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Katy Perry: Still Smiling?

Back in 2010, when I was 14 and my music tastes were new, Katy Perry had a decent claim at being the biggest name in music. The Teenage Dream album and its steady stream of singles kept her in the Billboard top ten for over a year. Some of them were even pretty good. Despite her limited vocal range and lack of real personality as a performer, Katy Perry saw a meteoric rise in popularity off the back of her I Kissed a Girl single. Her brand, such as it was, was frivolous, gaudy and trashy, arising out of the same gene pool as Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha. But while those artists went their own directions, for one reason or another radically reinventing themselves, Katy Perry never had a firm enough identity to begin with to do that. She was always a chameleonic pop singer and never established that kind of narrative, only growing blander and vaguer in her image. So what was there to do but just keep on trucking?

So now, a full decade since her peak of popularity, we have her newest album Smile, the announcement of which was generally greeted online with either pitying smiles or outright disdain. Fuel was added to the latter by the album cover, seeing Perry looking forlorn in clown makeup. In my opinion, it’s a perfectly good album cover that fits the self-aware attitude of forced positivity of many of the album’s best moments. Nonetheless, the idea of Katy Perry fighting her way back into mainstream relevance in the 2020s is almost comical, yet there is an air of sadness in it too. With even the likes of Taylor Swift, whose own relevance peaked after Perry’s, bowing out gracefully into more artistic and less commercial material, Perry is still here, and still chasing chart success. That’s not hearsay either, you can hear it in the music, which is as firmly middle of the road as ever.

To be fair though, the kind of grandiose pop anthem that was always Perry’s forte has been making somewhat of a resurgence in the past 12 months. Nonetheless, of the five singles released ahead of this album, as well as two non–album singles, Perry scored only one modest hit with “Never Really Over”, featuring the distinctive production of Zedd who has previously given hits to Maren Morris, Hailee Steinfeld and Ariana Grande. Zedd’s skill as a producer is in evidence, with the ticking clock sound now something of a trademark with his hits, and the song well exploits the size of Perry’s voice, straining her range to deliver a full-bodied chorus of both regret and optimism. It’s probably the best song on the record and makes for a solid opening track.

The album continues in strong style with “Cry About It Later”, which I would equally call the best non–single on the album, with pulsating club rhythms and lyrics about deferring thought and consequence until the morrow and grasping the moment in denial of the inevitable blowback from ignoring the problem. Perry and her handlers would be fools not to release it as a single in the near future. Despite my comments so far being positive, you may have divined the problem with the album already. Two tracks in and we’ve had the two best songs already. It’s not terrible from here on out but the opening stretch is definitely the best part of the album.

“Teary Eyes” is described as taking inspiration from Robyn’s masterpiece “Dancing On My Own”. If you get asked what you think the best pop song of the 2010s was and want an answer that absolutely no one can argue with, then choose either “Dancing On My Own” or Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away with Me”. So it’s a good point of reference to draw inspiration from, with its imagery of dancing through the sadness continuing the narrative of the previous track, and the chords and trippy house beat with the soft guitar strumming and reverberating background vocals do a decent job of recapturing the appropriate vibe. It just sounds somewhat claustrophobic though, and the “Teary Eyes” hook never got any less silly. It’s an admirable shot but just hasn’t got the sincerity or emotional depth of its influences and doesn’t soar nearly the way Robyn’s song did.

The next track picks things up a bit though, the single “Daisies”. It’s the kind of inspirational anthem Perry has specialised in from time to time, with a beautifully plucked guitar accompaniment. It’s a pretty great pop song with strong melodies on the pre-chorus and a rather poignantly morbid central image. It’s another point when the desperation of Perry’s powerfully strained vocals is the album’s greatest asset, and it’s a definite highlight.

“Resilient” continues the flowering imagery and inspiration themes of “Daisies”, but in a more laboured manner that is highly reminiscent of Perry’s own “Firework” or “Roar”, the former of which also featured production by Stargate, which defined the most personality deprived phase of Perry’s career. “Not the End of the World” continues the downward trajectory of the album. I do like the somewhat silky and nocturnal sections on the verses with some lovely vocal melodies, but when the song explodes into a faux–grandiose chorus it loses me completely. I would be surprised if the next time I hear this song isn’t when it is used as the trailer to a Young Adult novel’s movie adaptation.

The title track sees a bit of an uptick, the album’s last, with a fiercely upbeat and positive piece of unbridled cheer. One day I hope to be in a good enough mood for this song to really hit, but until then, I still think it takes a heart of stone not to be uplifted a little bit by it. “Champagne Problems” is fuelled mostly by a good bassline, but the whole track appears to be at odds with itself, unsure whether it’s trying to be legitimately celebratory, as its lyrics and placement on the second half would suggest, or completely false as the hollow instrumental conveys. It’s one occasion when the central paradox of the album’s strange, sad–happy tone collapses in on itself, becoming a flaw instead of a virtue.

“Tucked” is a song I struggle to take seriously. It’s somewhat cute and peppy, but the lyrics about fantasising about an ex seem desperately immature in a way I struggle to see past. “Harleys in Hawaii” is catchy and rather fun, it may be a bit of a guilty pleasure, but even I have to admit that it’s a painfully vapid song indeed, whose tropical rhythms fail to fit within the album’s aesthetics or narrative. Surprisingly, this song was included while much more personal tracks like “Small Talk” and “Never Worn White” were omitted, despite sounding a lot more contiguous with the other tracks here than this one.

The penultimate track “Only Love” is a rather sweet track of parental reconciliation. It may be the most personal and emotional track on the album, but the tepid instrumental and underwritten chorus keep a lid on its appeal. As closers go, “What Makes a Woman” seems at first to be in the right direction as a soft country song, however digging into the lyrics and concept, it just seems like a much shallower and duller version of the terrific The Highwomen song from last year “Redesigning Women”.

So, in the end, Smile is about as mixed a bag as we tend to get from Perry. It starts super strong but trails off into redundancy despite its short run time. There are definite highlights I’ll be returning to, I might even say some of Perry’s best songs are on here, but she’s never managed to deliver more than a handful of strong pop songs on each album. Both mainstream appeal and artistic expression seem to be as far from her reach as ever, as cruel as that may be, given the quality of a few of the better songs here.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where he graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent he was the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and runs a public blog on my Letterboxd account. Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed his current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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