Very talented, very energetic and very charismatic, Katy Perry would be nothing if not for her immensely keen sense of strategy.
Every element of Perry’s persona, from her style of dress, to the way she gives interviews, to the way she turns lyrics into infinitely catchy songs, is designed with an unparalleled combination of self-awareness and omniscient perspective.
Yet for as irrefutably calculated and deliberate Perry is in every regard, she never comes across as insincere. So many performers veer into pretentiousness while feigning artistry, but Perry embraces–and, in fact, celebrates–the limitations of her identity and ability. She knows who she is, she knows what her audience wants, and she combines the two to reign as a perfect hitmaking machine.
Her strategic excellence comes not from adapting herself to the fickle needs of a music marketplace; it comes from spotlighting the aspects of her legitimate self that best connect with the more fundamental needs of her passionate fanbase.
That combination of calculation and honesty is how she can routinely flaunt her body–and shamelessly draw attention to her chest–without coming across as objectionably racy in the vein of acts like Miley Cyrus. It is how she can transform songs with lyrics as cliched as those in “Firework” and “Part of Me” into ubiquitous empowerment anthems that touch and inspire millions. It is how she was able to turn a collection of songs as objectively glossy and immature as those on “Teenage Dream” into an album that spent years literally defining pop music.
Unfortunately, it emerges only occasionally on new album “Prism.” And the result is a surprisingly inconsistent album that, while solid, lacks the precision, repeatability and spark of her previous release.
Don’t forget – this is a Katy Perry album
Make no mistake. The album is not without its gems. It is, after all, a Katy Perry release.
Smash lead single “Roar,” a thematic hybrid of her hits “Firework” and “Part of Me,” serves as the perfect realization of the style she introduced on “One of the Boys” and made ubiquitous on “Teenage Dream.” Follow-up “Unconditionally,” which finds the album’s vocal and instrumental tracks at their most determined, creates a memorable, arena-ready aura unrivaled by any of her past ballads and mid-tempos.
Marred by a late lyric cheesy enough to make the guys who wrote “The Fox” roll their eyes (“Let me get you in your birthday suit/It’s time to bring out the big balloons”), “Birthday” is an otherwise endearing jam that showcases Perry’s unrelenting lust for life. The lazy chorus could use some more lyrics, and the late-song callouts venture into the ridiculous (her delivery of “Shout out to all you kids buying bottle service with your rent money” mirrors that of Jemaine Clement), but “This is How We Do” offers an unmistakable glimpse into Perry’s masterful strategy. A song that speaks to a fun, youthful audience from the perspective of a fun, youthful performer, it is sure to resonate with her fanbase.
Juicy J must be aware of some hideous skeletons in Perry’s closet, because his half-hearted, poorly-phrased verse has no business tarnishing “Dark Horse.” Luckily, the song was not banking on a competent guest appearance. Driven by Perry’s sultry, confident delivery, the hottest beat in her discography and a unique compositional structure, it is an irrefutable album standout and undeniable winner.
The uplifting, irresistible “This Moment” finds Perry delivering a charming song that feels as relevant for pop success as it does poised for adult contemporary stardom.
And though one’s first listen might cause him to write off “International Smile” as a shallow “Teenage Dream” B-Side, the song stands on its own due to a game performance from Perry, cute lyrical wordplay (“She’s a little bit of Yoko (you go), She’s a little bit of Ono (oh no)”) and an unforgettable bridge that plays like a Daft Punk remix of her “Last Friday Night” bridge.
Excellent in their own ways, the aforementioned “Prism” tracks reflect the bankability of a focused Katy Perry. When she identifies an objective–and figures out how to achieve that objective without abandoning herself–she scores without fail. She has done so since “One of the Boys,” and if the successful flirtations with an evolved sound on “Prism” are any indication, she will continue to do so long after this album is a distant memory.
Perry, unfortunately, loses that treasured perspective at various points on “Prism,” and the result is a string of misfires that would be lucky to be called filler. And though a degree of imperfection is inevitable when producing an album in an environment of such intense pressure and lofty expectations, the matter is made worse by the lack of uniformity in her miscalculations. Different tracks fail for different reasons, which makes it impossible for viewers to ignore the very real–and very detrimental–inconsistency.
“Legendary Lovers” and “Walking on Air” suffer from Perry’s ill-conceived attempts to foray into uncharted territory. Experimentation should never be discouraged, but an artist as self-aware as Perry should know better than to force herself into sounds that do not fit her vibe.
The atmospheric element of the former is nothing new for the woman behind “ET,” “Wide Awake” and “Unconditionally,” but the psychedelic, international tones are, and they clash with her melodic sensibility in a way that renders the track unenjoyable. A surprisingly noncommittal Perry, meanwhile, struggles to determine whether she should be true to herself or true to the song. In picking neither, Perry amplifies the extent to which the convoluted, lifeless song meanders.
While album standout “Birthday” expertly channels disco, the grating “Walking on Air” finds Perry clumsily working with the kind of disco revival track that would fuel the goofiest 90s aerobics videos. Nothing about the song feels fresh; worse, nothing about the song feels consistent with who Katy Perry is. Under no circumstance should someone with such a clear sense of fun and personality come across as this disengaged.
Known for her shallow, glitzy tendencies, Perry has every right to explore deeper, more introspective themes. Unfortunately, doing so while her astute self-awareness is on vacation is a big mistake that results in tracks like “Ghost” and “By the Grace of God.”
The songs might be personal in conception, but their execution reeks of artistic discomfort. This kind of songwriting is not Perry’s forte, and without compensatory effort in the performance, the songs are doomed to failure. “Ghost” buries its message in bad descriptors, while the “Grace” cheapens its message by playing like a hollow, yet slightly more energetic Sarah McLachlan song.
An unusual deafness to tone ruins “Double Rainbow,” which makes the puzzling choice of applying the “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” adage to a human being. “Love Me” is one of the only Katy Perry songs on record that cannot even keep blandness away from its chorus.
“Spiritual,” “It Takes Two” and “Choose Your Battles,” the three bonus tracks, are as obvious examples of filler as there ever were.
Trouble with the Dream
In addition to making her one of the biggest superstars in pop, “Teenage Dream” also initiated a significant landscape shift for Katy Perry. Suddenly, she was facing a multitude of external forces that compromised the control and agency she had exercised so well.
Exceedingly aware of the musical and thematic commonalities of her key “Teenage Dream” singles, many listeners and critics were begging her to experiment with a new sound on “Prism.” Exceedingly familiar with the 28-year-old’s fondness for teen-skewing party lyrics, many listeners and critics were begging her to experiment with more mature topics on “Prism.” Exceedingly impressed with the extent to which they could relate to Perry, many diehard fans were looking for songs that spoke only to them on “Prism.”
And exceedingly impressed with the pop perfection of her preceding album, all listeners and critics had infinitely high hopes for “Prism.”
In crafting such expectations and applying such pressures, the music marketplace took some of Katy Perry’s control away. It made the ceaselessly and astutely strategic Perry consider irrelevant or insignificant factors in developing “Prism,” which in turn diverted Perry’s effort to the wrong objectives.
Instantly deserving of positions atop Perry’s anthology, the “Prism” winners are more than just good songs. They are proof that Perry has not lost her way and is, in fact, merely scratching the surface of her potential. Whether proving that she can improve her signature sound (“Roar”) or expertly break new ground (“Unconditionally,” “Dark Horse”), “Prism” is rich with evidence in support of calling Perry one of the most special names in pop.
But the numerous misfires underscore the extent to which Perry’s success is neither automatic nor the result of a mindlessly supportive music market. Laser focus and brilliant direction of effort are required for a Katy Perry smash, and though she is blessed with a great voice, a great personality, a great flair for melody and a great sense of fun, strategic miscalculations are very much capable of undermining her effort.
2) Legendary Lovers
4) Walking on Air
6) Dark Horse
7) This is How We Do
8) International Smile
10) Love Me
11) This Moment
12) Double Rainbow
13) By the Grace of God
15) It Takes Two
16) Choose Your Battles