Katy Perry Pivots To Boring
She made hits. That was the whole premise of Katy Perry — that and stirring up controversy in ways that often sent palms flying toward foreheads. At the peak of her commercial dominance, Perry presented a playful, colorful, hyper-stylized version of pop at its most plastic. A former Christian pop singer whose breakthrough single proclaimed “I kissed a girl and I liked it,” she delighted in cartoonish camp and winking scandalize-the-youth-group provocation, packaged in the sleekest and catchiest music money could buy. It sold, too: During the five-year run from her 2008 Capitol debut One Of The Boys to 2013’s Prism, Perry was arguably the biggest pop star in the world — though with Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Adele, Kesha, Taylor Swift, Drake, Bruno Mars, and Nicki Minaj also ascendant, there was no shortage of competition for that crown.
Perry was an outsized character, a retro pinup in a blue wig and cupcake bra who named her cat Kitty Purry. Her image was central to her success, but even more important was a seemingly endless flow of songs that took hold at Top 40 radio and made their way to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. She was a quintessential singles artist; Teenage Dream, released 10 years ago today, is not so much a classic album as a readymade greatest hits. The project spun off five #1 singles, a record it shares with Michael Jackson’s Bad. Counting the deluxe edition The Complete Confection and its spinoff documentary Part Of Me, the yield was six #1s plus a #2 and a #3. Across her full career Perry has topped the chart nine times and launched more than a dozen other tracks into heavy rotation. No matter what happens from here on out, she will always have a catalog she can tour on. Her legacy as a pop phenom is secure.
That’s fortunate for Perry because her prodigious streak of hits dried up in the second half of the 2010s, and Smile, the new album she’ll release this Friday, is not likely to alter that trajectory. It doesn’t even really try to reclaim Perry’s former world-conquering stature. Instead, the sonically conservative Smile completes a pivot to adult contemporary her albums have been hinting at since Prism. The project is not completely without merit — last year’s “Never Really Over” is a platonic ideal of midtempo synth effervescence, and the chorus from the lively power ballad “Daisies” hits like a sledgehammer — but on balance it’s the sort of dull and unadventurous collection you’d expect from an American Idol judge. Other than Perry’s seemingly unprovoked endorsement of an embattled Ellen DeGeneres, the rollout has been smooth and uneventful as well. It’s almost as if she’s overcorrecting for the outrageous thirst of her previous album cycle.
With 2017’s catastrophic Witness, we got a glimpse of Perry with the persona dialed way up to compensate for the lack of killer singles. Not only was the album her first to yield no #1 hits, no songs even cracked the top 10 beyond the quickly fizzling lead single “Chained To The Rhythm.” Instead the Witness campaign served up a parade of undercooked songs, overheated music videos, and stunts like a four-day livestream that generated more public interest than any of the songs on the album. From the fake-woke faux-profundities of “Chained To The Rhythm” to the cringey Perry-as-food imagery of the “Bon Appétit” video to the mixed animal metaphors of “Swish Swish,” it was a queasy ordeal, but it was at least compelling the way a car crash on the side of the freeway is compelling. Subsequent snafus like giving a teenage Idol contestant an unwanted first kiss cemented the perception of Perry as a problematic tryhard for whom mishaps and self-debasement were the only means of remaining in the public eye.
For better or worse, what Smile seems to understand is that there’s life beyond the top of the Hot 100. Perry’s gig on Idol has given her entree into the world of primetime network television, a realm that has been friendly to fading pop stars like Christina Aguilera and fellow provocateurs like Jenny McCarthy. Her relationship with Orlando Bloom has kept her in the tabloids. She remains within view of a slightly older audience than the KatyCats of yore — some of them probably longtime fans who’ve grown up along with Perry. It’s a demographic that does not dictate the pop charts but certainly has money to spend, and Smile pursues it by leaning into the same competent but unimaginative zone inhabited by the likes of The Voice coach Gwen Stefani. Rather than lunge for TikTok virality, she’s playing to the grocery aisle.
How did it come to this? We can’t discount the persistence of an unfair double standard where women and men in pop are concerned. An industry that implicitly puts an expiration date on young female singers practically demands this sort of transition. More specific to this situation, Perry’s singles haven’t popped quite the same since she stopped working with the team behind her biggest hits. Most notably, the songwriter and producer Dr. Luke — who became a pariah when Kesha accused him of sexual, physical, and mental abuse in 2014 — was credited on all but one of Perry’s #1 singles and several of her other hits. Although Perry recently told the LA Times her personal experience with the guy was “healthy,” she understandably hasn’t employed him since Kesha’s allegations came out. Former Luke collaborators Max Martin, Benny Blanco, and Cirkut aren’t in the Smile credits either, and the album lacks that gleaming oomph they once provided.
Perry tapped a legion of tried-and-true industry staples in their stead, ending up with a serviceable set of songs that are rarely as memorable as her signature hits. Miami collective the Monsters & Strangerz, who recently worked on hits by Maren Morris, Dua Lipa, and Maroon 5, helped give “Daisies” its dynamism. An army including Starrah, Oligee, G Koop, and others turned the brassy “Smile” into something like Kanye West’s Graduation as remixed by Mark Ronson — vibrant, but a bit dated. Consistently, the quality is professional but perfunctory, be it the brisk and wistful house-pop of “Teary Eyes,” the misty gospel-inflected balladry of “Only Love,” or the string-laden funky disco of “Champagne Problems.” Not only do these songs fail to recapture the magic of “Teenage Dream,” they’re mostly built from empty platitudes about resilience, partying, and good vibes. None of the lyrics stick in your brain like, say, “You’re gonna hear me roar!”
Most of the album’s highlights aren’t home runs so much as base hits, which makes the strikeouts feel all the more egregious. “Cry About It Later” bobs and thumps like a scrawnier Imagine Dragons. Closer “What Makes A Woman” brings nothing new or interesting to its subset of inspirational ballads. The Charlie Puth-assisted “Harleys In Hawaii” is a dreary curio that should have remained a 2019 one-off. (Why include that song but relegate the poignantly catchy “Small Talk” to bonus track status?) The nadir is “Not The End Of The World,” Smile’s one attempt at the trap-pop that made “Dark Horse” Perry’s final #1 single to date. This one does not compare in terms of sparkle and swagger; around the time Perry utters the phrase “what a time to be alive” over a darkly dramatic interpolation of Steam’s foundational jock jam “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” you begin to understand why she played the rest of the album so straight.
With material that ranges from forgettable to regrettable, it’s unsurprising that none of Smile’s songs have cracked the top 10. Only “Never Really Over” (#15) and “Daisies” (#40) have charted on the Hot 100 at all. But even if Perry was in top form, it’s unclear whether she’d still have a path to #1 anymore. In hindsight, her torrid chart run was one of the last examples of Top 40 stations powering songs to #1 through sheer saturation. It’s no coincidence that she hasn’t topped the chart since streaming supplanted radio as its dominant force; if her Teenage Dream tracks were formidable machines, so was the system that barraged listeners via heavy rotation until they couldn’t help but buy a song on iTunes. The slow-build, radio-abetted climb to #1 still happens now and again — recent examples include Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” and Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” — but more often than not, big-splash debuts and gradual grassroots climbs alike are now powered by streaming.
Perry’s whole approach was built upon mass-appeal long-tail radio bait, not digital era virality. She is on a decidedly different wavelength from the zoomer teens whose listening habits now dictate the charts. That leaves Perry stranded somewhere outside the upper tier of modern pop stardom. Unless a young freak like 6ix9ine hits her up for a feature or some TikTok influencer decides to dance to one of her tunes, there’s a ceiling for a figure like Perry, whose music interacts more naturally with rock than hip-hop and who is working from a template that predates SoundCloud and Spotify. (It’s worth noting that the music native to each of those platforms has cohered into its own form of M.O.R.; it will be interesting to see what becomes of streaming-era stars whenever the industry’s next paradigm shift arrives.) Although it’s possible to imagine a more engaging version of Smile, credit Perry for moving forward with dignity rather than frantically scrambling to preserve a moment that has passed. If she never again approaches the record-breaking success of Teenage Dream, at least the Smile era is succeeding on its own terms: Just last week, when I stopped by Walmart to pick up diapers, the PA was blasting “Never Really Over.”
This column was on hiatus the past two weeks while I was out for paternity leave, during which time two new #1 singles were crowned. First, Harry Styles scored his first American #1 with “Watermelon Sugar.” Then Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion came crashing in with a #1 debut for the conversation-monopolizing “WAP” (Cardi’s fourth #1 and Megan’s second after “Savage”). The latter track remains at atop the chart for a second straight week, surpassing “Savage” to become Megan’s longest-running #1. According to Billboard it’s the first song since Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” to spend its first two weeks on the chart at #1 and the first song by women to spend multiple weeks at #1 since Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” finally reached the summit this past December.
Debuting at #2 is Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later.” It’s Drake’s record-extending 41st top 10 hit and Durk’s first visit to the region. Drake also extends his records for most overall Hot 100 entries (225), most top 40 hits (114) and most titles to debut in the top 10 (26). After summer smashes from DaBaby and Roddy Ricch (“Rockstar” at #3), the Weeknd (“Blinding Lights” at #4), and Jack Harlow (“What’s Poppin” at #5) comes a new career peak for country star Morgan Wallen, whose “7 Summers” rises to #6 to become his first top-10 hit.
“Watermelon Sugar” falls to #7, SAINt JHN’s “Roses” descends to #8, and Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” slides to #9, down from its prior #7 peak. Finally, one more country hit cracks the top 10 this week, with former American Idol contestant Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” rising to #10 to become her first top-10 hit in its whopping 34th week on the chart.
Meanwhile Taylor Swift — the last unaccompanied female artist before Barrett to crack the Hot 100 top 10 with a song that also charted on Hot Country Songs (2012’s “Red”) — remains #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart for a fourth straight week with Folklore, this time boasting 101,000 equivalent album units and 46,000 in sales. According to Billboard, Swift’s album and Pop Smoke’s Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon are the only ones to post four weeks with more than 100,000 units this year. Folklore is also the first album by a woman to spend its first four weeks at #1 since Adele’s 25 in 2015.
After Pop Smoke at #2 and Juice WRLD at #3 comes a career-best #4 debut for Young Dolph’s Rich Slave via 65,000 units and 32,000 in sales. The rest of the top 10 comprises Hamilton, Rod Wave, Lil Baby, DaBaby, Post Malone, and Harry Styles.
POP FIVE: POST-PATERNITY LEAVE PLUS SIZE EDITION
BTS – “Dynamite”
Based on the absolutely filthy YouTube stats, BTS’ first fully English-language single seems extremely likely to become their first American #1 hit. It’s a fun one, a funky neon disco sunburst with a glorious key change to carry it home.
Troye Sivan – “Rager teenager!”
Troye Sivan’s In A Dream EP is a gorgeous voyage into the blurry intersection between the pop and indie mainstreams. Every song is deeply pretty, but the catchiest may be this mirage-like ballad.
Drake – “Laugh Now, Cry Later” (Feat. Lil Durk)
This production softens “Trophies” the same way “God’s Plan” softened “Headlines,” but I don’t mind Drake recycling vibes from past hits when the result is something this effortlessly appealing. I also don’t mind him turning his video into a Nike ad or so overtly seeking to be memed when the video this this compulsively watchable.
Mariah Carey – “Save The Day”
Post-domination Mariah Carey remains an absolute treasure, with or without a Fugees sample.
Miley Cyrus – “Midnight Sky”
Remember when Miley Cyrus was a pop star?
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Me And The Boys In The Band”
Traditionally the best CRJ songs have been powered by melody, but this one is all about the rhythm. What Jack Antonoff does here with drums, bass, and chopped-up samples is stunning, and Jepsen is clearly having a blast.
Benee – “Snail”
All these Benee songs sound like the kind of quirky but impeccably produced pop music indie bloggers were going nuts for back in the Bush administration, which is to say, they rule.
Iggy Azalea & Tinashe – “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching”
This turns into a banger as soon as Tinashe shows up to sing the hook. As for the substance of that hook, though… was “Live, Laugh, Love” already taken?
Charlie Puth & blackbear – “Hard On Yourself”
Why am I so hard on myself? A dude I used to despise for his treacly movie-soundtrack ballad and a dude I still despise for his vapid trend-mongering nonsense have teamed up on what amounts to an early Drake deep cut, and… I kind of like it.
Machine Gun Kelly – “my ex’s best friend” (Feat. blackbear)
MGK and blackbear, though, I cannot abide.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Drake apparently tried to copyright his forthcoming album title, Certified Lover Boy, but couldn’t because of Loverboy. [Complex]
- Britney Spears filed to have her father removed as sole conservator over her estate, but a judge ruled that no changes will be made until next year. [Reuters]
- Hayley Williams urged travelers to stay away from Nashville: “If you really believe in Nashville, don’t come here until this shit is handled.” [Rolling Stone]
- Ariana Grande became Spotify’s most-streamed female artist of all time, surpassing Rihanna. [Instagram]
- Taylor Swift revealed the James of her accidental queer anthem “betty” is actually a boy. [Billboard]
- “I think people have suffered enough in 2020 they don’t need another song from me,” says Lewis Capaldi. [Official Charts]
- Here’s a look at Selena Gomez’s new quarantine cooking show for HBO Max. [YouTube]
- In other Selena Gomez news, she’s launching her beauty brand Rare Beauty on 9/3. [Allure]
- Marshmello appeared to tease a Demi Lovato collab. [Instagram]
- BTS, Doja Cat, and J Balvin have been announced for MTV’s socially distanced VMAs. [Variety]
- Meanwhile, Doja Cat doesn’t seem to bothered by the diss from Nas on his new track, “Ultra Black.” [Instagram]
- Lizzo signed a first-look TV development deal with Amazon. [THR]
- Post Malone got another tattoo, at his dentist’s office. [Instagram]
- In other tattoo news, Anuel also got a face tat that says “Fear God.” [Twitter]
- Tove Lo will make her acting debut in the Swedish film The Emigrants. [Deadline]
- Diplo DJ’d the DNC “afterparty.” [Twitter]
- Dolly Parton announced a new Christmas album with guests including Miley Cyrus and Michael Bublé. [CMT]
- Hailee Steinfeld, Anna Kendrick, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, and other Pitch Perfect 3 cast members reunited virtually to cover Beyoncé‘s “Love On Top” for UNICEF. [YouTube]
- Calvin Harris and the Weeknd teased a collab. [Twitter]
- The Weeknd also donated $300k to Global Aid for Lebanon to help those impacted by the Beirut explosion. [TMZ]
- Ava Max released a remix to “Kings & Queens” with Lauv & Saweetie. [YouTube]
- Beyoncé, SAINt JHN, WizKid, and Blue Ivy’s “Brown Skin Girl” is now on YouTube. [YouTube]
- Hayley Kiyoko appears on a remix of AJR’s “Bang!” [Spotify]
- Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford scored the new Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso. [USA Today]
- Shinedown broke Billboard’s record for the most Mainstream Rock Song #1s. Congrats to Shinedown and their fans! [Billboard]