Photo Credit: Rony Alwin
There comes a time in the career of every pop superstar when their artistic identity takes a turn from ubiquitous to left-of-center. Madonna’s American Life, Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP, and Britney Spears’ Britney Jean are all examples of artists pushing their messaging past the cultural breaking point. Katy Perry’s last album Witness ended her string of successes on the Billboard Hot 100 and failed to produce a credible hit, trading her fun and carefree identify for a murky, fake-woke attitude more focused on picking at old wounds with Taylor Swift than carving a direct path forward. While that album’s deep-house influences and star-studded guest list gave it some resonance with wider audience’s, Perry’s sixth album Smile repurposes her expectations entirely, situating her as an adult contemporary radio act from this point forward.
Perry has never been the same breed workhorse as her contemporaries in the upper echelons of pop music. Her musical stylings hover consistently near bubblegum pop with flashes of punk rebelliousness and alternative angst, but her albums lack consistency and pack the singles up-front, overutilizing filler material. With Smile, there’s hardly much at all to smile about as Perry sings about crying in the club, not crying in the club, and all the champagne that led her to do both of those things.
“Firework” has come to define Perry’s brand of positive pop, and Smile attempts to revisit and capitalize on that energy, seemingly shouting, “You’re gonna be okay! Keep going! Everything’s okay! It’s not the end of the world!” This blind, carefree positivity is pervasive from the first song, “Never Really Over”, a Zedd-produced single released in May 2019 that utilizes tongue-twisters and pulsating synthesizers to illustrate euphoric revelations about reigniting a past love (in this case, her on-and-off relationship with Orlando Bloom, with whom she just welcomed a daughter, Daisy).“Resilient” is a sticky track that hinges its hook around a clumsy rhyme scheme tying, “I am resilient” to, “born to be brilliant.” “Not the End of the World” instructs her fans to wear fancy clothes and forget that the world sucks; it’s also heavy with dubstep influences, clunky lyrics like “Flippin’ off the flop,” and a steam interpolation from “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” that clashes with the rest of the record.
Carefree positivity doesn’t always translate to artistic precision, and several moments on Smile are disappointingly redundant, absent of oversight. “Cry About It Later” and “Teary Eyes”, two songs about pushing through feelings of hesitancy and distress and very clearly influenced by Robyn’s material, come back-to-back on the tracklist, each defeating the other’s potency by suggesting opposite solutions to the same problem (crying now and crying later, both while dancing). “Have you ever lost, lost the light in your life?” she asks on “Teary Eyes”, her diction very purposefully recalling her most famous lyric about a certain plastic bag and some wind.
Instead of packing the hits upfront like usual, Smile flips the script and saves its most successful tracks for the back half of the album. The title track achieves its mission joyfully, capturing the specific, rapturous early-90s house energy Perry is so comfortable inhabiting like on Prism standouts “Birthday” and the gospel-house jam “Walking On Air.” “Champagne Problems” works past its problems with a chewy beat that showcases Perry’s voice with a newfound maturity and assertiveness. The Charlie Puth cowrite “Harleys in Hawaii” is a breezy flyover track with stuttering repetition in the chorus that makes it a certified earworm. The album’s boldest highlight is “Tucked”, a cheeky ABBA knockoff that’s all too excited to get out on the roller rink and skate around. As Perry sings, “I could put us in a mansion // I could put us in a backseat,” it instantly brings the listener back to the sexiest songs on One of the Boys and Teenage Dream. The refrain is pure pop gold, up to and including the multi-syllabic drawing-out of the word “baby.”
The world wasn’t expecting a critically-acclaimed artistic leap of faith with Perry’s newest album; she’s struggling to find her place in a pop landscape that’s largely forgotten her over half a decade, and her immaturity drove away portions of her fan base that couldn’t continue to contend with her antics as they aged and she apparently didn’t. Smile drops most of the immaturity but it also drops most of the heart that sealed the deal on her biggest hits. It’s harder now to find conviction in her voice as she sings, half-assed, about dancing through her teary eyes. Maybe that’s because she’s lost a light in her own life, or maybe it’s because she’s realizing she no longer wants to be the kind of pop star that she once was. Either way, she still finds time to squeeze in just enough sugary goodness on this album to help it linger.