If we're going to talk about Katy Perry's new album Prism, we might as well cut to the chase and skip ahead to the 10th track, a smile-through-the-tears self-help lecture called "Love Me." It's the song to which pop intellectuals seeking to contextualize Perry in the current musical landscape have already gravitated. Future generations will surely regard it as Prism's "State of the Perry" address.
"Love Me" is the one in which Perry sings, "I don't negotiate with insecurities" and insists that she will be the one defining who she's gonna be. As is the case with the track before "Love Me" — the surprisingly non-Swayze-referencing "Ghost" — it is presumably about Perry's breakup with Russell Brand. (Like George W. Bush, Perry does not mention the swarthy supervillain with whom she refuses to broker by name.) A couple of songs later, the album-closing "By the Grace of God" caps this trilogy of woe and redemption with a shocking twist (the lyrics allude to a suicide attempt) and a triumphant conclusion (Perry looks in the mirror and decides that offing herself is a poor alternative to being paid tens of millions of dollars for delivering the follow-up to Teenage Dream).
Judging by how Prism is structured, the album's final third is meant to represent a deeper, truer Katy Perry than we've previously encountered. The music is bluer and more atmospheric, and the lyrics are more thoughtful in a bedside journal kind of way. (There are also a couple of subtle callbacks to Perry's Christian roots. She was lost, it appears, but now she is found.) Perry herself has encouraged this interpretation — in a red-carpet interview before the MTV Video Music Awards, she described the process of making Prism as "letting the light in and doing some self-reflection and just kind of working on myself." If this sort of introspection was out of place at an inherently idiotic event like the VMAs — and seemed like a strange prelude to a performance that culminated with Perry jumping rope in an animal-print sports bra — it is equally incongruous on a Katy Perry album.
Prism is proffered as a journey into self, with the first several tracks conforming to the winking plasticity of Perry's established image before delving into a series of overtly vulnerable and "dark" songs. But even when Perry plays it light on Prism, she wants you to sense her newfound sense of flesh-and-blood humanity. On "Roar" — Perry's eighth no. 1 single, and proof that arena rock is still hugely popular so long as it is performed by pop stars and country singers — she co-opts the operatic, drum line–driven melodrama of Florence + the Machine and confines the jokey Reagan-era touchstones to the lyrics. (Don't forget to kick Survivor a couple of shekels for that "eye of the tiger" quote, Katy.) Prism's wedding-song stab, "Unconditionally," won't lend itself to pyrotechnic décolletage in the video like "Firework" did — it has more in common with the smarmy soft-rock of "Who You Love" from John Mayer's recent Paradise Valley, on which Perry sang. Even the supremely frothy "This Is How We Do" — which I've already seen described as a potential "song of the summer 2014" candidate in Billboard and Us Weekly, because summer songs apparently are marketed like summer blockbusters now — trades in the high school playacting of Perry's old hits for relatively grown-up activities such as "Mariah Carey–oke."
But it's the songs in Prism's back half that fully articulate where Perry's head is at right now. On "This Moment," she strikes a philosophical pose: "Do you ever think that we're just chasing our tails? / Like life is one big fast treadmill / And we pop what is prescribed / If it gets us first prize." Along with taking a bold stance against PEDs, she is making a decidedly non-YOLO argument in favor of prudence, which is just not the kind of thing Katy Perry normally does in a Katy Perry song. It's like Motörhead recording a concept album1 about how prominently warted British rockers over the age of 60 should stop mainlining Jack and Cokes immediately after getting out of bed at 5 p.m. It's a little confusing and totally disconcerting. To paraphrase John Lennon, the Teenage Dream is over.
At no point in the history of popular music has so much and so little been simultaneously expected from pop stars. In pop's YouTube economy, it's possible for literally anyone to have a massive hit song, so long as it offers the right mix of catchiness and silliness to ensure maximum virality. And yet, for more traditional (or "professional") performers, pop music is now regarded with an unprecedented level of solemnity.
For instance, it was not an uncommon occurrence in the past for a former child star to engage in outrageous sexual provocation in order to establish a beachhead inside the adult section of show business. David Cassidy did it. Drew Barrymore did it. Selena Gomez did it. Lots of other people have done it, and the public was usually repulsed, titillated, and/or amused. But it never was exactly considered to be serious business. When Miley Cyrus did it in 2013, however, the act was utilized as a vehicle for professional thinkers (many of whom normally don't deign to address pop music) to discuss matters of racism, sexism, feminism, mental illness, the degradation of children, and the corrosive cultural impact of the entertainment industry. For about a week, Miley seizing upon Robin Thicke's crotch as a career opportunity signified everything important about culture as far as the media was concerned. So, while it's true that pop has never been more ephemeral, it also has never been more consciously perceived as meaningful art — and we haven't even entered the album cycle for Lady Gaga's forebodingly titled Artpop yet.
In spite of releasing one of the most successful pop records of the young century — Teenage Dream's five no. 1 singles was the most since Michael Jackson's Bad — Katy Perry is uniquely ill-suited for these developments. She's resistant to the think piece treatment: Katy Perry doesn't signify larger truths about the way we live now, Katy Perry just signifies pop music. Perry's hits have been as reassuring in their own way as Adele's, only instead of drawing on the tasteful record-collector sounds of the late '60s and early '70s, she's been committed to the visual aesthetic of the early '60s and the music of the early '80s, two of pop's most effervescent and least intellectually inclined eras. Cyndi Lauper in an Ann-Margret body, Perry's conflation of a classic girl-next-door persona with the iconography of the old-school men's magazine pinup is both hugely popular and largely apolitical.
The strongest parts of Prism revisit this comfortable milieu. While "This Is How We Do" is a little too on the nose as a "driving too fast with your hands out the sunroof on a Saturday night" anthem, I have absolutely no doubt that it will become a highly contagious virus upon immediate introduction into the pop culture bloodstream. Similarly, the album's best track, "International Smile," rides the line between infectious and irritating with the grace of a true pop savant. This is the Katy Perry we thought we knew. The insinuating guitar, the girlish "Ooohs," and the daffy vocoder solo are typical KP postmodernism — both nodding to the past and acknowledging the nods to the past, imposing a slight ironic distance that nevertheless remains close to the heart of the party. "International Smile" sounds like the knockout follow-up to "Get Lucky" that Daft Punk failed to furnish, perhaps because Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter didn't have the wisdom to employ Max Martin and Dr. Luke as collaborators.
Instead of playing to her strengths and turning out a record loaded with songs like "International Smile," Perry has created a narrative for Prism that posits the record as a profound statement about her life. She chose the red "solemn" pill over the blue "ephemeral" pill. The problem with Prism is that Perry didn't need to "define" herself in this way — she was already traveling in her own clearly delineated lane lined with lollipops and cotton-candy colored kitties. Teenage Dream might have been a singles machine, but it also hung together as an album far better than the lumpy Prism and its overwrought ballads and dissuasive confessions. Herein lies the troubling subtext of "Love Me" — announcing that you're not insecure is the surest sign that you are.