K-K-K-Katy, not-quite-beautiful Katy / You’re the g-g-g-girl that you desperately want me to adore. Or at least whose singles you want me to buy, and on that count, your moon has, in fact, risen pretty high over the cowshed.
But at what price has Katy Perry risen to pop stardom? One that will have her singing bubblegum-raunch about spring-break lesbianism to live audiences for the rest of her career, and Perry is already old enough to know better. Now, instead of making an attempt at an artistic leap forward, Perry has, with her candy-coated follow-up, Teenage Dream, doubled down on the formula that got her here.
Perry’s pop-conquest strategy has, sure enough, billowed her right to the top of the charts. It’s one of pop’s curious cases of delayed exposition. She aborted a career in musical Jesus-sniffing after 2001, at which point she changed her name, reinvented herself as a careless party gurl, went through record labels like she was changing her Facebook status, and, apparently, met the devil at the crossroads and sold her soul to him in exchange for the devotion of electro-pop’s most platinum-lined producers.
All Perry needed to do at that point was pretend to be sexy, bitchy, and wild enough to sell the shamelessly frothy excess of 2008’s One of the Boys. Once upon a time, Katy Perry might have run screaming from her Puritanical upbringing and turned into Joan Jett, saving a fortune in cosmetics alone, but at the end of the aughts, Perry instead became a shrewd enough observer of shallow shock contrivances to deliver a mecurial pile of low-attention-span synth hooks, even if, in a more authentic yesteryear, Perry might have fostered her reasonably tough vocal punch and her melodic instincts to become a more convincing rock figure.
“California Gurls” was, of course, the radio jam of the summer, the gargantuan singalong fantasy that delivered on the promise built by the disco thump of hits like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold”. As pop fizz goes, “California Gurls” is pretty fab—even the boys have to cop to sort of liking it, if only because it makes the girls at the party dance on the coffee table. The smash hit has plenty to admire: funked-out flanger guitars, new-wave synths, sun, water, plagiarism, dick jokes, car horns, Snoop, and a chorus you know by heart halfway through your first listen.
The title track and second single is even better, mostly thanks to Katy’s lusty belting on the chorus, which soars over a filthy grind of industrial-pop programming. The song is all about romantic prom-night neverlands, updating old rock-drama archetypes (“Let’s run away and don’t ever look back!”), but she also promises that if you put your hands on her skintight jeans that you can be young forever. This girl knows how to sell it.
However, if you fall for “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream”, much of the rest of the record sounds like a dirty trick, a lugubrious series of weak melodies and general imbecility. “Last Friday Night (TGIF)” is catchy enough, and features the cheesiest sax solo ever played on a keyboard, but the verses are hammered down into a monotone catalog of girls gone wild cliches. Last Friday night, we maxed out our credit cards, got kicked out of the bar, had a menage a trois—you know, the usual. By the end of the song, the girls are chanting “TGIF!!” It’s the kind of song that’s mildly smirk-worthy on the first lesson, tolerably infectious on the second, and forever annoying thereafter.
So goes most of the album—except that part about being infectious. In fact, compared to the feloniously stupid “Peacock”, “Last Friday Night” is friggin’ “Imagine”. “Peacock” is a noble attempt to empower a nation of men who are embarrassed of their packages, but that Toni Basil-inspired cheer-squad chant (“I want to see your peakcock-cock-cock”) is a nadir on an album with plenty of them.
“Firework” is the record’s last hurrah; though nothing particularly memorable, it features a swelling, anthemic chorus that forces Perry up to the top of her range, where her hiccup gets raspy, and with a thumping club beat, stabbing synth-strings, and Perry’s pep-talk psycho-babble, “Firework” has at least a bit of staying power.
The rest of Teenage Dream? Look out below. After some severe front-loading, the album is filled out by songs that are too dark or lifeless to work alongside the Candyland motif of the cover and sunbeamy splash of “California Gurls”. Plus, songs like “E.T.” or “Circle the Drain” are neither strong nor edgy nor clever nor sonically interesting enough to lend any genuine credibility to Perry as a serious artist with anything to actually say.
On the album’s final song, a ho-hum ballad called “Not Like the Movies”, Katy asks, “Am I a stupid girl?” The answer: No. But she’s plays one on the radio.