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What does “Rise” by Katy Perry mean?

I’ve never been Katy Perry’s biggest fan. Something about the candy costume in “California Girls” threw me off. And “Roar” is too much pump-up without enough purpose. But it doesn’t matter what I think, right? The point here is to explain this song objectively and line-by-line.

Perry’s song “Rise” is the theme for NBC’s 2016 Olympics coverage this year (says Wikipedia), and it’s good at that. The music video “sports” pictures of a variety of athletes from different countries in the 2012 Summer Olympics, and capitalizes on the strong “let’s win” themes of Perry’s song. But there’s still a little bit more to it.

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The Meaning

Verse 1

Katy Perry sings, “I won’t just survive / Oh, you will see me thrive.” With these first two lines, she gives away the main point of her song. She wants to overcome and to do something amazing. And she’s not going to let other people tell her she can’t win; she says that you “[c]an’t write my story.”

“Rise” takes a more interesting literary twist when she sings, “I’m beyond the archetype / I won’t just conform.” Archetypes in literature (and elsewhere) are stories or plots we’re all familiar with. We’ve all seen a “rags-to-riches” movie (Annie) or read a book about growing up and becoming wiser and sadder (Harry Potter). When Perry mentions archetypes here, she’s not just saying that she’s not going to be an archetypal loser, she’s saying that she’s going to win so much that no story has been written before that could be compared to hers.

And she continues, “No matter how you shake my core / Cause my roots, they run deep.” She’s determined, and her motivation isn’t a passing whim. This is something she’s wanted for a while, and she’s ready to go for it no matter what.

Pre-Chorus 1

Here, Katy Perry sings, “Oh, ye of so little faith / Don’t doubt it, don’t doubt it.” She’s drawing on her religious past here to momentarily compare herself to God. The first line is a reference to Matthew 8:26 when Jesus rebukes his disciples for being afraid of a storm. He wanted to assure them, but Perry here is saying that people will look like fools for not believing in her because “[v]ictory is in my veins / I know it, I know it.”

And she’ll make no compromises or “negotiate.” She’s planning to “fight it,” and even though she may not look like it right now, she’s ready to “transform” so that she can “rise” to the challenge.

Chorus

The chorus is where things get really intense as Katy Perry sings, “When . . . the fire’s at my feet again / And the vultures all start circling.” Here’s she’s showing that the situation is getting difficult, and she must respond. In addition, “vultures” refers to people who think she is going to fail and who are ready to tear her apart if she does. This makes sense since vultures are carrion birds that eat dead animals they spot while out searching.

These “vultures” are “whispering, ‘You’re out of time,'” to Perry, but she sings, “But still, I rise.” And she wants her success accredited to herself, not to chance: “This is no mistake, no accident.”

And even if it looks like she’s about to die, she wants listeners and haters to know that she’s still in the game. She sings, “When you think the final nail is in; think again / Don’t be surprised, I will still rise.”

Verse 2

This verse acts mainly as a transition back into the pre-chorus and chorus. Perry sings about needing to “stay conscious” and how “[t]hrough the madness and chaos” she is going to “call on [her] angels.” Who these angels are is going to differ from person to person, and only Perry knows if her angels are encouraging friends, assertive thoughts, or a spiritual influence. But it really doesn’t matter. In this case, they’re meant to be whatever encourages the person listening since “[t]hey say . . .” what comes next in the second iteration of the pre-chorus.

Pre-Chorus 2

“Oh, ye of so little faith / Don’t doubt it . . . / Victory is in your veins.” Perry’s angels modify her pre-chorus by changing all of the first person pronouns (I) to second person pronouns (you), affirming everything that she said about herself earlier.

Outro

The outro repeats lines from earlier stanzas and focuses on the idea that Katy Perry will “[s]till rise” and that she needs to “just fight it.”

Deeper thoughts on the meaning of “Rise” by Katy Perry

I’ve got to credit Wife April for my deeper thoughts on this song. Last night while we were doing our grocery shopping (yes, we usually do it after 9PM–not sure why), we heard “Rise” and April shared her thoughts on it.

She explained that it was interesting that “Rise” was NBC’s song for the 2016 Olympics since the Olympics used to be about honoring the Greek gods. Perry’s song, on the other hand, is definitely about honoring one’s self and acknowledging and encouraging one’s own power to accomplish and overcome.

April and I both wondered if that was reflected in the contemporary Olympics and how that same attitude affects why athletes compete. Is it for glory of self or glory of something else?

Perry’s song suggests that it is about one’s own ability to overcome and that the Olympics are a testament to the fierce power of humanity when it really wants something. More specifically her song suggests that it’s about each individual person’s attempt to beat others to get to the Olympics or to any goal.

Keep in mind the difference then; the Olympics used to be about honoring gods, and now they’re an honoring of the self and of humanity in general, which gives the Olympics a different purpose and flavor entirely. (It’s generally more about bringing different countries together in fun competitions.)

Perry’s “Rise” prompts me to ask several questions: “What is Perry striving for?” “What happens when she gets there?” “Why the rush?” “Why does she want to win so badly?” “What good comes of it?”

She may have excellent answers and I may be too existentialist to fully appreciate her song, but these are the questions a pump-up song that seems to go nowhere except the glorification of the self prompts in me.

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Clifford Stumme

Thanks for reading! I’m a college English instructor, university writing center director, and online entrepreneur (college for under $15k, anyone?) who cares deeply about TRUTH and MEANING. I’m married to the gloriously beautiful Wife April and love to swing dance and juggle.

  • litewave

    I agree with your interpretation about this song as being about self empowerment and overcoming obstacles (fits nicely with the Olympics context). However, when I first saw the NBC Olympics video, a different interpretation came to my mind. Maybe it was prompted by the statue of Jesus that appears at the very beginning of the video. It felt as if the words sung by Katy were coming from God, through her. Like, God reminding those “of little faith” that he will rise, that he will not conform, that he will transform. And that he transcends all archetypes, that is, all images or ideas people may have of God, all definitions. He can’t write his story because he is undefined; the storytelling/expression must be done by his temporal creatures.

    In the second half of the song it appears as if God associates his victory with the victory of those to which he speaks: victory is in YOUR veins, YOU know it, YOU will not negotiate, BE transformed. The rising of God merges with the rising of man, a creature created in God’s likeness. The exoteric interpretation of human empowerment merges with the esoteric interpretation of God’s arrival through the transformation of man. Greek individualism merges with Christian spirituality, even as the statue of Christ towers above the Olympics site. Christ’s resurrection is a metaphor for and/or a historical prefigurement of the salvation of fallen humankind.

    Why does the message sound so urgent? Here is what Katy said: “This is a song that’s been brewing inside me for years, that has finally come to the surface. I was inspired to finish it now, rather than save it for my next album, because now more than ever, there is a need for our world to unite. I know that together we can rise above the fear – in our country, and around the world. I can’t think of a better example than the Olympic athletes, as they gather in Rio with their strength and fearlessness, to remind us how we ALL can come together, with the resolve to be the best we can be. I hope this song can inspire us to heal, unite, and rise together.”

    Out of the turmoil of a globalizing world comes a resolution… unity in diversity.

    • That would be a pretty neat explanation. I haven’t seen much similar subject matter from Perry, so I doubt it, but I think it’s still neat that someone could take the last half of the song that way.

  • litewave

    Yeah but she did write pretty spiritual (though not explicitly religious) songs from time to time in the past, like Firework or Unconditionally.

    • I don’t think those lyrics are necessarily spiritual, are they? “Firework,” at least, is just a pump-up song, right?

  • litewave

    Well, she sings about igniting the light in you and opening up your heart… There is a theme of compassionate love in these songs and videos.

    • I mean, a small one, maybe. Does it progress anywhere else?

  • Tom

    Katy sometimes plays with spiritual symbolism. In the Unconditionally video, for example, at 1:29 she has an owl perched on her hand (symbol of wisdom?), at 2:15 there is a boy pointing to the sky, at 3:30 she eats a pear (forbidden fruit?), and there seems to be a symbolism of the connection between self-sacrifice and love as she gets hit by a car while there’s a profusion of flowers appearing around her.

    Wide Awake video is pretty symbolic too. She has a vision in which she gets lost in a maze, eats a strawberry (forbidden fruit again?), has one arm darkened and the other pure (dichotomy of dark and light), she meets a little girl who saves her and they escape from the maze, the little girl turns out to be Katy’s child self (Katheryn), the little girl gives her a butterfly (symbol of transformation), which Katy keeps as the vision ends and she continues her daily life.

  • Kristin

    This is exactly how I took the song. I really think it has a lot to do with Jesus. More than people think. She sings “when you think the final nail is in, think again.” That makes me think about Jesus being nailed to the cross.