Katy Perry is wide-eyed and bedazzled. She tiptoes through Candy Land like Dorothy dropped into Oz. She waves to a pair of menacing anthropomorphic gummy bears, one of whom gives her the finger. She’s splayed out on a cotton candy cloud, a strategically-placed strip covering the naughty bits. She’s wearing a platinum purple wig and singing with all the intensity of an American Idol audition. The song she’s singing is cloying but insistently catchy, an over-the-top ode to the virtues of the Golden Coast if California was made up exclusively of beaches and Popsicles.
Katy Perry is zooming down a highway. The frame looks like a washed-out nostalgic proto-Instagram filter. An anonymously hot guy is in the driver’s seat, trying to keep his eyes on the road. A car passes them by, filled with youths wearing Coachella-ready attire. There are a lot of close-ups of jeans, skin-tight, unbuttoning and coming off. There are some intimations of plot — a scene where Perry admires the guy from behind a locker door in a high school gymnasium where he’s furiously beating up a punching bag. None of it makes sense. But the song that soundtracks it does.
Those were the public’s introductions to the era of Perry’s Teenage Dream, a blockbuster pop album the likes of which are increasingly rare. Both exhibit the polar opposites of Katy Perry as a pop star. At her best, she strikes a balance between tryhard and effortless, an equation that would become more out of whack in recent years as her career has floundered creatively. (Remember Perry being basted like a Thanksgiving turkey in her ill-advised Migos collab “Bon Appétit“? It’s better if you don’t.) But Teenage Dream was the sweet spot, the coronation of a fresh pop talent that justified why, at least for a while, the country just couldn’t get enough of Perry.
From summer 2010 to summer 2011, Perry reigned. Teenage Dream spawned five #1 singles, only the second album in history to do so after Michael Jackson’s Bad. The album’s Complete Confection deluxe edition extended her tenure, resulting in another chart-topper, “Part Of Me,” which in turn inspired an oddly compelling concert film and another Top 10 hit, “Wide Awake.” Perry was inescapable and unstoppable in the years following Teenage Dream, effervescent and ever-present on both the charts and in popular culture.
But let’s backtrack a bit. Katy Perry was a bit of a question mark before Teenage Dream. She was coming off the success of her first #1 single, 2008’s “I Kissed A Girl,” which positioned her as the raunchy girl next door, with chaste innuendos and confusingly coded bisexuality. The album it appeared on, One Of The Boys, was a hodgepodge of influences that reflected Perry’s surprisingly long gestation period in the music industry. She had been bouncing around for a while before One Of The Boys, driven forward by a string of failures. She started out as a gospel singer — her actual debut album, back when she was known as Katy Hudson, came out in 2001 when she was only 17. Katy Perry was a more secular construction, an adopted persona that allowed the singer with the fundamentalist Christian background to reimagine herself as a different kind of all-American girl: less church choir, more pin-up poster.
One of the first people she ever played her secular music for was Glen Ballard, the producer behind Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. (Coincidentally, Ballard — though he didn’t have any involvement in Teenage Dream — was involved in the recording of Michael Jackson’s Bad, Teenage Dream‘s only other chart-record matcher.) Her first record deal with Def Jam was meant to mold her into a rock-pop act in the vein of Alanis, but she was dropped when the commercial tides turned against rock-pop and toward teen-pop. She then signed to Columbia to be one of the front-facing singers for the songwriting team the Matrix, who were coming off the success of Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. But the album they made was shelved, and she was dropped yet again.
The next time her path intersected with a crew of super-producers, it would stick. Max Martin and Dr. Luke were part of the aforementioned teen-pop wave — Martin in particular already had major success with Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, and both of them worked together on Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” a clear progenitor of Perry’s rock-inflected pop sound. Martin and Dr. Luke linked up with Perry for the first time on her debut album, One Of The Boys, and they were responsible for its biggest hits: the controversy-courting “I Kissed A Girl” (with they wrote with early ’90s pop singer Cathy Dennis) and “Hot N Cold,” a highlight and the album’s second-biggest single.
(Dr. Luke, who was accused of sexual assault and emotional abuse by Kesha, is still making music — he produced Doja Cat’s recent #1 “Say So” and has worked extensively with Kim Petras. Perry defended Dr. Luke in her court deposition, though she stopped working with him once the allegations became public. In an interview from earlier this month, Perry addressed the prolonged court case between the two parties: “I knew both of them at the time. It sucks when you know both of the players. I can only speak for my own experience, and my own experience with Dr Luke was a healthy one. I believe in due process. And I also believe that only they know the truth.” Neither Perry nor Martin has worked with Luke publicly since 2014.)
The crowning achievement of Teenage Dream is its title track, a perfect reflection of youthful love and adult regret. It’s part of a long lineage of pop music that reimagines the experiences of adolescence and confers them with a reverential devotion. “Teenage Dream” is a monument to first love, twinged with the more mature recognition that first love rarely lasts.
It’s a marvel of Martin’s melodic math approach: exacting syllables that have no regard for English grammar, layers and layers of sound that are added and subtracted until you’re filled with breathless anticipation. (Owen Pallett wrote a delightfully thorough essay about the mathematical wonders of “Teenage Dream.”) “I’ma get your heart racing/ In your skin-tight jeans/ Be your teenage dream tonight” goes the rush of one of the song’s many hooks, a compelling replica of summers filled with long car rides and copious amounts of denim. The lyrics are about losing your virginity but they sound only vaguely sexual, more about giving yourself over to a feeling than the feeling itself.
“Teenage Dream,” and a lot of Teenage Dream‘s singles, were written with pop songwriter Bonnie McKee, who had put out a solo record a few years before that had failed commercially. But she had an ear for the pointedly specific details that can turn a pop song from generic to eternal. As McKee explained in the invaluable pop music companion The Song Machine: “People like hearing songs that sound like something they’ve heard before, that’s reminiscent of their childhood, and of what their parents listened to. I mean, every once in a while something new will happen, like dubstep, where it’s like ‘This is robot future music!,’ but most people still just want to hear about love and partying.”
Maybe that’s why Teenage Dream‘s other singles tread familiar ground. “Firework” has become an inspirational slideshow go-to, an empowering anthem about shining so bright you light up the entire night sky. It opens with the goofy question “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” (Perry doubled down on this mode with the McKee co-written Prism lead singe “Roar.”) “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is propulsive and filled with aw-shucks regret, recounting a wild night filled with vanilla vodka and too many selfies that’s rendered in surprisingly crisp detail for a night you’re not supposed to remember: “Yeah, we danced on table tops/ And we took too many shots/ Think we kissed but I forgot.”
Both are meticulously constructed pop songs — sparkling and eminently likable and also pretty safe. None of the album’s #1 hits really sound alike, which is perhaps part of the reason why it was so successful. Teenage Dream was about proving Perry could have longevity as a pop star. It’s a showcase for Perry’s versatility, but it doesn’t really give her a point-of-view. Perry didn’t want to rely on novelty songs like “I Kissed A Girl”; she wanted to have songs that would defy time and trends. Which makes the existence of “California Gurls” and “E.T.” a little puzzling. Naturally, they were popular at the time — Perry’s upward trajectory and their forceful hooks all but guaranteed their success — but neither has aged particularly well. The womp-womp drops of “E.T.,” which would get a Kanye West feature before being released as a single, are very of their time; “California Gurls” is a little better, but even Perry herself was quoted as saying it was “so annoying” in a New York Times feature. The best pop songs transcend the era in which they were created; too many of Teenage Dream‘s hits feel bogged down by it.
The non-#1s of Teenage Dream are mostly forgettable. The best is “The One That Got Away” — the one that stalled at #3 on the charts — which operates in the same wistful lane as “Teenage Dream,” a pumping ballad that contains coy references to June and Johnny Cash and Radiohead. It’s a highlight on Teenage Dream, but it also mines the same sort of emotions that “Teenage Dream” does better. Other songs find Perry trying to emulate other people’s hits, with “Peacock” (Kesha) and “Circle The Drain” (Paramore), but to lesser effect. The last four tracks on the album don’t really sound like anything, though at least the “Tricky” Stewart-produced “Hummingbird Heartbeat” had a catchy enough hook to justify an attempted late-era single push.
But even though Teenage Dream, the album, is scattershot, its high is ridiculously high, up there with the best moments of 2010s pop. “Teenage Dream” is forever. The album’s other singles have earned their place in pop music’s #1s pantheon, and Katy Perry has been an institution, for better and for worse, since Teenage Dream was released. She’d go on to have even more hits, but this album represents the peak of Perry’s power as a pop star. But even on what’s arguably her strongest collection of work, you can already see how her career might devolve into trend-chasing and misguided attempts at cultural domination. The two lasting images from Teenage Dream — “California Gurls”‘s confectionary excess and “Teenage Dream”‘s heart-aching nostalgia — are complete opposites, but maybe that’s the point. Perry is a malleable pop star, able to adapt her talents to the moment. She’s not always successful in that pursuit, but she’s always willing to be that teenage dream, whatever it might be.