Katy Perry’s music is a particularly cheeky offshoot of the familiar singer-songwriter branch of pop. The hit songs from her pop music debut, One of the Boys (2008), reflected an opportunistic femininity that was, simply put, complicated: “I Kissed a Girl,” “Hot ‘n’ Cold” and the polarizing “Ur So Gay” are representative of a romantic/sexual casualness tied deeply to an unwillingness to become entangled in emotional difficulties. The novelty is that there is no novelty: emotionless men! Girls who kiss girls … because it’s taboo and gets their boyfriends hot! Never because of anything as frightening and dangerous as genuine homosexual attraction. The attempts to shock are frequently undermined by the inanity of the content, and a new novelty emerges – Perry as the shock jock who is just as disturbed as the audience ought to be, inadvertently revealing a charming, un-ironic innocence in the process of bad-girl posturing. The result of such efforts for a pop record is still ultimately likeable, if confusing and estranging.
Debut albums are meant to capture an audience and sophomore albums are usually for proclamations of self-knowledge, thus, Teenage Dream should be crucial to making sense of the identity crisis at the heart of Perry’s work, right?
The majority of the music on Teenage Dream is mostly crowd-pleasing pop, though sometimes the inherent tensions and contradictions almost work. This is music informed by a sharp ear for what makes a hit song tick. The first six songs are astute smash-hit calisthenics: Choruses are lightly anthem-like and almost everything is kept percussive, including the melody – guitars, synths and bass are rhythmic and danceable. Still, at times the songs overreach themselves. “Teenage Dream” includes a chant by ambiguously-aged youths at the 3:02 mark as the stained relationship between Perry and the material rears its ugly, insistent head.
“Peacock” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” are in the same vein as Perry’s biggest hits from One of the Boys. “Peacock” is an artless ode to long-awaited male nudity and “T.G.I.F.” is a run-through of drunken escapades – nothing shocking about either of those, yet the presentation (including repeated emphasis on the second syllable of “peacock” and hints of a “warrant for … arrest” in “T.G.I.F.”) suggest that this is highly dangerous content. It somewhat works in this album because Perry’s consequence-aware delight in rule-breaking binds her to the sense of daring adolescence she reaches for in these songs. Deviant behavior is a means of getting attention, revealing a naiveté that effectively merges the character projected by the work and the artist herself. Overall, these fun, empty tracks live up to the standards of mainstream music.
The album wobbles toward its finish line, when the lyrical speed bumps of the up-tempos become gaping potholes for sluggish ballads. The songs contained in the second half struggle to reconcile the persona with the person. Perry gets stuck somewhere between being abruptly sunny and overly preachy. Her singing becomes much more engaged during the serious tracks, including “Who Am I Living For?” But the effort at sincerity actually trips up the gears of her pop-machine; her producers just want to keep up the catchiness of the past songs and run right over her voice. The grasping for emotion begins to sound like a labored effect, and any vulnerability feels cheesy and misplaced. The exception to this rule is the last track, “Not Like the Movies,” which spotlights Perry’s voice. Her vocal tendency towards breathiness becomes a gift for using texture to dredge up sympathy. For the first time in 12 tracks she sounds natural.
Like most mainstream music, Perry’s songs are great when taken in without any prolonged thought (so why the review?). Teenage Dream is a fun album, not steered by any concept, message or particular set of angst, but on the whole likeable in spite of its awkwardness.