I imagine this does not come as news to any of you, but a couple years ago, Katy Perry released a disastrous album entitled Witness. The album actually featured some interesting lyrics, but apart from the lead single “Chained to the Rhythm”, there was hardly a tune on the whole thing. It was as if Katy Perry was trying to be Courtney Barnett, and in addition to the fact that no-one wanted to see her do that, the lyrics weren’t that good…certainly not good enough to carry the album on their own. But my preference, when an established artist who was once good releases a terrible album, is to explore something from their glory days to remind people that they are indeed capable of good work. After all, everyone has weighed in on Witness‘ failure…I, on the other hand, would like to take you back to 2010, and the release of Katy Perry’s one masterpiece album, the monumental Pop smash hit Teenage Dream.
Anyone who thought Disco was dead in 2010 evidently wasn’t listening to the radio, as this album is unmistakably a Disco album. It doesn’t sound like Retro-Pop…its sound is immaculately modern (or at least was when it was released in 2010), but virtually every song is built on a Disco beat. The highlights are the title track, a beautifully constructed, glowing Pop love ballad, and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), the party song to end all party songs. Granted, the party jams of the early 2010s Club Boom were not exactly the best trend ever to hit Pop music, but still, being the definitive example of a genre that pervasive has to count for something.
The other singles were less well-received at the time, being widespread targets of mockery by various pop-culture satirists, but most of them have held up surprisingly well today. Granted, “California Gurls” leaves much to be desired in the lyrical department (both the main body of the song and the rap verse), but the superb production and insanely catchy melody make it nonetheless irresistible, and while legendary Rapper Snoop Dogg is clearly phoning in his guest verse in both lyrics and performance, his charisma still gives the song at least a faint touch of class.
“Firework” is one of the cheesiest of the long string of self-esteem anthems to come out of this era, but thanks to its explosive chorus and the way Perry throws herself into her performance, the overall result is actually kind of thrilling. Moreover, despite the sometimes clumsy analogies in the lyrics, it still comes across as genuinely sincere and warm-hearted…Perry genuinely seems to want to provide comfort to people, coming across as far more sympathetic than she had seemed on her more self-involved previous material. Indeed, it may have been the first of the self-esteem anthems of 2011/2012 to be released…remember that long before it became a single, it was already included on the album as far back as August of 2010, whereas most of its peers came from albums that were released in 2011 or later.
“E.T.” had a particularly large faction of detractors when it was released, but I blame most of that on the Kanye West rap verse added to the single. West is admittedly a better producer than rapper, but on his own albums he’s usually a reasonably competent lyricist (or was when this song was released, anyway). However, he seems to be absolutely terrible at improvising (an important skill for a widespread purveyor of guest verses), so he tends to make an ass of himself on most of his guest appearances, and this was a particularly severe case. But heard on the album, without West’s dubious contribution, the song is actually rather striking and arrestingly strange, with its cryptic, ambiguous subject matter and discordant but oddly hypnotic beat. Also, the complex, amorphous melody suits Perry’s voice as much as anything she’s ever sung, turning her tuneless moaning into an asset in a way that seems to foreshadow the success of acts like Future.
The final single from the main album, “The One That Got Away”, received a lukewarm reception even from most of Perry’s fans at the time, with many accusing it of being ‘boring’ and ‘dreary’. While it’s true that it lacks the camp appeal and uptempo excitement of her earlier singles, and that Taylor Swift was doing the same kind of thing much better at the time, this is still a perfectly respectable and even rather touching attempt at a bittersweet love song. The acoustic version included as a bonus track on the album’s rerelease, while it does not flatter Perry’s vocals, does do an impressive job of highlighting the emotional honesty of the song, and indeed is more interesting than the original recording…even Perry’s vocal strains and cracks fit rather well with the song’s emotional content.
Perry has a widespread reputation for excessive use of album filler, but at least in this album’s case, that reputation isn’t entirely deserved. Admittedly, there are two absolutely awful songs on this album…the gratuitously unpleasant “Circle the Drain” and “Peacock”, which may very well be the stupidest song ever written. The latter achieved a sort of meme status, and as a result actually managed to get played on the radio, despite the fact that its “double-entendres” are so blunt that it actually winds up repeatedly saying the word it’s supposed to be merely alluding to (“cock”, for any of you who hadn’t already figured that out). It only barely cracked the Hot 100 and never made it anywhere near the Top Forty, but it was a Number One hit on the Club Dance Charts, otherwise known as the musical kingdom of the damned.
However, the other album tracks were perfectly valid and, in many cases, excellent. The heartbreaking ballad “Not Like the Movies” is probably Perry’s best attempt at a “serious” song to date, and the joyful “Hummingbird Heartbeat” could easily have held its own as one of the singles. But the most notable album track of all is the most obscure, “Who Am I Living For?”. It was never a single, not even a promotional single, never got performed on the Grammys like “Not Like the Movies”, never got any exposure whatsoever outside of the album, but it is, hands-down, the best song Katy Perry has ever recorded. I’m not joking, either…a heartfelt song about spiritual searching set to music that sounds like the theme to a superhero movie, it is easily the most distinguished track of her entire career.
Granted, as is often the case with even good Pop albums, the bonus tracks don’t measure up to the rest of the album. The best of them, the atmospheric ballad “Wide Awake”, is rather pretty in an otherworldly sort of way, rather like a more conventionally euphonious version of “E.T.”, and could have held its own with the original album tracks. But “Part of Me”, another self-esteem anthem, is uninspired and obnoxiously belligerent, with none of the stirring melody or inspirational warmth of “Firework”, and the idiotic “Dressin’ Up” is only marginally less embarrassing than “Peacock”.
There’s a reason Perry isn’t usually thought of as an “album artist”…her other albums have admittedly not held up especially well. Her first release, One of the Boys, featured mostly decent songs (at least apart from “Ur So Gay” and the title track), but Perry herself sounded absolutely awful on it…her producers were clearly still figuring out how to doctor her voice into something listenable at that point. As for her follow-up to Teenage Dream, 2013’s Prism, it was only marginally better than Witness, with its only really outstanding song, “Roar”, being a blatant rip-off of Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”. But this album, in spite of a few duds and the uninspired bonus tracks, actually holds up an an overall ‘album’ experience, and indeed ranks with the great Pop albums of the 2010s. And long after all her late-career failures are forgotten, Teenage Dream will give Perry her longterm legacy…after all, “California Gurls”, “Firework”, “Last Friday Night”, and the title track are still radio staples to this day, and seem likely to stay that way for years to come.