Katy Perry is probably the only pop star I could ever feel compelled to deem a “guilty pleasure.”
In my opinion, there are two types of catchy in the world: The one with pop hooks so well-crafted you’ll want them replaying in your head until the end of time (“Umbrella,” “Just Dance”), and then there’s the obvious, derivative kind of catchy that cause you to itch and burn like an STD.
Perry’s productions are often in the latter category. In fact, they sort of like the music equivalent of herpes: Wildly contagious, annoying, and ultimately likely to lead to an intense awkwardness when revealing your condition to lovers and friends.
Take for instance one of the summer’s biggest singles, “California Gurls.” The track is little more than a direct rip of BFF Ke$ha‘s superior drunk-pop anthem, “Tik Tok,” yet it’s managed to thrive nonetheless.
It isn’t always the songs–usually the product of a suite of Swedish pop masterminds–that cause such pangs of guilt and anguish, but rather Perry herself, whose doe-eyed, potty-mouthed persona leaves much to be desired.
Perry’s shtick is obnoxious and, at times, hypocritical. Bolstered by a devoutly religious upbringing (and short-lived run as a Christian rock artist), she has the gall to criticize her fellow pop stars for being blasphemous sluts while simultaneously shooting whipped cream out of her tits and posing topless for Rolling Stone and Esquire.
For me, she’s a hard one to like–let alone to outwardly enjoy in public.
But good pop is good pop, and every now and then, Katy Perry delivers good pop.
This week sees the release of Teenage Dream, Katy Perry’s follow-up to her massively successful 2008 debut, One of The Boys. The album, like the one before, is a veritable “who’s who” of the top pop producers in the game, including Max Martin, Tricky Stewart, Greg Wells, Benny Blanco, Dr. Luke, and Stargate.
The album begins with its title track, which also happens best song of the bunch in terms of songcraft. “Teenage Dream” is not only a masterfully crafted pop tune with a smart hook, but a rare moment of tenderness for the otherwise bratty bombshell: “You think I’m pretty without any makeup on / You think I’m funny when I tell the punchline wrong,” Perry whispers on top of the song’s setting sun guitar strums.
Sure, the lyrics offer a cornucopia of only the most stereotypical lovesick vagueries, but “Teenage Dream” is still an amazing and evocative pop song. At the risk of massacring my reputation (what reputation?), it simply must be said: Listening to this song just makes you want to feel that way about someone.
“Last Friday (T.G.I.F.),” in contrast, feels entirely inauthentic. Much as with Perry’s summer smash, the song is almost a direct lift of everything you’ve already heard off of Ke$ha’s debut released earlier this year, Animal. Say what you will about Ke$ha’s aesthetic (or what she probably smells like), but any and all talk of drunken hook-ups and glitter on the floor are strictly within her domain at the moment. Any other attempt to emulate her drunk-pop revelry? Well, it just comes off sounding cheap.
The slap-happy silliness is pervasive throughout Perry’s record, including the stomping ode to the penis, “Peacock.” Scribed by one of the naughtiest names in popular songwriting at the moment, Ester Dean (“Rude Boy”; “Drop It Low”), “Peacock” is a most infectious, cheer-tastic celebration of the male member hidden behind the thinnest of veils: “Are you brave enough to let me see your peacock? / Don’t be a chicken boy, stop acting like a beeotch.” It’s the most fun offered on the record, even if the schtick wears stale after a few days.
It’s not all cotton candy and cocks, though. In interviews leading up to the release of Teenage Dream, Perry expressed her desire to fill the void of an Alanis Morrissette-like figure in today’s pop market on her next release.
“Circle the Drain” is the result of such desire, one of the album’s most impressive numbers. The song contains the best, most biting lines of the entire record: “Wanna be your lover, not your fucking mother,” Perry explodes with a vitriolic, shaking-with-anger kind of enunciation while exorcising her ex-flame’s demons.
“E.T.” and “Who Am I Living For?” follow along a similarly angst-ridden path. Still, Perry’s self-searching offerings are a bit too modern/major production (excessive instrumentation; squeaky-clean studio sounds) to be dubbed worthy of a Morrissette comparison–even if they dare to bare their teeth more than your standard Kelly Clarkson vengeance-seeking smash.
At best, Teenage Dream is a top heavy collection of party pop anthems and occasionally good, often schmaltzy slow numbers. Perhaps if she left the glitter act to Ke$ha and nixed the soggy ballads clogging up the second half of this record, Perry might have stood to offer something as tasty as her album’s cotton-candy scent. (No, really…the album smells.)
Aside from the occasional moment of sugary sweet brilliance however (“Teenage Dream”; “Firework”), the party balloons deflate rather quickly, resulting in a record that feels about as fluffy as the pink cotton candy swirled around Perry’s naughty bits on the cover.