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27 August 2020

Katy Perry’s new album Smile: fun-loving but unoriginal pop

Pop has moved on from the bright-eyed days of 2008, while the Californian singer has not.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Katy Perry has never cared for subtlety. She wasn’t interested in it right from the beginning, when she arrived in mainstream pop with “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold” in 2008 (following a failed 2005 country/gospel album released under the name Katy Hudson). On these singles, the American singer was brash and flirtatious, her breathy vocals setting hearts racing as she leaned into kitsch with a playful wink. 

She followed this through on her second record, Teenage Dream, where, in the video for lead single “California Girls”, she wore a glossy lilac wig and ejected squirty cream from a sequin bra. Perry’s music – dance-inflected pop, with her church-trained vocals helming catchy choruses produced by industry titans including Max Martin and Dr Luke – was fun and fearless. Her cutesy, goofy aesthetic was, she said in an interview with Billboard magazine in 2015, “soft-serve sexiness”. 

At that time, Perry dominated pop radio, her singles so repeatedly successful that in 2010 she became the first artist since Michael Jackson to score five number one US singles off one album. As the decade progressed and streaming services encouraged even the poppiest of artists to focus on whole albums, where every song could have the potential to make it onto one of Spotify’s coveted playlists, Perry’s dominance waned. Witness, her fourth major label album, released in 2017, topped the charts in the US and Canada, but reached only number six in the UK and then disappeared from the top 40 entirely within a month. It scored no number one singles.

Witness bombed because with it Perry tried to be political, and subsequently shot herself in the foot. On the 2017 Grammys red carpet, she described the album’s content as “purposeful pop”. She labelled herself an “advocate” and an “activist” having vocally supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election. But the record did not follow up on her promise. Perry was criticised for collaborating with hip-hop trio Migos who were in hot water over homophobic comments, and for reigniting an unnecessarily petty feud with Taylor Swift on “Swish Swish”. These are not the foundations for the next great progressive album. Pop had moved on from the bright-eyed days of 2008, while Perry had not.

Perry has long been used to some pushback: the performative bi-curiosity of “I Kissed a Girl” stoked controversy at the time, not to mention the even less subtle “Ur So Gay”; and she has been criticised for the cultural appropriation which defined much of the aesthetic of her first three albums. But it is only now that she has used a record to dwell on the personal crisis brought on by a negative reception to her work.

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On Smile, released this Friday (28 August), she has abandoned earlier desires to make a record which is politically conscious. The album comprises many of the individual features that made Perry so loveable in the first instance – sing-along choruses, empowering anthems and a sense that wherever the fun-loving Perry is going, you’ll want to come along for the ride. But it’s too chaotic to ever be fully cathartic.

Perry’s spiritual rebirth, framing herself as a woman who has made peace with her past mistakes, is intrinsic to the lyrical content of the album – which is neat, as its release coincides with the actual birth of her first child with her partner, the British actor Orlando Bloom. She remains true to her up-front sensibility, but where she once did this with a twinkling rebellion in her eye, here, the topics she addresses are too weighty to really satisfy such bluntness. While squirty cream bras require a brash attitude, convincing introspection from a grown-up star benefits from a little more subtlety, even when it comes with a big pop sound. But subtlety, even here, is not the order of the day.

Opening track and lead single “Never Really Over” is a synth-pop belter about a will-they-won’t-they relationship. Perry’s voice is typically resplendent – like gossamer in the intimate moments and then suddenly awe-inspiring in the anthemic ones, and with a serious knack for making breathlessness sound powerful. At times her phrasing and intonation are reminiscent of Taylor Swift, her melodies reaching skywards before a pulsating beat enters to mark the incoming chorus. But every so often a clumsy lyric trips the song up. “Cause I can’t even go on the internet / Without even checking your name”, Perry sings. She may skim over the clunky beat filler with vocal grace, but its very existence jars.

“Champagne Problems”, too, could have been a B-side on Swift’s Reputation, its sharp syllables punctuated with snappy percussion and a certain venom rarely heard from typically smiley Perry. The chorus of “Tucked”, an electric guitar-led song about a love lived inside your head, is reminiscent, harmonically and rhythmically, of the dubstep shuffle of Katy B’s “Lights On”, while the opening lines of “Only Love” nod to “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent. Where Perry was once setting the pop agenda, she is now borrowing sonic titbits from others to pull herself back together.

If a lack of musical originality wasn’t enough, Smile is too over-burdened with declarations of self-improvement to ever feel truly authentic. “Resilient” relies on an extended flower metaphor which sees Perry “growing through the cracks” and overcoming “weeds” and “concrete”. Perry is no stranger to such imagery – “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag / Drifting through the wind / Wanting to start again?” she asked, somewhat ridiculously, on 2010’s “Firework”. This goofy dramatisation of every emotion became part of Perry’s appeal. But on “Resilient”, her articulation of her personal growth is weak, her lyrics forgettable. 

The album closer, “What Makes a Woman”, starts as a country-inflected ballad, before the production steps up and Perry’s vocals are accompanied by a glimmer of glitchy electronics. Before long, it’s tripping full pelt into a melancholic dance-floor number, and her voice becomes almost unrecognisable. 

“Is it the way we keep the whole world turning in a pair of heels? / Yeah, that’s what makes a woman,” she sings, before the music suddenly stops, and Perry is left to comfort herself: “There it is, Katheryn,” she says. It’s an awkward, stilted ending to an album on which Perry attempts to provide some explanation as to the person she’s become, after a decade and a half in the business. For listeners, it offers no resolution at all.

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