Artist: Katy Perry
Album: Teenage Dream
In Brief: It’s too long, kind of disgusting, and the good parts are a bit hard to swallow. (That’s what she said.)
Oh, Katy Perry. You never cease to amuse me, in much the same way that a jackknifed semi truck on fire amuses onlooking drivers on the opposite side of a Los Angeles freeway during rush hour. Somewhere in the musical space between the trashy banality of Ke$ha and the one-screw-loose shock tactics of Lady Gaga, you exist. While I know I’m about as far from your target audience as one can get (I’m not a teenage girl, and by virtue of being an adult, I don’t get the same naughty rush out of the stuff you sing about getting away with as if you were still a bratty teenager), I just can’t seem to pass up a new album of yours, just to chuckle at the audacity of it all. I still wonder, two years after your career got kickstarted with your mainstream debut One of the Boys, if you’re in on the joke. I really hope you are. Because some of your songwriting (however many myriads of people it takes to help you crank these singles out, that is) is just so hilariously tasteless that I can’t help but think it was done on purpose. The kicker is that most people get so hung up on the catchy beats your dream team producers have concocted for your songs, that they either don’t notice what you’re really saying, or just plain don’t care. That’s the pop music world for you. If you’re exploiting this weakness on purpose, then I suppose on some level, I have to respect that.
You probably wish that folks like me who saw brief glimpses of what you were actually like as a teenage performer would just stop bringing it up already. Your past as an also-ran Christian pop star is behind you. We get that. What’s funny is that every now and then, in between songs about pretending to be gay and songs about insulting those who actually are gay, and a bunch of other tales of seedy exploits that have probably been exaggerated just for the lolz, you suddenly try to get all deep and meaningful, as if some semblance of that wide-eyed teenager songwriter were still there inside you. Which would be fascinating… if it resulted in good songs. Mostly, that side of your personality seems to result in the sort of filler material that will never see the light of day as a radio single. I can appreciate the effort to show a different side of your personality, but you know, it becomes so hard to swallow when most of your act is more about over-the-top image than actually being, y’know, a talented musician or a competent singer. Which is a shame, because you actually are a good singer, and every now and then the serious balladeering shows a hint of what you’re capable of, but then it’s back to tarting it up like it’s still cool to want to be Britney Spears. I can’t figure you out. But I’ll admit it’s perversely enjoyable to try.
So it’s 2010, and you’ve dropped Teenage Dream on us. Never one to be subtle, there you are in pink, cotton candy clouds on the cover, with your dairy-air so strategically covered, and ALRIGHT KATY, WE GET IT, YOU’RE A SEX GODDESS. Never mind the unfortunate implications of the word “Teenage” being emblazoned on such a picture. (Really, it’s better not to think about these things.) But that’s the thing with you, Katy – you’re so big on the barely-veiled double entendres in so much of your “song” “writing”, and yet oblivious to the more insidious message that lurks behind a lot of it. I’m not your father, of course – and I’m not anyone else’s father, either – so I’m not saying let’s round up our torches and pitchforks and run you out of town before you corrupt the minds of our youth or whatever. But I still feel like you’ve got this faux-empowered woman thing going on that is probably just setting your gender back several years. I harped on that quite a bit when I reviewed One of the Boys, and I don’t mean to completely rehash it here. Just be aware that not all of the “gurls” you’re celebrating here will take your sentiments as a compliment, nor will your gyrating to turn the guys on always have the desired effect.
And honestly, I don’t know why I’m writing this review in the second person, as if you, Kathryn Elizabeth Brand, would actually read it and take any of it to heart. I’m not supposed to be telling the singer what’s what about her own songs; I’m supposed to be steering consumers away from this aural and lyrical disaster that you call a pop album. Except for the morbidly curious ones. Who are probably the only people who have a reason to keep reading at this point. So I will stop writing to you, and start writing for them.
1. Teenage Dream
The title track is a microcosm of how I feel about Katy Perry herself – part of it’s really cute, part of it’s too much information. The “cute” part comes from the laid-back, 80’s vibe and some elements of a love story that do genuinely inspire “awww”s. Falling in love makes the heart feel younger than it is. I’m cool with that sentiment – though “We’ll be young forever” might be overreaching. Or maybe I’m just a bit cynical. Either way, she found her main squeeze and good for her. I had to keep in mind that her hubby Russell Brand was in the picture upon subsequent listens to this one, because once again, that word “teenage” is throwing me off and I thought it actually was some fantasy story about losing it to some guy in high school. That just makes all the stuff about getting drunk on the beach and going “all the way” a bit squicky, because let’s face it, that stuff happens and it generally doesn’t end up as dreamy as it sounds here. Basically, we spent the song flip-flopping between convincingly fuzzy lovebird language, some awkward cliches like “I finally found you, my missing puzzle piece”, and embarrassing come-ons that should probably have been kept private. This would be one of Katy’s better songs – I don’t mind too much that it gets stuck in my head.
2. Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)
Party song! Sort of. Some nice slap bass here, but the beat can’t seem to get kicked up beyond a simmer. Which might be just as well, because it’s more a tale of the late-night misadventures that can result from too much booze. Sort of like all the dumbest characters from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, The Hangover, and any number of Judd Apatow comedies all rolled into one. This could work pretty well as a humorous cautionary tale if Katy had the wit to pull it off, but given that she’s playing the role of an overgrown teenager throughout the entire song (No, the entire album…. NO WAIT, HER WHOLE DAMN CAREER), the most reflective it ever gets is “That was such an epic fail” and “It’s a blacked-out blur, but I’m pretty sure it ruled!” The take-away is that because it must have been so awesome, we’re all gonna do it again next Friday. While I’m sure most of this was exaggerated for comedic effect (at least, I hope for her marriage’s sake that the menage-a-trois part was made up, as well as that bit of business about the arrest warrant), it’s really more sad than funny. Now before you gripe about me taking the moral high ground, let’s consider the pragmatic approach: You’re blowing how much money on crap you can’t even remember? But there’s little point in applying logical analysis to a Katy Perry song. Thankfully there’s a cheesy sax solo in the middle eight to briefly distract me. It was more fun when The Killers did that, but hey.
3. California Gurls
“Greetings, loved ones”, says Snoop Dogg as if he’s about to unload some serious philosophical stuff on us. “Let’s take a journey.” Cue the candy-coated dance beat! While we’re ostensibly traveling to the Western state that both Snoop and Katy call home, what we’re really about to explore is the female anatomy, in great topographic detail. Also women’s apparent fashion choices in the Golden State, though from Katy’s description in the earworm of a chorus, a wardrobe of “Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top” implies that we care more about the skin than the clothes. Alright, so I’m a guy. I’ll notice these things during a day at the beach. I won’t lie. I still think it’s in poor taste to write a song extolling these things, but maybe that’s just me. It’s doubly weird to hear Katy singing about how great it is, as if the song were an ad for a state full of easy women or something. This is, of course, perfectly comfortable territory for Snoop Dogg, who not only gets name dropped (since Katy is freaking the man of her choice – presumably a man, anyway, since it’s hard to tell from context) in the song’s second verse, but who of course gets a rap break so he can cover the subject with about as much class as you’d expect. Katy’s no better for her part, as her little tourism spot seems to have been created with the delusion that we’re the only state with sun-kissed beaches where the ladies show a lot of skin (come on, Hawaii Gurls and Florida Gurls, y’all gotta represent), and also the implication that if you come here on vacation, you are so gonna get laid. Well, I guess that explains California’s population problems! “Sun-kissed skin so hot, we’ll melt your Popsicle”, Katy brags. And sure, if by “melt”, she means “cause to shrink and become soft”, and by “Popsicle”, she means… well, y’know… then, sure, mission accomplished! ‘Cause this song is totally not doing it for me. It’s catchy, but it’s a trainwreck. Anyone who tells you any different is probably not really listening to the lyrics, because even if you are that skanky, this is just dreadful songwriting. (Not being a radio listener, I’m proud of myself for having survived the entire summer without having heard the song here in California. Ironically, it caught up with me during a trip to Canada. Great, more stereotypes about stupid Americans for me to try to dispel. They already think we can’t spell down here.)
Cue semi-serious inspirational moment number one. I’m actually quite shocked as this straight-up inspirational dance-pop number kicks into high gear, because it’s absolutely, 100% double-entendre free! It’s all pumping beats, strings ripped straight from the segment of a Disney movie where the protagonist realizes his or her self-worth and decides to reach for the stars, and a lot of cliches similar to what you might find on those “Motivator” posters hanging in people’s cubicles, all with the intent of telling a special someone how they’re unique and can conquer the world. I’ll give Katy credit for trying – I genuinely enjoy this one when I don’t think too hard about it. Her full-throated singing is at its best here – maybe overreaching a tad, but that actually gives me a slight amount of nostalgia for the old days when overdoing it was her way of simple enjoying being the freak that she was. Put some wackier production on this one, and it could exist in a parallel timeline where Katy never rebelled. But then I examine the lyrics, and it all starts to fall apart. No metaphor goes unmixed here (“Maybe your reason why all the doors are closed/Is so you could open one that leads you to a perfect road”), no word goes unabused for the sake of far-reaching rhymes (“Make ’em go ‘ah, ah, ah'” does not rhymes with “As you shoot across the sky”, and the other line, “You’re gonna leave ’em all in awe”, is basically rhyming a syllable with itself), and also, Katy doesn’t really seem to understand how fireworks… work. But hey, at least I don’t get too terribly annoyed when this one comes wafting through the atmosphere at whatever fast food restaurant. That’s a first for me, as Katy’s radio singles go.
Well, this is embarrassing. No wait, scratch that – this is truly mortifying. Using what might perhaps be the most unimaginative Toni Basil ripoff beat ever (and yes, I mean “Hey Mickey”, what the hell else is she even known for?), Katy takes any notion of subtlety and blows it (ahem!) straight to hell with her cheerleader chant, “I want to see your peacock-cock-cock, your peacock-cock!” I wish I were just making that up, but if I’d made it up, I would have used a bit more fore (AHEM!!!) I mean, wordplay. The point of the song is that a guy’s bragging about the size of his wang, and Katy is so eager to see some hard evidence (hello!) that she concocted (huh huh) this little ditty to encourage him to take it all off. Congratulations, Katy – your little attempt to make your man overcome his modesty issues will produce a nice paycheck, as I’m sure gay strip clubs will get a lot of mileage (hey now!) out of this one. Alright, so I tell many an amusing joke in the recap, but I seriously blushed enough that it was really difficult to make it through this one. The twelve-year-old in me just had to laugh. These things work better as lowbrow comedy sketch ideas than pop (!) songs that people will listen to over and over, I think. Even if you ignore the subject matter completely, you can’t get around the absolutely painful rhyme scheme – in Katy’s weird little world, the word “peacock” apparently rhymes with “payoff” and, most interestingly, “beeyotch”, which is apparently what the guy is if he’s unwilling to strut his stuff. You gotta love the double standard there – just picture a male singer calling a woman that for not wanting to flash her lady parts, and imagine how well that would go over. I’ll say one thing for Katy – at least she committed to taking the metaphor a little deeper (what WHAT?!) here, because she expects that peacock to be all colorful and… feathery? I won’t ask. Calling him a “chicken” for not doing it might be a clever extension of the bird metaphor, but then I’m not so sure I want to give Katy that much credit. Anyway, I’d better cut it out with the jokes about this song, because there’s so much fodder for snark here that I could go all night. (Bazinga!)
6. Circle the Drain
OK, wipe those smiles off your faces – this is serious, folks. Katy attempts a serious rocker here, with mixed results – the electric guitars are all sharp and riffy, but the programming still dulls the edges, meaning that Katy doesn’t quite have the power to deliver the frustrated “screw you” to an ex-boyfriend that she wants to. The lyrics show some serious gumption, even to the point of breaking out the effbomb – compare to One of the Boys, where the few profanities present were bleeped. This would be more shocking if Alanis Morissette hadn’t made it mainstream when Katy was practically still in diapers, and for Alanis’s part, she generally chooses her words more interestingly than Katy does. Still, as Katy gives this druggie loser what for, I can’t help but root for her, as there are far too many women in situations like this who might not stand up for themselves. He’s more into the drugs than into her, to the point where she feels like she’s mothering him, and that’s just a heap of dysfunctionality right there. As usual, the tone of Katy’s lyrics can vary greatly from line to line – some are clever, such as when she insinuates he’ll never change despite all his promises (“If I had a nickel for every time, I’d own the bank”), some are forced (“You could’ve been the greatest, but you’d rather get wasted”), and most are just matter-of-fact. Aside from the strong language, my only other problem with this one is the audacity of putting it on the same album as a song that glorifies partying every weekend to the point of blacking out. Hypocritical, much?
7. The One that Got Away
Things are going to get more mid-tempo and uninteresting in the back half of this album, so I apologize if my witty banter seems to be slowing down accordingly. A confident beat makes this one feel a tad like “Teenage Dream” sped up, though more typical pop than 80’s rehash this time around, with a sort of “toy piano” melody behind it. The mood whiplash is striking from “Peacock” to “Circle the Drain” and now this, but whatever gets a reaction and hits a different segment of the potential audience seems to be what Katy’s going for. Oddly, she seems to want to establish a bit of hipster cred here by name-dropping June and Johnny Cash here, as well as saying she and the old boyfriend she’s now pining for used to make out in his car to Radiohead. (That speaks volumes about the highly dysfunctional nature of her relationships right there. I like Radiohead, but it ain’t makeout music.) Actually, I’m not totally convinced that it isn’t another misguided name-drop when she tells him “I’m no longer your Muse.” Anyway, all of the complaints that I successfully hand-waved away in “Teenage Dream” come back full-force here, as these crazy lovebirds are well below the drinking age but raiding his folks’ liquor cabinet, and well, you know where the making out probably went. Again, I know that this happens. I just don’t have a lot of respect for songs that romanticize it like this – especially when Katy has clearly moved on and you have to figure, this can’t be healthy. Sure, I’m a married dude and I think about old girlfriends (okay, girlfriend) from time to time, but with enough hindsight to be glad my life’s no longer the way it was back then.
8. E.T. (Futuristic Lover)
Now this is just BAD. The space-aged (OK, mid 2000’s) R&B beat is alright, but these lyrics are just… yeesh. This time, Katy’s gone and fallen in love with a guy from outer space. (What would grandma think?) And the song is about as well written as the movie, Plan 9 From Outer Space, even if she’s aspiring to be like a much better film, judging from the title. (That just makes me think of her macking on the actual E.T., and that’s actually quite a disturbing thought. Poor E.T.!) Whatever world this guy’s from, we learn the following things about him from Katy’s song: (1) He’s supersonic. Ummm, Katy, there are men on Earth who have already achieved that much, starting with Chuck Yeager. Look into it. (2) He’s from a different dimension. So, is that like 2-D, where you can see inside his guts and everything, or like 4-D, where he can actually simultaneously occupy the past, present and future? (Damn, I just made the title more literal than it was probably intended.) (3) He’s poisonous and Katy wants to be infected. Again, plenty of dudes on Earth who could probably fit the bill there. (4) He’s got a stunning laser. I’m already over quota on the phallic puns, so moving on. (5) She wants him to abduct her. Congratulations Katy, you just gave creepy stalkers everywhere a little bit of extra motivation! Those are the worst of the lyrics – most of the rest of the song is your generic “totally radical” language that you’d think would have fallen out of style somewhere in the late 80’s, but nope, she wants to walk on his wavelength and all kinds of crap like that. This one isn’t even really humorously embarrassing. It’s just idiotic.
9. Who Am I Living For?
A slinky, stop/start R&B rhythm gets going, some synths that may or may not have been borrowed from Justin Timberlake are thrown into the mix, and Katy begins to sing atop this seductive groove, “I can feel a phoenix inside of me.” Oh, is that what the kids are calling it nowadays? But wait… she doesn’t mean it like that. I’m just so accustomed to expecting the naughtiest possible meaning from her songs that it throws me for a loop when she sings something halfway earnest. This falls into the “family-friendly” department as easily as “Firework” does, going several steps beyond it to even flirt with more direct expressions of faith. Get a load of this: “This test is my own cross to bear.” “I can see the heavens, but I hear flames calling out my name.” “So I pray for favor, like Esther.” WHAT. Is this the same Katy Perry I’ve been listening to all album, or did I fall into a timewarp? This actually isn’t bad – cliched as all get-out, and probably the type of thing I’d mock if it appeared on an actual album of “Christian music”, but actually halfway enjoyable despite all that. My reason for feeling weird about it here is simply because it rings so hollow given all of the tomfoolery that’s preceded it. I’m not denying that the Christian faith still means something to Katy Perry – she’s said as much in interviews (though she’s also said she believes in aliens, which explains the previous song, I guess). I’m just saying that she probably won’t have much luck mixing the God stuff with the naughty stuff. It’s just going to alienate two audiences in one fell swoop. To be fair, it’s one of her more convincing vocal performances, which you’re gonna need if you want a song about spiritual warfare to be taken halfway seriously. That being said – please, Katy, just pick a persona and go with it.
This, too, is not about what you might assume given the title. That’s a good thing. While this ballad feels a bit anemic at first, seeming like it’s gonna be another generic “You are unique and can change the world” anthem, it reveals shades of some deeper thought as Katy describes a great woman held back by a man who is intimidating on the outside, but secretly scared of her power. So basically, a feminist anthem. I can get behind that. Katy’s pipes don’t really do the story justice, and of course she has to goof up on the lyrics and oversell the story by way of stock comparisons to such iconic historical figures as Joan of Arc and the Statue of Liberty (?), but let’s at least admire the intent here. I could picture a much more squeaky-clean young starlet like Taylor Swift singing something like this, actually. That’s not to say that I’m a fan, but once again, this isn’t the sort of thing you would expect given Katy’s well-groomed bad girl image.
11. Hummingbird Heartbeat
“You gotta jump for my love! JUMP IN!!!” Oh wait, that’s not this song? Could have fooled me, what with the synths and the drum beats. Katy is evoking some mean 80’s flashbacks on this album, and for me those are not pleasant. We’re back to the bird metaphor here, though thankfully it’s used to describe the state of the heart, rather than someone’s body parts, in this song. That doesn’t stop some of her analogies from being as awkward as hell, when you think about them. The opening of the song sets the tone adequately enough: “You make me feel like I’m losing my virginity/The first time, every time/When you’re touching me.” So, it’s painful and messy? (Yes, I know that this is horrible, and not at all what she means. I’m just illustrating how hopeless her songwriting skills are.) It goes on to further abuse the animal and vegetable kingdoms with odd references to things like pollination. And then there’s this gem: “Some call it science, we call it chemistry.” Last I checked, chemistry WAS a science. By the time we get to “Constantly craving for a taste of your sticky sweet”, my brain’s gone in to overdrive with the bad jokes again, so it’s time to move on and finish this ridiculous review already.
12. Not Like the Movies
Speaking of “sticky sweet”… Boring sappy ballad alert! I honestly didn’t expect Katy to get this soft on us at the end, given that she maintained the bratty bite all the way up through “Fingerprints” on her previous album, but either way, she’s not terribly convincing anyhow. Here, over an unimaginative “fairy tale piano” sort of backdrop, she uses one of the most worn-out metaphors in the world to tell us that real romance isn’t like the movies, and yet she wishes it were so and apparently plans to hold out until it feels like it is. Keep dreaming, Katy. I used a lot of the songs on One of the Boys as an excuse to make social commentary, and I’ve mostly abstained from that here, but as far as this song goes, I’ll say that this sort of thinking is exactly what’s wrong with a lot of relationships today. We’re so programmed to expect the fantasies we see on the silver screen to be real that we forget they are simply the work of writers, directors and actors contributing to an idealized vision. it will reflect some elements of reality, but we’re idiots if we expect life to imitate art instead of the other way around. Not to say real life can’t have happy endings, but they’re generally harder won. We probably all know this. Younger members of Katy’s target audience may not. Disney’s probably doing far more damage there than Katy ever will, especially with an anemic song buried at the back of her album. But still… grow up.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Teenage Dream $.50
Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) -$.50
California Gurls $0
Circling the Drain $1
The One that Got Away $0
E.T. (Futuristic Lover) -$.50
Who Am I Living For? $1
Hummingbird Heartbeat $0
Not Like the Movies $0
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: