I have never been a big Katy Perry fan, but lately I’ve been seeing her everywhere. Just the other night, I accidentally Insta-stalked her former guitarist. A few days before that, a two hour clip of her Witness livestream popped into my YouTube recommendations (I watched half). Last week I stumbled upon a TV appearance, and she came up in a podcast I was listening to. The earliest instance I can recall was about a month ago — when, in a class on pop music, I asserted that Perry’s latest album Smile was completely irrelevant, then had to admit I hadn’t listened to it.
What’s even more odd than seeing Katy Perry everywhere, is the fact that it feels strange. She was ubiquitous just five years ago, and while her 2013 pop princess peers have started fashion brands (Rihanna), released rock albums (Miley Cyrus) or at the very least collaborated with the next generation of pop royalty (Lady Gaga), Perry landed on American Idol. What happened? I decided to listen to all of her albums back-to-back to piece it together.
Thirty seconds into track five on Teenage Dream, I felt like I cracked the code. After a sequence of Perry’s career-defining hits like “California Gurls” and “Firework,” there’s “Peacock” — a song that hinges on an obvious but bewildering sexual innuendo. Unsurprisingly, it is not good. Things don’t improve with “Circle the Drain,” which features clunky rhymes and excessive vocal effects. But “One That Got Away” is a breath of fresh air — giving the listener the impression that Teenage Dream is two different albums sewn together. One gave her enough hits to hold a record with Michael Jackson, the other gave the listener a headache.
Prism follows a similar formula. Every song is hit or miss, a smash like “Roar” or a mistake like the heavy-handed “Ghost.” Relying on singles to stay relevant shackles an artist to the latest trend — and when they fall behind or can’t make the mark, they have nothing of substance to fall back on. For example, while Taylor Swift’s Lover from 2019 rendered no number one singles and plenty of criticism for childish lines like “Spelling is fun!” in “ME!,” deep cuts like “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” planted the seeds for what was to come on folklore, which has been lauded as mature and lyrically-sound. Prism, Witness and Smile, on the other hand, carry many reminders that, yes, this is the artist who sings about feeling like a plastic bag — and not in a good way.
After listening to Smile — and watching her marriage-related music video/pregnancy announcement “Never Worn White” for good measure — something was missing in my experiment. Perry’s trajectory and current lack of chart-toppers made sense, but I was left wondering: Could her career have gone in any other directions? Who was she at the height of her success and how did she navigate the glaring quality differences in her catalog? Looking back, is it clear things would unravel so quickly?
To contextualize the Teenage Dream years, I turned to Perry’s 2012 documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me. For anyone else who waited eight years to see it, the movie follows her California Dreams tour and the breakdown of her marriage with Russell Brand. What’s most striking though, is how Perry embraced being a “cartoon.” The set design, costumes and even Perry’s dance moves are bright and colorful, but rigid. While interviews with friends and family and clips of Perry working out and, at points, sobbing over the end of her marriage attempted to humanize her, there are only a few moments in the film that viewers sense something is going on underneath Perry’s plastic.
While every pop star adopts some kind of persona, they’re also expected to evolve to stay interesting. Especially if that pop star is a woman. I can almost guarantee that Ed Sheeran will be in jeans and a t-shirt for his next album roll out, but for Perry, it’s always been “what’s next?” What’s next for a shocking, silly and sexualized cartoon character? Overexposure. You livestream yourself for 96 hours, including your therapy session. You deep dive into tired cliches and cross the line between fun and absurd. You become food? In short, you go bigger, until you lose any semblance of an identity at all.
Though I’ve never considered myself a fan, Perry’s music is part of the soundtrack of my life (and the lives of anyone else alive in the early 2010s). In the context of a trend toward the understated sad pop of Billie Eilish, Perry’s reliance on stunts and lousy lyrics have all contributed to her fading relevance — something I can’t see her reviving. Nevertheless, it was fun while it lasted and, of course, “Hot n Cold” is still a banger.
Daily Arts Writer Katie Beekman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.