Katy Perry is riding high at the top of the pop game right now. She’s coming off the monumental Teenage Dream album campaign and has shown no signs of slowing down. She’s inescapable on the radio, having just snagged her eighth Hot 100 number 1 with “Roar,” a song that’s already pushed more than 3 million copies. Even her promotional singles sell like mad and are able to break into upper tiers of the charts. And yet the only pop star people can talk about right now is Miley Cyrus. Nobody seems to talk or think that much about Katy Perry, and that’s both her blessing and her curse.
Perry has carved out a particularly lucrative niche in the world of pop music—she and her team have basically fashioned her into the Muzak of FM radio. Her music is everywhere and it’s perfectly pleasant, but it doesn’t leave much of an impression. That sounds like a harsher criticism than I perhaps intend it to be. Perry and her team are savvy, and they know what sells. They’ve been tremendously successful at creating music with unbelievably broad appeal. But, as is often the case, the broader the appeal, the thinner the appreciation is spread. Perry has maintained colossal commercial success, but the dialogue that surrounds her has never been as impassioned as that of many of her peers.
Perry’s new album, Prism, was created in the wake of her divorce from comedian Russell Brand, and she seemed poised to deliver work that would tap into something a little bit rawer: in interviews early in the development of the album, she hinted that it would be “darker.” Sadly, somebody—whether Perry herself or someone at her label—decided “dark” wasn’t a direction she should go. Prism is not a departure from the bubblegum pop of Teenage Dream, but more an extension of it. It’s like some A&R people asked, “what would the kids who listened to Teenage Dream want to listen to in 30 years when they’ve got 9 to 5s and kids of their own?” and this is what they came up with. From teen-pop to Hot Adult Contemporary.
It’s not that Perry needed to go dark, necessarily. It’s just that at least “dark” would have been a direction, a point-of view. But Prism simply plays like the grown-up version of its predecessor and spends most of its time delivering agreeable but also slightly dull productions full of platitudes and overly-obvious lyrics even by pop standards. Take “Birthday,” for example, a song nearly indistinguishable from several other Max Martin/Dr. Luke productions for Perry. It’s one of the album’s peppier, more upbeat tunes, and the best innuendo that can be mustered is “so let me get you in your birthday suit / it’s time to bring out the big balloons,” which really seems like no one’s even trying. “By the Grace of God” is your typical, treacly, pop piano ballad that just feels like a rehash of “Roar” where that song’s winning pluck is replaced by calculated vulnerability. Most of the album floats out of your speakers and just keeps floating, quickly dissipating and leaving barely a trace of itself behind. Even now, as I write this review, I’m having to go back over the tracklist so I can remember which songs I forgot so I can tell you I forgot them (“Ghost” and “Love Me” are apparently two songs that I heard). Elsewhere, on “Dark Horse,” Perry thankfully changes things up and tries out a more urban sound. The production is pared way down and is the better for it, but unfortunately the chorus and Juicy J’s dull rap don’t live up and the track fizzles out.
All this is not to say the album is without its bright spots. “Legendary Lovers” is a tremendous pop record—probably one of the best I’ve heard this year—colored with whimsical and exotic flourishes in the production and featuring a chorus with an invigorating and genuinely anthemic melody. It even has an unexpected tribal-sounding bridge which doesn’t quite work, but doesn’t derail the song, either, and makes me respect it for at least having an unpredictable moment. “International Smile” features lyrics of pure cheese, but it’s a propulsive pop song that sweeps you up anyway. It also contains the album’s other really unexpected element: another bridge, this one starts with a cheeky play on the typical announcements flight attendants make on commercial flights that gives way to a great synth riff that finally morphs into some heavily vocoded lyrics—it all sounds more like it came out of a Daft Punk cut than a Katy Perry song. “This is How We Do” is another highlight. Here, Perry taps frequent Robyn collaborator Klas Åhlund to help out with the production, and the result is a spry, playful track filled with springy synths and featuring the most ridiculous and delightful pun on the album: “day drinking at the Wildcats / suckin’ real bad at Mariah Carey-oke.” It’s a total jam and exactly the sort of party song you want Perry to deliver.
These bright spots are bitter sweet, though. Perry and her collaborators are obviously capable of cranking out genuinely great pop tunes, but instead they settle for songs destined to be commercially huge but that are creatively quite small. There’s probably enough here satiate a pop fanatic and to give hope that Perry might one day surprise us with a truly classic pop album. In the meantime, though, we have Prism: diverting enough but slight and soon forgotten. – Michael Ward
[author ]Michael teaches college English and Composition courses in Ohio and subjects students to his fascination with movies and pop culture on a regular basis. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society and has been published in the Bright Lights Film Journal.[/author]