On ‘Smile,’ Katy Perry Turns Her Troubles Into Bubbly, Colorful Pop
In 2008, Katy Perry sang, “I kissed a girl, and I liked it,” deviating from a background in Christian pop, and creating an anthem with an unspoken emphasis that rang the world around. In due time, she was an eccentric pop star of the highest ranks. Whether she is gimmicky or not hardly matters, as a deeper look into her music reveals just the type of spark that is the lifeblood of pop music. 2010’s “Teenage Dream” yielded five number one singles, the first album to do so since Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” The title track became such an era-defining sensation that it not only soundtracked high school experiences, but also inspired lengthy dissertations from the likes of the comparatively esoteric, indie, classical musician Owen Pallet. When Perry became a judge on “American Idol,” a posturing that was lighthearted and jokey to begin with, started to turn in its tracks, as adopted, bona fide plasticity began to become both a constricting expectation and an easy grounds for critical dismissal.
Perry’s last album, 2017’s “Witness,” zeroed in on pop perfection, and carried the feminist streak that has always been present in her work, but received a lukewarm welcome overall, with the shock factor naturally growing a bit stale. Mishaps, like giving an “Idol” contestant an unwelcome first kiss, didn’t help — or did they? Spontaneity and vitality are central to what makes Perry stand out in the first place, and a considerable portion of her fans see this as an affirmation of a spirit that was in danger of fading out. On her latest album, “Smile,” Perry is at her most uninhibited, running through roller coasters and ultimately turning up smiling and radiant, over music that captures her beaming resilience. There isn’t exactly anything to stop you in your tracks, but there’s an uncompromising flair and an effortless catchiness to the record.
The first lines of opener “Never Really Over” are “I’m losing my self-control / But it’s starting to trickle back in.” It rings like an elastic pull, due for an imminent, emotional pop outburst, and Perry delivers in just seconds. She bursts into a chorus that finds her sounding like a belting automaton, alternating between Tokyo machine gun fire and sweeping stadium gesture. Breakups rarely come with a clean break, and the tension from the tear can turn into an all-consuming delirium that Perry captures effectively over marching band snares and a bright synth pulse. “Cry About It Later” channels the drama into a resolute romp, as Perry makes the titular commitment, encountering vocoder mutations and guitar solos, as she considers such diversions as “a brand new tattoo.”
The natural next step is total EDM abandon, and this comes on “Teary Eyes,” in which Perry wills herself, “Just keep on dancing with those teary eyes,” prompting a David Guetta-style break. The greatest thing about a song like this is how unabashedly kitsch it is, and how the refrain condenses a universal sentiment into a snappy line. “Daisies” switches up the underlying aesthetics, with an acoustic guitar strum as the backbone, but an overall structure that fits in with the same EDM format as its predecessor. After all, the song is an extension of the same sentiment. Perry sings, “They tell me that I’m crazy, but I’ll never let ’em change me / ‘Til they cover me in daisies,” and there’s a point when she screams “daisies” with a veracity that would make hardcore punk bands jealous. Perry has always delivered the most bubblegum pop with an edge that sets her apart from most of her pallid peers, and this song is a prime example.
Perry proceeds to a self-empowerment anthem in the tradition of “Fireworks.” “Resilient” is more subtle in its musical stylings, shying away from full dancefloor revelry, and this lets Perry’s expressive voice take center stage. The understated, but assertive instrumentation captures the sense of building back up, and a section with triumphant strings especially carries Perry’s message. An emphatic afterthought follows in “Not the End of the World,” a song that returns to EDM cliches, but with an edge that’s wearing out. Fortunately, the track lives up to its title, as it could easily be worse.
In the midst of all this drama, the title track makes a major impact, coming across like the most animated of smiles. Perry suddenly dons early ‘90s hip-hop neon colors, and comes through radiant and gleeful, shedding her lugubrious posturing, in favor of a new beaming persona. She sings, “I’m so thankful / Scratch that, baby, I’m grateful,” with the “scratch that” bit adding volumes, conveying a surfeit of jokey swag, and rounding off when she adds, “Now you see me shine from a mile,” which you indeed can. “Champagne Problems” builds from this momentum, as Perry beams, “All we got is champagne problems now,” over crescendos, handclaps, and a general celebratory spring in her step, enhanced by disco musical stylings that could hardly be better suited for such a sentiment.
By the time “Tucked” comes along, all the angst has congealed into cool composure, as Perry glides over a funky, summery instrumental, flaunting, “I keep you tucked away inside my head / Where I can find you anytime I want to, baby.” In the context of the whole album, the song carries a tinge of contained obsession, a controlled lunacy that keeps things animated and entertaining. “Harleys in Hawaii” lingers in a fantastical headspace, as Perry envisions a tropical escape, with a cartoonishly emphatic delivery that indulges in hip-hop excesses, while using them as a subtle disclaimer. It’s the type of indulgence that comes after venting. Perry always sounds authentic, even in her most outlandish pop escapades, and this is a case in point.
“Only Love” brings an ‘80s sensibility, while still sounding very much of the moment. It’s a sound perfectly suited for Perry, and it rings like an overdue indulgence. Over airy synth washes and a shuffling pulse, she muses on what she would do “If I had one day left to live,” and presents her reflections in a glossy sheen that effectively plays up to the fanciful nature of the subject matter, while materializing it in perfect sonic architecture. Perry closes the album with “What Makes a Woman,” a song with a turnaround and chorus so Disney that it’s hard to take seriously until you remember that this is the very essence of Katy Perry’s art, overdoing clichés with the type of blatancy that invites hipster appreciation. At any rate, the song specifically centers on the mystique of femininity, with lyrics that tease and taunt, resolving ultimately into closing lines of “Is it the way we keep / the whole world turning / In a pair of heels?”
Pop music, in a broad sense, represents the stomp and stride of youth, and provides a lens focused toward the future, yet simultaneously serves as an emblem of a certain vapidness that gets steadily amplified as one expands to broader musical genres. Artists like Katy Perry hack the system. Just about everyone likes to belt out a catchy tune at the end of the night, and Perry turns this inclination into an onslaught of infectious tunes that turn cliché into a brandished attribute. “Smile” covers an emotional journey, with Perry running through peaks and troughs, and turning her troubles and traumas into colorful pop. There are many vapid, cookie-cutter pop stars, but only a few among them with a spark that sets them apart. Katy Perry is safely in the latter category, and her latest album shows it.
“Smile” releases Aug. 28 on Apple Music.