Holy shit was Teenage Dream successful.
It was a forgone conclusion that the album would sell tons of units and notch a hit or two, but five number one hits and an unprecedented streak on the Hot 100? You can’t predict those kind of numbers, especially considering the quality of the material. Teenage Dream transformed Katy Perry from crass but occasionally great pop artist to a superstar that, by the books, was on par with Michael Jackson and Thriller. I’ve written more about her than anyone else since I started blogging; there was about a year where I straight up didn’t think she would leave. Katy Perry wasn’t a leader in pop music, she was pop music.
I’m not entirely sure this was a good thing.
Repeating critical success is hard. Repeating commercial success on this scale is damn near impossible; chasing down the magic that made it happen can be maddening. While writing Thriller‘s follow-up Bad, Jackson would write his goal number on bathroom mirrors as a reminder to himself: “100 million”.
If Perry ever set such a goal for herself, you wouldn’t know it from Prism. While it doesn’t sound like a direct sequel to Teenage Dream–there’s a heavier focus on the synths in 2013 than there was in 2010–it is in spirit: pure, confectionery pop music wrapped in polystyrene cliches. It’s hard to call this a bad move, or even disappointing on Perry and her production team (pop masterminds Dr. Luke and Max Martin are back, as is Bonnie McKee for writing): after all, can five million records be wrong?
Your ability to enjoy Prism in any capacity depends on how safe you like your pop music. And I mean that–Prism is “wearing a helmet on a swing-set” levels of safe. Lead single/first track “Roar” illustrates this to a tee with it’s well polished albeit pedestrian hook. The bouncy drum beat and major-key melody are off-set with a slightly murkier bassline, but the song’s push-pull cancel each other out, and “Roar” is more tolerable than anything else.
Safety wins again on second single “Unconditionally”, a big, drum-heavy ballad that’s meant to sound timeless and epic with all of it’s echoes and reverb-drenched guitars, but comes off at cavernous and dull instead. It’s not a bad song, per se, but it doesn’t do anything well, either. Something similar can be said for the record’s production as a whole: everyone in the producer’s chair comes with a veteran’s set of skills, but outside a few key cuts, they’re making pleasant-but-inert creations.
Perry’s also doing some image-fixing on Prism. That’s not to say that she’s completely shed her “winking pin-up girl” appeal, but there are no girl-on-girl kisses or The Hangover reenactments here. “Birthday” might include every “birthday sex” joke Jeremih discarded, but it still romanticizes the experience, and on designated party-jam “This Is How We Do”, Perry’s night out includes fewer arrest warrants and shopping sprees and “Mariah karaoke” (sidenote: that line might qualify for the top 10 worst of the year). It makes sense when you consider that this is her “introspective” and “reflective” album–more on that later–but it’s still odd to hear Katy Perry this tame.
The times that Prism succeeds come from it going for the jugular and committing to a solid idea. “Dark Horse”, a dark, sensual, trap banger with heavy bass, made waves when it was released, and it’s still a top-tier cut on the album. It’s a good song, but Perry herself comes off as incidental next to the monstrous beat. She fairs better on second song “Legendary Lovers”, which lyrically recalls “E.T.” except with religion and spirituality as love-metaphors instead of aliens. The beat’s dark with tinges of hip-hop during the verses before turning into a Florence and the Machine slice of art-pop for the chorus. The album’s best song is far and away “International Lover”, where Perry is at her best: deliriously silly, unrelentingly catchy dance-pop. For “International Lover”, Perry’s in disco-diva mode with self-backing “Ooooooh, wooooo, ooooh”s in the verses and a deft bit of range on the chorus. The music behind her is led by a disco drum beat and guitar riff, and with the vocoder and musical swell at the bridge, the song straight up comes a Random Access Memories outtake. It’s worth listening to.
Those tracks aside, the first eight songs on Prism are a mix of mediocre to tolerable. “Walking on Air” revisits early 90s pop in a way no one needed to remember, and “Birthday” is such a 70s soul imitation that I had to triple check to make sure Bruno Mars didn’t produce it (as a song, it’s enjoyable if you can turn your brain off; example lyric “Let me get you in your birthday suit/It’s time to bring out the big balloons”). Like I said, Prism is Perry’s “maturing” album, and accordingly, the last five songs of it are sparse, ponderous, whispered, utterly pace-murdering ballads. Let’s skip to the good stuff: “Love Me” scrapes at the real emotion behind the navel-gazing profundity surrounding it by exploring insecurity in a relationship. It’s a muddled success at best, but still leaves more to chew over than what else is here.
“Ghost”, “Double Rainbow”, “This Moment”, and “By the Grace of God” fall apart not only because they’re all stacked together (although that certainly doesn’t help), but because they beg for sincerity from music’s most authentically inauthentic pop star. Perry’s strengths are in selling fun hooks and maybe a sweet love song, not fumbling around with stock platitudes like “be your own person” and “live for the moment”. Even after half a dozen listens to each, I can barely remember any of these tracks.
Taken as a whole, Prism is a better made, tighter unit than Teenage Dream, but I’m not sure that makes it “better” by default. The mostly nice production is the album’s saving grace, while the cliche and just flat out bad lyrics don’t do it any favors. The record will still sell by the millions and notch a few hits, but I can’t say it thrills me for whatever Katy Perry and company do next, three stars out of five.
tl;dr: Prism won’t do anything to make Katy Perry lose the “Princess of Pop” crown, but it might not help her keep it, 3/5.