The Number Ones

September 18, 2010

The Number Ones: Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Starting this week, The Number Ones will run once a week, on Monday mornings. Thanks to everyone who’s made The Number Ones part of their weekly routine. This will be an adjustment, but it will also keep the column running for a whole lot longer. On Wednesday, we’re also launching the new members-only weekly column The Alternative Number Ones — read more about that here. In that one, I’ll review every #1 hit on the Alternative Songs chart, beginning with its 1988 inception under the name Modern Rock Tracks.

I couldn’t stop laughing. I wasn’t laughing because it was funny. It’s not funny. If anything, it’s weirdly moving. But I sometimes laugh when I’m just happy about something. No idea why. It’s just a thing I do — a pure physical delight-response. I laugh after a big wave knocks me down. I laugh when I watch John Wick plunge a knife into someone’s eyeball. And the first time I heard “Teenage Dream,” I just laughed and laughed.

Even with songs that I love, I don’t always remember where I was the first time that I heard them. With “Teenage Dream,” though, I remember everything — the way my chair squeaked, the texture of the carpet, the quality of the light coming through the windows. I wasn’t even doing anything memorable then. I was just at work, working. It would’ve been boring as hell, except that I was hearing “Teenage Dream” for the first time.

Ryan Dombal sent it to me. At the time, my friend Ryan and I were both working at Pitchfork, handling the news feed. We’d both been laid off the same job two years earlier, and Pitchfork snapped both of us up at discount prices. In summer 2010, I was working in the Chicago office, and Ryan was in New York. (Ryan’s still at Pitchfork, but he’s the features editor now.) Ryan didn’t send me the track because we were going to write about it. We weren’t going to write about it. At the time, the Pitchfork higher-ups had decided that Katy Perry was insufficiently cool. (The site didn’t run a Teenage Dream review until 2021.) Ryan sent me that song because he instantly loved it, and he thought I’d instantly love it. He was right. If the archive of that AIM conversation still exists somewhere, it’s a whole lot of me and Ryan just sending all-caps “HOLY SHIT” messages back and forth.

I was not a teenager when I first heard “Teenage Dream.” I wasn’t anything like a teenager. I was a grown-ass dad with an office job, writing about music for a site that would not take Katy Perry seriously until Katy Perry’s moment was over. But I heard “Teenage Dream,” and I howled. By now, the song is familiar. I might’ve even partially ruined it for myself through repeated exposure. But when I hear “Teenage Dream” today, some part of me still wants to laugh.

Katy Perry wasn’t a teenager when she made “Teenage Dream,” either. Instead, she was a 25-year-old pop star, and she was about to marry Russell Brand. (Let’s not dwell on the idea that Russell Brand inspired any part of “Teenage Dream”; it’s too depressing to think about.) Perry wrote and recorded the song with the same team that made “California Gurls,” the single that she took to #1 right before “Teenage Dream”: producers Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Benny Blanco, and her own old friend Bonnie McKee. “Teenage Dream” comes out sounding like one heedless rush of inspiration, but that’s not how the song was made. Instead, those five people had to work long and hard to create that surge of immediacy.

“Teenage Dream” started out as an instrumental track from Dr. Luke and his protege Benny Blanco. Even though Luke and Blanco produced Perry’s first chart-topper “I Kissed A Girl” together a few years earlier, the “Teenage Dream” instrumental was one of the first things that they made as a team. Luke heard some of the music that Blanco had made on his own, so he summoned Blanco to come to Los Angeles to work together. Blanco doesn’t like flying, so he drove across the country. As soon as he got to LA, after the long drive, Luke immediately wanted to go to the studio. Blanco was exhausted, but he went along with it. In the all-night session that followed, the two of them made the tracks that would eventually become both “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream.”

The “Teenage Dream” melody has the mathematical precision of a Max Martin song, but Dr. Luke is actually the person responsible. In John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine, Martin himself remembers how it happened: “Benny Blanco did a track, and then Luke just started singing, and he had this flow, where everything that came out was great, including the chorus. He was just standing there and screaming, and it just wrote itself.” Dr. Luke does not seem like a good person, but a piece of shit can still have a moment of inspiration. Luke has had more than his share of inspired moments. (John Seabrook: “Dr. Luke had as many #1s in 2010 as the Beatles had in any single year.”) None of those flashes has ever been better than what became “Teenage Dream.”

But when Dr. Luke wrote that melody, he didn’t come up with any words. Instead, he just screamed out a bunch of sounds that meant nothing. (I would honestly love to hear this version of the song.) “Teenage Dream” is the track that convinced Katy Perry to call up her old friend Bonnie McKee, whose career was going nowhere. Together, Perry and McKee wrote and rewrote the “Teenage Dream” lyrics again and again. They were trying to capture a feeling of transcendent, eternal youth, and that is not an easy thing to capture.

In a 2010 interview, Bonnie McKee says that “Teenage Dream” started out as a song about Peter Pan: “That was cool, but it just kept feeling too young, and we wanted it to have more edge, more sex.” Another draft had the line “and the next thing you know, you’re a mom in a minivan.” They thought that part was hilarious, but it didn’t stick. Dr. Luke shot some versions of the track down: “Luke always makes us ‘Benny-proof’ everything. He says that if Benny doesn’t get it, America won’t get it.” Benny Blanco suggested that Perry and McKee listen to “Homecoming,” the extremely horny 2008 single from French synthpoppers the Teenagers. The song didn’t influence McKee, but the Teenagers’ band name stuck with her.

While they were still working on the song, Katy Perry made Bonnie McKee, Max Martin, and Dr. Luke come to Santa Barbara, her hometown. The word “teenager” remained stuck in McKee’s head. In the Seabrook book, she says, “I was like, ‘teenager’… that’s such a great word. It packs a lot of emotion and imagery into three syllables.” She thought about her own teenage years, and she finally unlocked the song: “I finished it, and I drove up the coast to Santa Barbara to pitch it to Luke and Max and Katy, and I got there and sang it, and everyone was like ‘Hell yeah!’ And I went to my hotel and got into the bathtub, and I just cried and cried. I was just so relieved.” With that hook, Bonnie McKee earned herself a new career. (Eventually, McKee took another stab at becoming a singer, and Dr. Luke signed her to his Kemosabe label. Her only Hot 100 hit, 2013’s “American Girl,” peaked at #87. Good song!)

“Teenage Dream” isn’t about being a teenager. It’s about chasing the raw, hormone-drunk feeling of teenagerdom. Katy Perry’s narrator sings that someone makes her feel like she’s living a teenage dream. By sheer coincidence, Baltimore space-pop greats Beach House happened to release an LP called Teen Dream — probably their most-acclaimed record — about six months before Katy Perry released the Teenage Dream album. When Teenage Dream came out, Beach House tweeted, “Can’t believe this and not in a good way, guess we have to write a song called ‘i kiss a girl.'” But teenagers and dreams are two of the fundamental ingredients of popular music. T. Rex had a song called “Teenage Dream,” too, and a trio called Teen Dream had a minor R&B-radio hit in 1987. If anything, we should have more records with some version of that same title.

I don’t remember enough about my own teenage dreams to say whether Katy Perry or Beach House captured the sensation better. I can, however, say that “Teenage Dream,” more than any song that Beach House ever recorded, sounds like it was made to be played in an actual beach house. Today, when this piece runs, I’m at a beach house on the Outer Banks, and there’s a pretty good chance that I’m banging “Teenage Dream.” Katy Perry and Bonnie McKee’s “Teenage Dream” lyrics are all about recapturing a feeling that you didn’t think you’d get to feel again — the thing where you meet someone, something explodes inside your brain, and suddenly nothing else feels like it matters.

Perry opens “Teenage Dream” by marveling over the idea that this person actually likes her, even when she’s at her most insecure: “You think I’m pretty without any makeup on/ You think I’m funny when I tell the punchline wrong.” She’s so into this person that all future consequences just go out the window: “Let’s go all the way tonight/ No regret, just love.” She wants them to put their hands on her in her skintight jeans; she’ll be their teenage dream tonight. There’s no narrative arc to the song, no consideration of how things might feel the morning after. It all just exists in that suspended headrush moment.

Maybe there’s something slightly infantile about “Teenage Dream.” Katy Perry indulges in the same West Coast mythology that animated “California Gurls”: “We drove to Cali and got drunk on the beach/ Got a motel and built a fort out of sheets/ I finally found you, my missing puzzle piece/ I’m complete.” Where are they coming from? It doesn’t matter. Theoretically, they could be anywhere in North America. They’re old enough to get drunk and rent a hotel room. They’re also young enough to have fun building a sheet-fort, young enough to “be young forever.” Sounds like 25 to me.

In a YouTube video introducing the song, Perry says, “We had to rewrite the chorus of ‘Teenage Dream’ until it felt totally perfect — like, it felt like it moved you and you wanted to release, let go and dance, and have that euphoric feeling of having a teenage love all over again.” Mission accomplished. The “Teenage Dream” chorus just explodes out of the speakers. Katy Perry can be a vaguely harsh and grating vocalist, but she can also convey that all-out immediacy. On the “Teenage Dream” hook, almost every word deserves its own exclamation point: “You! Make! Me! Feel like I’m living a teen! Age! Dream!”

“Teenage Dream” belongs to no genre. It’s got the crunchy guitars of ’80s stadium-rock. It’s got the mechanized pulse of ’80s synthpop. Max Martin piles up the keyboard sounds, the same way he did when he was putting together delirious teen-pop smashes in the late ’90s. When the song flares up on the last chorus — the moment when you can practically feel the fireworks going off, even when you’re listening to the track alone, on headphones — the buildup-and-release dynamic reminds me of the best parts of every ’90s rave track. Most of the songs that have appeared in this column fit into some subgenre or other, but you can really only categorize “Teenage Dream” under the nebulous catchall term “pop music.” “Teenage Dream” is pop music, and pop music doesn’t come much better than this.

For the “Teenage Dream” video, Katy Perry worked with Yoann Lemoine, a director who makes his own music under the name Woodkid. (His stuff does not sound like “Teenage Dream.”) The clip is very of-its-moment, using some of the vaguely nostalgic washed-out filters that were so popular in that early-Instagram moment. Also of its time: the white girl in the feathered headdress, a music-festival fashion staple that has aged very badly. Throughout the video, we see Perry ogling a hot guy as he works out in an otherwise-empty boxing gym. So many music videos revolve around love stories in empty boxing gyms! Does this happen a lot in real life? I’ve never been inside a boxing gym in my life, so I really don’t know, but I suspect that it’s just an excuse to make ripped guys take their shirts off for the camera.

It’s possible that everything else in the video is just Katy Perry’s fantasy in that moment. It is a dream, after all. On the other hand, she looks like Katy Perry. Perry and this guy zoom off with their friends, party on beaches and in parking lots, and get into a genuinely hot motel tryst. Years later, Josh Kloss, the model who played the video’s love interest, accused Katy Perry of sexual misconduct, claiming that she yanked down his sweatpants at a party a couple of years after the video was shot. Perry’s friends denied it and claimed that he was obsessed with her. Perry refused to directly address the accusations beyond the vague response “I think we live in a world where anyone can say anything.” That stuff is all a massive bummer. At least on video, though, Perry and Kloss are believable as two people who are very into one another.

For me, “Teenage Dream” represents the absolute pinnacle of that moment of gleaming, hyper-processed big-money pop music. The five people credited with writing and producing “Teenage Dream” — Katy Perry, Bonnie McKee, Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Benny Blanco — are all hugely successful figures with tons of hits to their names, and they were all operating at peak capacity in 2010. “Teenage Dream” shares plenty of lyrical and musical elements with so many of that era’s hits, many of which came from members of that team, but the song still towers over everything else that they made. It’s a magical lightning bolt of a track, an absolutely impeccable example of the kind of genius that can come out of the whole sordid music business when everything lines up just right. I’ll always remember the first time I heard the song because the song is just that good.

I don’t think Katy Perry has ever made another song as good as “Teenage Dream,” but she definitely made more big hits, and some of those big hits are pretty great. The “Teenage Dream” single came out a month before the Teenage Dream album, when Perry’s “California Gurls” was still sitting at #1. “California Gurls” was such a blockbuster that it could’ve overshadowed “Teenage Dream,” but “Teenage Dream” was simply too good for that to happen. The “Teenage Dream” single is now octuple platinum, and Katy Perry had more hits on deck. We’ll see her in this column again soon.

GRADE: 10/10

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BONUS BEATS: I really, really don’t like to put scenes from Glee in this part of the column. I just don’t like that show. I pull up scenes on YouTube, and I find myself utterly repelled. I have been informed that the “Teenage Dream” scene from Glee was a big moment for the show, and I tried watching it, but yeah, no. Can’t do it. Too embarrassing. If you want, you can look that one up yourself. I’m not going to help. Instead, let’s all enjoy this scene, from a 2012 True Blood episode, where two vampires dance to “Teenage Dream” in a room full of dead bodies:

(I never got into True Blood, either, but I can watch scenes from that show without cringing quite so hard. Completism compels me to mention that the Glee version of “Teenage Dream” peaked at #8, just after the real version of the song fell out of the top 10. It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Horrible Crowes, the project led by the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, covering “Teenage Dream” at a 2013 show and making it sound just like a Gaslight Anthem song — a good thing, in my opinion:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves made an episode of CMT Crossroads together in 2014, and they duetted on a version of “Teenage Dream.” For reasons that I simply cannot imagine, there does not seem to be any video of that performance online, but the audio thankfully survives on SoundCloud. Here it is:

(Kacey Musgraves’ highest-charting single, 2014’s “Follow Your Arrow,” peaked at #60.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: When Katy Perry performed at the Grammys in 2017, Little Big Town introduced her by singing a brief but harmony-rich acoustic “Teenage Dream” cover. Here it is:

(“Chained To The Rhythm,” the Skip Marley collab that Katy Perry sang at the Grammys that night, peaked at #4. It’s a 5. Little Big Town’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2014’s “Girl Crush,” peaked at #18.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s former Number Ones artist Seal, in disguise as the Leopard, singing “Teenage Dream” on a 2019 episode of The Masked Singer:

(Robin Thicke will eventually appear in this column.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Buy it here and don’t ever look back, don’t ever look back.

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