There are basically two types of pop stars. There are the ones who subvert pop culture by bringing new ideas and images into the mainstream, like The Beatles, James Brown, David Bowie, Prince, Madonna, and Kanye West. Then there are those who simply make easy, unchallenging music that a wide variety of people can agree on. Katy Perry belongs to the second category. Whereas contemporaries like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Ke$ha, and Miley Cyrus all gleefully test the boundaries of what can be done and said in a pop song, and experiment with images that have the potential to alienate large portions of their audience, Perry consistently makes the safest, most conservative creative choices. Her music is conventional; her image is traditionally feminine. Even when she pushes toward overt sexuality, she neutralizes that by making it goofy and regressive.
This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Perry’s blockbuster second album Teenage Dream had at least five major hits — “Teenage Dream,” “California Gurls,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Firework,” and “The One That Got Away” — that were so expertly composed and unstoppably catchy that they could wear down the resistance of even those who were initially wary of her pinup-girl shtick. A great pop song is a great pop song, regardless of context or subtext. The problem with Perry’s new follow-up album Prism is that despite the fact that it is mainly written by the same team of songwriters — Perry along with pop wizards Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Bonnie McKee — the songs mostly lack the overpowering hooks of Teenage Dream. As a result, the record is split between her most obnoxiously kitschy extremes and mind-numbing blandness.
Perry’s kitschy side is mostly cringe-inducing, but at least her whole Candy Land burlesque thing is something that sets her apart from other pop stars. “Birthday,” one of the better tracks on Prism, pushes this aesthetic to the max. Its central conceit of equating a birthday celebration with sex is so obvious that it seems too generous to call it a double entendre, but Perry fully commits to the song’s over-the-top cheesiness and delivers its climax, “Let me get you in your birthday suit / It’s time to bring out the big balloons,” with an exaggerated wink that would put Lucille Bluth to shame.
Singing unapologetically dorky dance-pop songs that frame love and sex in the context of regressive, childlike imagery is, for better or worse, Perry’s strong suit. But she was already pushing it on Teenage Dream; remember how she spent an entire song chanting, “I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock”? Now she’s almost 30 — isn’t it time to at least approach sexuality with the maturity level of, say, a high school senior?
On “This Is How We Do,” a faux hip-hop song at the center of the album, Perry’s goofy side fails her. Perry’s rapping is so poor that she makes Aaron Carter seem like Raekwon, and the song’s spoken-word bridge, in which she exclaims, “Yo, shout out to all you kids buying bottle service with your rent money, RAHHH-SPECT!” may be the worst moment in pop music this year. (OK, fine, it’s in distant second place after that despicable “Asian Girlz” song.) The lyric is tasteless and the delivery is painfully awkward, and it’s basically the reason why an anti-consumerist song like Lorde’s “Royals” has resonated with so many people. In fairness to Perry, it’s obvious that a song like this is meant to be lighthearted and knowingly silly. But this part of the song has the stink of a very square person trying desperately to seem young and cool. Even when she’s being intentionally ridiculous, she’s so earnest that the music, which would be delightfully campy in the hands of a funnier, more nuanced artist, ends up as just plain tacky.
Perry’s most daring tracks on Prism, like the house-influenced “Walking on Air” and the quasi-trap track “Dark Horse,” are more trendy than experimental, and the latter song seems whitewashed compared with Miley Cyrus’ own trap-pop songs on her new album Bangerz. Perry files down the sharp corners on everything, and syrupy ballads like “Unconditionally” seem like they’ve been baby-proofed. Perry is far better at perky up-tempo numbers than ballads, but she has a big, brassy voice that lent a convincing pathos to singles like “Wide Awake” and “The One That Got Away.” Her approach to singing ballads hasn’t changed, but the emotional content of her songs has. The series of ballads that bogs down the second half of Prism all feel emotionally neutral, and it sounds like she’s just raising her voice for no reason aside from making sure you realize that she’s singing the chorus.
Even when she is ostensibly writing about her own life, Perry’s lyrics feel generalized to the point that they could be about anyone at all. This is part of Perry’s brilliance in the pop market — she makes utilitarian music that most people can see themselves in — but the result is a bunch of one-size-fits-all greeting card songs that lack depth or character. While the universal sentiments of Teenage Dream seemed sort of incidental, it all feels very deliberate and calculated on Prism. The album is exactly what people who hate pop music assume all pop music is like: shallow, vapid, safe, and very cynical in its eagerness to please. Songs like “Roar” and “Unconditionally” are so generic that pretty much anyone could sing them and it’d have the same effect. Beyond the smirks, winks, and platitudes, there’s not much of a person at the center of Prism.
Then again, the one song on Prism that actually trades on public knowledge of her private life is “Spiritual,” a song co-written by her boyfriend John Mayer about how John Mayer is an amazing lover. The ick factor on this song is off the charts — it’s a lot of lines like “lay me down on your altar” and “you make me bloom like a flower” stuffed into a track that sounds a lot like late-’90s Sarah McLachlan. But at least the TMI gives the song a bit of flavor. Far too much of this record is like the musical equivalent of watered-down Jell-O — colorful and bouncy, but with all the sweetness diluted.