idea of being buried alive, given the connotations of being ‘six feet under’.
The song’s bridge provides the way out for such people who are living-yet-dead (or dead-yet-living). They just need to find that mysterious spark within themselves and set light to it, and they will explode into life again like a beautiful firework being set off on Independence Day. (Indeed, Perry’s choice of the Fourth of July even summons the idea of relocating one’s independence when one finds that inner spark.)
The chorus doesn’t necessarily add much to the song’s meaning, at least in terms of its lyric content. However, the crescendo that the song reaches at this point obviously reinforces the explosive quality of this new-found energy and creative expression.
The song’s second verse reinforces the meaning of the first, emphasising everyone’s originality and irreplaceability. Perry also reassures her (generic) addressee that after a storm comes a beautiful rainbow, with the colourful sky-covered image visually echoing that of the firework exploding into its many colours.
Katy Perry’s song is fundamentally a paean to self-empowerment. Written by Perry herself along with Ester Dean and the song’s producers, Stargate and Sandy Vee (the latter of whom is perhaps best-known for co-producing Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl (In the World)’), the song can be categorised as an anthem.
The song’s lyrics may not be especially complex, and the sentiment they express is familiar and well-trodden ground. Such inspirational anthems are ten-a-penny, although ‘Firework’ is a catchy number. Perhaps the song’s greatest asset, then, is its memorable – and highly visualisable – central image of a person unleashing their full potential being likened to a firework exploding high in the sky.
But where did this image come from? Was it (aptly enough) inspiration, which simply came to Perry and her fellow songwriters from the ether, a la the Romantics?
Well, not quite. For what is less well-known is that ‘Firework’ was partly inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Kerouac’s book is about freedom over conformity, with the novel’s free-spirited characters rebelling against the clocklike regularity of the workaday world by taking a series of trips across the United States. So the meaning of Perry’s ‘Firework’ and the central ‘thrust’ of On the Road are not that different from each other.
The song’s bridge and chorus, with their talk of igniting the light until everyone goes ‘Oh, oh, oh’ (clearly having been rendered speechless by such a pyrotechnic display of self-affirmation), can be compared with a passage in Kerouac’s book.
In his 1957 novel, Kerouac talks of ‘the mad ones’ who ‘burn, burn, burn’ like yellow roman candles (in other words, like fireworks). For Kerouac, such people explode ‘like spiders across the stars’, and when everybody sees such an eruption they respond by going, ‘Awww’.
It’s likely that Perry’s husband at the time of ‘Firework’ (which was released on her 2010 album Teenage Dream) helped to inspire the Kerouac allusion. Russell Brand is a fan of Kerouac’s work and it’s probable that Katy Perry was either paying indirect tribute to Brand through her allusion to On the Road, or even that Brand introduced Perry to this passage from the novel.