It’s been noted that this week marks a decade since Katy Perry released her third album, the record- breaking 'Teenage Dream'. In retrospect, the track listing for that album feels like a greatest hits; 'California Gurls', 'Firework', 'E.T.' and 'Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)' were all unavoidable on the radio back then, and just hearing their names acts as a time capsule back to the early 2010s.
Whether releasing 'Smile' so close to the anniversary of her most-loved album is a coincidence or not, Perry could really do without the comparisons as they show just how far she’s fallen. While 'Teenage Dream' beamed with vitality, melody, and the kind of sex appeal that veered more towards wholesome cheekiness rather than outright raunchiness, Smile leans on tired cliché and outdated dance-lite production.
The important thing you are supposed to take away from this album is that Katy Perry has had a tough time. There are the song titles ('Cry About It Later', 'Resilient', 'Teary Eyes'), the Perry-as-Pagliacci album cover, and the fact she’s described the album as “stories of resilience, hope and love.” Whilst it’s not for us to speculate on her personal troubles, it feels as though her desire to tell her truth is at odds with her public persona and the requirement to appeal to the widest possible audience. So, when pop tries to make joy and fun a communal experience, it can use energy to sweep you along, but when it tries to do the same for introspection and reflection, due to the unique nature of each person’s human experience, it can easily come across as trite and over-simplistic.
This is why the first half of the record is like being stuck with someone who keeps talking about their emotions but will never let you in or tell you what’s actually wrong. It’s full of the kind of generic, empty platitudes that have kept P!nk with a roof over her head for over twenty years, like The Dalai Lama recast as a suburban Wine Mom. It’s easy to pick lyrics in isolation without context, but lines like “Every tear has been a lesson” and “There’s gotta be rain if I want the rainbows” are reductive and hackneyed. You’ll get more profundity and nuanced insight into the human condition from a fortune cookie.
Musically, Perry’s refusal to adapt to the times leaves her lagging behind. Put any of the songs on Smile up against recent releases from artists like Dua Lipa or Charli XCX, and it’s like she’s from a bygone generation. It’s certainly a “big” sounding record, but it feels as though someone has set out to produce a Katy Perry record without having the ear to elevate it enough to grab your attention. Any of its tracks could happily sit on a commercial radio playlist from 2004 without raising an eyebrow and would likely fade from memory the second they’d stopped playing. The exception to this is Tucked, a peppy earworm which, while not exactly cutting edge, has handclaps and a singalong “na na na na” chorus to keep you satisfied. The less, however, said about the cod-reggae of Harleys In Hawaii, the better.
If Katy Perry found the creation of 'Smile' a rewarding and cathartic experience, then all power to her. Whilst we all have our battles at times, fighting them under the glare of the public eye can surely only make them tougher, and it’s a level of scrutiny most of us will never experience. However, taken as a standalone piece of art, 'Smile' truly isn’t worthy of your time. It’s a “Live, Laugh, Love” cushion, it’s a faux-inspirational quote over a stock image of a sunset, it makes “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” seem like a deep philosophical rumination on the transient nature of existence. In short, it’s no substance, and not even that much style.
Words: Joe Rivers
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