Katy Perry’s single “California Gurls” was supposed to be the high-fructose answer to J-Zay’s “Empire State of Mind,” the tabloids declared in May. I just laughed back then. After watching the music video, in which Perry shoots whipped cream from her bra, I laughed some more. But I stopped laughing when one evening this summer, strolling in the East Village, I started to hum her melody. Between YouTube and parties, radios and shopping mall loudspeakers, Perry’s ingenious music machine had succeed (again) in planting bubblegum in everyone’s minds.
Nevertheless, Perry’s second album “Teenage Dreams” is not just a one-favored pack of Juicy Fruit. Bubbling with excess and desire, it at first evokes a pre-recession utopia of golden sand and skin. But the one-two-three sugar spike quickly fades into the inane and the biblical. When Perry tries to elevate her songs to a higher level of meaningfulness, they fall like bricks through cotton candy clouds.
The opening track “Teenage Dream” is the album’s strongest. Breezy and retro, it embodies the summer love song. “We will be young forever,” Perry sings, nostalgic of high school love and lust. Stripped of her usual cock-tease, she sounds sincere — we imagine her doe eyes wide with excitement instead of winking with mischief.
While the aforementioned hit “California Gurls” is much catchier and danceable, it reeks of everything artificial. Instead of conveying any emotion, it sounds like the perfect advertisement for products at an Orange County mall. Daisy Dukes? Check. Bikinis? Check. Suntan lotion? Double check. No wonder musicians across YouTube have spun dozens of parodies, some generating millions of views. (Perry has even posted some on her website.) But as one mash up pointed out, “California Gurls” is indistinguishable from Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” rhythmically and thematically.
What comes after “California Gurls” is a mixed bag of sweet and sour candies. If Lady Gaga gave us the more ambiguous term “disco stick,” Katy Perry introduced us to a ready-made portmanteau in “Peacock.” The song is quintessentially Perry — you can hear her smiling wickedly as she sings, “It’s time for you to shoot it off.” If you get a giggle out of hearing “disco stick,” Perry’s description of the phallus is so absurd you might actually laugh. To those wannabe YouTube celebs, I think this is fertile ground for a dance video.
If the old Katy Perry sings about lesbian encounters, what is the mature Katy Perry? Better vocals for one. On “Firework,” she lets go of the manufactured robotics to show off her (actually) powerful pipes. In many ways, Perry’s strong delivery is reminiscent of her Christian rock days when she sang of braving the fires of temptation like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. (The singer seems to have a fascination with the first Jewish Diaspora.) With gospel belting and even opera training under her sleeves, Perry shows she could stand up to other pop divas.
On the subject of Perry’s evangelical background, “Teenage Dream” features a curious little number called “Who Am I Living For?” While the lyrics sound non-explicit religious, like something by Switchfoot, the music evokes the dance floor and strobe. Perry compares herself to victims of the Babylonian capacity, like Queen Esther and the prophet Daniel who “can see the writing on the wall.” Although Lady Gaga & Co. often show off their grandiose persona, none has flaunted egos of biblical proportions. Despite her competent vocals on the song, one cannot take Perry seriously when she asks, “Who am I living for?” For God? Or the next Friday night?
A friend, analyzing the video of “California Gurls,” said that Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are flip-sides of the same coin. The coin being female sexuality. Lady Gaga, with her quasi-S&M costumes, represents the Dionysian power, mysterious and dangerous. In contrast, Perry splashes her album with a strike of Apollonian sunshine. All is golden in youth and in California. Perhaps that is exactly why we need a Katy Perry in pop music. At a time when several female artists, including Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus, have moved into the Gaga’s weird, dark realm, Perry stands out. She restores the old order of fun in the sun, the bedrock of pop music since the Beach Boys.
With that said, Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is still ephemeral as high school crushes and July sunburns. Just the other day, I found myself humming Arcarde Fire’s “Sprawl II.” So long, Cali. Hello, driveway.