In interviews, Katy Perry has said essentially that she wants her new album to be every teenage boys’ wet dream – though it’s teenage girls that will be putting “Teenage Dream” on repeat. The end result is watering down of the teenage experience, oscillating between only two points of perspective: Adorable Mischief and A Broken Heart. The former seems to subsist on nudity, drinking and sex, while the latter is of direct consequence of the former. And, as “Last Friday Night (TGIF)” says, “Do it all again.”
Granted, this is only if “Teenage Dream”
is digested as a complete work. EMI/Capitol – particularly after posting its losses from last quarter – needs a series of hits, not a concept album. Perry's previous "One of the Boys" didn't kill it on the Billboard 200, but the singles kept her on the front burner. She doesn’t get the fleshed-out dynamic, capital-A Artist treatment here, maybe in part because her public persona and previous set already fills in some of those blanks.
That’s how we get summer jam “California Gurls,” with its sun-loving, “Baby I Want You Back”-checking mindlessness. “Friday Night” creeps a little more into naughty territory, like a cuter but still skanky version of Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” plus a saxophone solo a la “Young Americans.” “Peacock” has all the subtly of the bubblegummy lipstick lesbian hit “I Kissed a Girl,” as she chants “Show me your peacock-cock-cock” (and then says something about crying, being unprepared and how “beautiful” “it” is: file under Fail). Between it and “Hummingbird Heartbeat,” these are shameless lyrics that even Fergie would blush singing.
On the flip-side, the bandaid get yanked off: “Circle the Drain” alludes to Perry’s ex, Gym Class Heroes/newly minted solo artist Travie McCoy, with vitriol and a black nail-polished edge in content and delivery -- and not just because Perry drops the F-bomb. It has a lot of remix potential with that big ‘80s beat and a growl borrowed straight from a Pink venom-spitter.
“Pearl” is about how a man can suppress a woman’s inner-beauty, with Perry ultimately pointing the mirror at herself. She admits “I used to be a shell,” but then delivers the good advice of growing strong (or something) and ultimately resists the urge to rhyme “pearl” with “girl.” In front of the skittering synths a la Justin Timberlake’s “My Love,” Perry falls prey to a pitfall that often vexes Christina Aguilera’s latter-day tracks on “Who Am I Living For”: she sings at a 1 for a little bit and the rest at a full-voiced 10, resulting in more than four minutes of whispering and shouting.
And cross-referencing contemporary pop hits and Perry’s peers is no accident. “Teenage Dream” is more an exercise in rehashing the modern popular music formula than it is carving out a new space for Perry to thrive. The songwriting credits for each song usually went to more than one person, with the tracks eventually wrung through usual machinery of hitmaking producers like Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Tricky Stewart and Stargate. The problem is that these songs could’ve been written and performed by anybody, and thus sound like everybody. Behind the caricature of the colored wigs, wink-winking, sexual identity and celebrity, Perry lacks character.
Which is a shame, because if anybody’s that’s gonna make Perry’s career distinctive, it’s Perry herself. She’s got a pop to her voice, and I love the way it flips over those high register notes, the low-level growl on those long eees, her coy slurs and an erotic purr that brings authenticity to even the most cheesy-ass lines that litter up “Teenage Dream.” Her music videos are cheeky, her public appearances are warm and everywoman-ish, like the Kewpie-eyed girl next door stripping to her skivvies to help wash cars for the local fundraiser. Personal narrative “The One That Got Away,” the phenomenal title track second single and raw closer “Not Like the Movies” benefit from flourishes of wit and honesty.
If teenaged girls and pop radio lovers can ignore awkward clunkers like “E.T.” (Poison? Disease? It must be love!) and take the half-baked metaphors as harmless songs of love, then half of this set will be a hit and the other half can sink as collateral. As an album, a statement and a social artifact, it’s a mess. I guess it depends on your definition of “dream.”
Katy Perry's "American Dream" is out tomorrow (Aug. 24).