At first glance Kate Perry's Teenage Dream is shallow drivel, but it is the best shallow drivel in ages.
When PopMatters first reviewed Teenage Dream, it was hardly in a vacuum. “California Gurls” had already been the song of the summer that made all previous songs of summer look autumnal in comparison. Still, it isn’t a surprise the original reviewer responded negatively to this Frankenstein of an album. On first listen, the album feels somehow both bloated and hollow, like, appropriately enough, a beach ball unable to take more air. But a record like this isn’t meant for a quiet, headphoned first listen. An album this capitol-P Pop should be listened to in fragmented bits and pieces, via passed by nightclubs or other people's car radios. An album like this unleashes its earworms into the world and waits for them to crawl up into the collective psyche. In this capacity, Teenage Dream is not a bad album or even merely a good album, it is arguably a pop classic.
There are six No. 1 singles on Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection. SIX! That is more than Lady Gaga’s three No. 1 hits across all her albums -- more than the five No. 1s record holder Thriller produced -- more than almost any greatest hits album. People can hurl as many pejoratives as they want at Katy Perry but that number is staggering. You can call her music the result of the auto-tuned sound of boobs slapping together but those auto-tuned boobs have put all other auto-tuned boobs to shame (i.e. Britney Spears has only five No. 1s throughout her entire 14 year career). And Katy Perry deserves as much thanks for this as a president who turns around an economy. Undoubtedly, Perry's label put everything it had behind Teenage Dream to make it an event record. And it worked -- even in these time bereft of monocultural events.
After Katy Perry’s attempt at Christian Pop stardom many years ago, there was a time where she was a fairly earnest, completely unsuccessful singer/songwriter. This side of her peaked with the three Alanis Morrisettian songs she received sole writing credit for on her album One of the Boys. But no one cared about those songs because the Dr. Luke produced “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N’ Cold” were on that record and got, and deserved, all the attention. It’s not only that those songs were poppier, dancier or bigger -- they were also better. Dr. Luke was simply a better songwriter than Ms. Perry. So, with Teenage Dream, Katy Perry instead of demanding more artistic say, demanded less. Some might call this decision disingenuous but it is without question the reason Teenage Dream is so damn great.
Not only is Dr. Luke a better songwriter than Perry, he’s damn near a better pop songwriter than anyone. Part brilliant musician -- part genius marketer, the man knows his demo. "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" overflows with a bounty of ham-fisted lyrics but it was meant for, and loved by, the pre-ironic, maturity aspirational tween who will cheerfully sing along to, "Think I need some ginger ale/That was such an epic fail". It's difficult to give the entire album a cultural relativistic pass, especially when there are songs so cringe worthy as the penis-entendre-cheerleaded "Peacock" but there is something to an album perfectly reaching whom for which it was intended -- even "Peacock" gets a bit of a campiness pass. Take the vaguely inspirational "Firework", which feels false to a more mature audience. It has an admirable plain-spokeness that is able to reach all the adolescently uncomfortable feelings many endure. Some have knocked the lyrics for sounding like excerpts from a 16-year-old girl's diary, where in reality it's closer to what an 11-year-old girl hopes their diary will become in the coming years. Apparently, this is a characteristic that middle-aged Scandinavian songwriters, like Dr. Luke, are able to successfully inhabit.
The album is obviously not perfect -- for one thing it's so top-loaded it's almost like they intentionally wanted to make the jokes easier for people. There are the three songs produced by C. "Tricky" Stewart – "Who am I living for?", "Circle the drain", "Hummingbird Heartbeat" – that are so abrasively underwhelming, it can only be imagined that he was explicitly brought in to create tracks that would not distract from the hits that surrounded them. Also, it is still impossible to ignore how fragmented the vocals are, as if each syllable was recorded one at a time. However, what might seem as inauthentic to many, pop-genius Brian Wilson called "very clear and energetic". Though far removed, this level of flawless, precision vocal, regardless of how stilted it might, was exactly what perfectionist Brian Wilson aspired towards.
Brian Wilson, and most of the living Beach Boys, would probably agree that ultimately it's about songs and, melodically, Teenage Dream's singles truly rival any album's. Even nearly two years later, there is something still so exciting about some of these choruses; whether it's the fist-pumpingly anthemic and undeniable "Firework" and "Part of Me" or the over-the-top sugary but never chintzy "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" and "California Gurls". The original reviewer made the point that there is nothing on the album that lends "any genuine credibility to Perry as a serious artist with anything to actually say" and he was completely correct. She is not a serious artist but this doesn't mean the music is bad and that she doesn't take it seriously. Some things aren't meant to be serious and it takes someone willing, if not excited, to be stupid and frivolous and schmaltzy and obvious and silly and over-the-top and, most importantly, fun to pull it off. Katy Perry pulled it off like a bright, flamboyant, short-lived, explosive, nearly abrasive, gasps-inspiring firework.