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Katy Perry “Teenage Dream” Review

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With her new album, Teenage Dream, Katy Perry is looking to do anything but break the mold, “Some people get full of themselves, and they think that anything they do is going to work or turn to gold or be the right move, and the reason why you’re here is because of the people that like your music and the fans, so you always should keep an ear open to what they’re saying.” But is she successful in avoiding the faux pas of evolving as an artist, as she hoped to do when talking to Rolling Stone this past May? Let’s just say: mission accomplished. The album’s first single, “California Gurls,” does little to divert from the path clearly paved with 2008′s One of the Boys, and in doing so it landed Perry her second number one single. “I just know what kind of card this summer needs, and that’s the one I’m playing,” she told Reuters earlier this month; her insight was, and is, apparently dead on.

Perry’s understanding of what her fans want isn’t exclusive to her music however: in becoming the character of Katy Perry she’s also feeding a persona that her fans want look up to. In her own words she has revealed that she prefers to play the role of the sexual tease—just as many hundreds of thousands of girls (and guys) around the world do—but nothing more. And while countless photos capture her bearing more than her soul she continues to take the higher ground, just as she did when she commented on the video for Lady Gaga‘s “Alejandro,” “I think when you put sex and spirituality in the same bottle and shake it up, bad things happen.” Similarly, she continues to make the clear division between what’s “acceptable” and what’s not in her music. Teenage Dream is overflowing with sexual innuendo, but nothing R-rated, because that’s not what her audience would want. The title track opens the album with Perry innocently pleading, “Let’s go all the way tonight, no regrets, just love.” Things quickly progress from there, however. The very next song, “Last Friday Night,” revolves around a story of getting blackout drunk, committing crimes, and having sex with multiple partners—or at least the two that she vaguely remembers—all the while explicitly keeping things “fun,” rather than crossing into any sort of reality. “This Friday night, do it all again.” Even Snoop Dogg, who simply doesn’t work as a PG artist, is molded under the perception of Perry’s character in “California Gurls.” During his lackluster contribution to the song he raps “squeeze her buns.” Seriously, Snoop “gang-bang-slap-a-bitch-n*gga-out-to-get-a-grip” Dogg says “squeeze her buns.” And why is Snoop used here despite being reduced to the point of childish irrelevance? Because his name still provokes a sentiment of edginess among the same crowd that’s sexually excited by saying making love instead of fucking. The problem with this scenario isn’t Snoop, but rather that Perry’s simply not above any of that, herself: “Yes, I said I kissed a girl. But I didn’t say I kissed a girl while fucking a crucifix.”

“Circle the Drain” is aimed at her ex, Gym Class Heroes’ frontman Travis McCoy, condemning his excessive use of drugs and the role he wanted her to play in their relationship, “Wanna be your lover, not your fucking mother… Had the world in the palm of your hands but you fucking choked.” The only difference is that Katy Perry’s trying to justify her language based on context: “fuck” is OK if it’s used under the pretense of raw emotion, but not OK if it’s mixed in with sexual innuendo. But with songs like “Peacock” that innuendo is embarrassingly masked under a crass shroud of wordplay, “Are you brave enough to let me see your peacock? Don’t be a chicken, boy, stop acting like a bi-atch.” Context here doesn’t mean a thing; it would be less offensive if she refrained from such grade-school nonsense and simply said she wanted to check out this dude’s dick. Then again, doing so doesn’t rhyme as well as peacock and bi-atch, does it…?

A bad song can typically still be salvaged by good production though, and if Teenage Dream was laced with nothing but forward thinking beats, any of the previous objections would likely be moot. A good tune’s a good tune, right? But songs like “Peacock” are downright bad in that realm as well. Even as the album begins to shift towards bearing any lyrical substance, as it does with “Firework,” the accompaniment of a generic beat impedes any real progression. “Who Am I Living For?” is about as fresh as the production gets on Teenage Dream, but even at that it sounds like a recycled Timbaland beat from a few years back; one which wasn’t really all that original to begin with. “E.T.” stands out as the album’s most unique beat, floating somewhere near the brink of innovation, but producer “Dr. Luke” Gottawald himself has explained how the song wasn’t even originally meant for Perry; it’s a left-over Three 6 Mafia beat. So even at its high points, musically, Teenage Dream is essentially a collection of b-side beats and dated production.

However, to this day what continues to separate Perry from her contemporaries isn’t her sound as much as it is her hands-on approach to the actual songwriting behind her albums—with Teenage Dream there isn’t a single track where she doesn’t receive a songwriting credit. No matter where you stand on any other aspect of the album, Perry should definitely be praised for that, especially when she could have easily relaxed on that front and gone with whatever was put on her plate. The only issue is that the end product, regardless of who’s behind it, is so predictable that Teenage Dream only goes to further suppress the idea that she was much of a singer/songwriter to begin with (not that “Ur So Gay” was all that dynamic a song). “Pearl” comes close to a touching story (reflecting on a crumbling character who is in a suffocating relationship, only to reveal that the character is—surprise—her), but things don’t really get much better from there: “Peacock” and “California Gurls” aside, the album only continues to stumble with lines like, “One hundred percent, with every penny spent, he’ll be the one that finishes your sentences” (“Not Like the Movies”). Even worse, “Last Friday Night” finds Perry remarking on how much of an “epic fail” it was to tear her dress; really, “epic fail,” that’s what she’s bringing to the table.

In the same May interview with Rolling Stone, Perry commented on how telling the album would be concerning the direction of her career, “The second record is really important to me because I think it shows whether I’m meant to do this, or I got lucky.” Don’t get things confused: One of the Boys was no fluke. And like that record, with her new album she had a vision and she did all she could to accomplish her goal. But the issue with Teenage Dream isn’t whether or not the album’s a success, whether or not it proves her to be a fluke or “the real deal,” if it plays to her audience, how “sincere” it might be, or whether or not it’s generally enjoyable to listen to: the issue is whether or not Teenage Dream provides proof that she’s “meant to do this.” The stab at Gaga is telling in that Katy Perry clearly has some sort of sense of her own values, and where she draws the line—near nudity is OK, but I doubt we’d see Perry wearing a machine-gun bra any time soon (because a bra ejaculating whipped cream is somehow less offensive). And she’s entitled to her opinion just as I, or you, are ours. Don’t get me wrong, you honestly can have it both ways: there is an art to being sexy, playful, and tasteful, all at the same time. That said, it’s a fine line to walk, and as soon as you slip you set yourself up for an immense amount of criticism. That’s where all of this non-music-related static becomes important: Katy Perry was “meant to do this.” She can play the role and take the bumps along the way. Clearly things weren’t working for Katy Hudson, so when Katy Perry found success, the only smart thing to do would be to continue the same approach, no matter how bland it might be. It’s wise to play to your audience, especially when the financial stakes are so high. It’s wise to dumb down your product so as not to offend your fans’ sense of taste. It’s wise to add a hint of scandal along the way—showing just enough of your personal character—so that fans get a sense that you’re “real” and not some clown playing to their desires. But it’s also boring. Teenage Dream will be a smashing success, and for as long as Katy Perry wants to make music (and money) she’ll have no problem finding an audience. So congratulations Katy Perry: you’re not a fluke. You’re simply an inoffensive, tasteless, generic success.