Katy Perryâs bubbly, clichÃ©-ridden pop feels especially unsuited for life in a pandemic. But despite all her garbled platitudes, she remains a master at executing chart-topping formulas.
Between rows of Spandex at Forever 21, in the back of a cab coming home from the bar, after losing your headphones at the gymâin a pandemic, all the ideal templates for listening to Katy Perry have disappeared. No more can the pop starâs songs seep into the background of a normal social life, clunking around in your head before you even know their titles; you have to actively opt into her new album and launch yourself willingly into its suffocating glitz. Smile is meant to be a âpicture of RESILIENCE & GRATITUDE,â Perry writes in the liner notes. Those capital lettersâthe sense that someone is shouting at youâcome through in the music. âYeah, Iâm thankful/Scratch that, baby, Iâm graaateful,â she croons in the title song. âI am resilient!â she belts on another, six times in two minutes. âItâs not the end of the world!â she promises over a flailing disco beat, before launching into a pseudo-rap about a fortune teller and âflipping off the flop,â whatever that means.
These songs wink at global devastation the same way commercials for online car dealerships and door-delivered Chick-fil-A doâin these challenging times, convenience and the power of positivity will get us through. Pop music, and Katy Perry in particular, have used this tactic before. âPut your rose-colored glasses on, and party on,â she cooed on 2017âs Witness, an album of what she called âpurposeful pop,â designed to yank the listener into a newfound social consciousness. She performed the lead single at the Grammys wearing a pink rhinestone PERSIST armband as an image of the Constitution rose behind her. She jammed the album with whomping bass and assertions that a woman could be both âfeminine and soft,â âa babydoll with a briefcase,â and promoted it with a 72-hour livestream, therapy session and all, staking her activism on the idea that all vulnerability is radical. In one clip, she sat cross-legged on an immaculate white couch and apologized for her history of cultural appropriation. The camera panned to a flickering display of the album cover. âIâll never understand, because of who I am,â she murmured. We were meant to connect the dots between parceled honesty and political stances, between an oddball âdiss trackâ against Taylor Swift and a broad stance on female empowerment.
Smile asks less of us. The confessions on this album feel like calculated dodges, every tepid disclosure immediately followed by triumph. âThey tell me that Iâm crazy, but Iâll never let them change me!â she sing-shouts on âDaisies,â as limp EDM beats fill the background. The relentless spangle on Smile can seem jarring as Perry attempts to both nod to and avoid the pandemic-shaped elephant in the room. âItâs no funeral weâre attending,â she scoffs on âNot the End of the World.â Thereâs a song about postponing crying to go out and dance; thereâs a separate track about dancing while crying. These are big-production tracks primed for maximum dramaâshrieking electro violins, skittering beats, flecks of dubstep and discoâbut the clumsy lyrics hamper any emotional payoff.
ClichÃ©s are practically baked into Perryâs brand, but when she deploys them as cutesy callbacks to her past songs, they present more evidence that she hasnât really grown. âHave you ever lost, lost the light in your life?â she asks over âTeary Eyesââs twinkling opening chords, a dumbed-down take on her infamous, âDo you ever feel like a plastic bag.â âTook those sticks and stones, showed âem I could build a house,â she sings on âDaisies,â echoing the chorus of her 2012 hit âPart of Me.â The production strips down on âWhat Makes a Woman,â with soft electric guitar and light organ notes, but the lyrics feel snatched from the Witness era. âCould spend your whole life but you couldnât/Describe what makes a woman, and thatâs what makes a woman to me,â she croons in the chorus, an update but not necessarily an improvement on One Directionâs âYou donât know youâre beautiful/Thatâs what makes you beautiful.â
Despite all her garbled platitudes, she remains a master at executing proven chart-topping formulas. The Charlie Puth co-write âHarleys in Hawaiiâ is standard, breezy pop: a gently writhing beat, the word âbabyâ breathed over synths, vowels contorted so that âhulaâ rhymes with âjeweler.â âTuckedâ is an understated highlight, a bass-blasted track about summoning the memory of a lover whenever she wants. Katy Perry has always excelled at packaging small moments of intimacy; itâs what animates the fleeting moments of post-party panic in hits like âLast Friday Nightâ and makes âTeenage Dreamâ one of the best songs of the last decade.
And then thereâs âNever Really Over,â which accomplishes maybe what Perry wanted for the whole album: the glistening machinery of a big-budget pop song, calibrated for catharsis. Zeddâs production sounds a whole lot like âCloserâ-era Chainsmokers, but his titanic drumlines build toward release as Perry hurls confessions over blooming synths. âThought we kissed goodbye/Thought we meant this time was the last,â she sings, an ode to a relationship that refuses to wither. This is the version of Katy Perry pop can hold space forâone where her packaged self-probing leads somewhere and amounts to something. In spite of, or maybe because of, her promotional spectaclesâLeft Shark, the whipped cream bra, teasing her babyâs name with a single releaseâsheâs long been able to comfortably assume legions of people will listen to her music, without even asking themselves why. The unspoken question of Smile is: Why now?
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