Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream: The No-Concept Concept Album

Bigger Than the Sound wonders: Does Perry's latest mark the death of the album?

Conventional wisdom these days seems to hold that the album is dead, singles are the lifeblood of the music industry, and people prefer their music as bite-size chunks, in whatever bit rate available and on their phones whenever possible. This is conventional wisdom, of course, because it is probably true. Just look at the carnage on the Billboard albums chart for proof. It would seem that nobody buys albums anymore (unless they have Eminem’s name on them) and that we’re all just a few short years away from the complete extinction of the medium. That is not as farfetched as it might seem. In fact, it’s basically a certainty at this point.

Still, perhaps you continue to believe in the power of the long-player, in the majesty of the deep cut. Perhaps you are holding out hope for the return of the 80-minute magnum opus or the darkened-room, double-disc experience. Who’s to say you are wrong? Well, I am. And so is Katy Perry. Because next Tuesday, she’ll release Teenage Dream, 44 minutes of shimmering, pitch-perfect pop music that may very well signify the end of the album as we know it.

Sure, it will undoubtedly top the Billboard albums chart and will almost certainly go platinum many times over, but really, Dream is an album in theory only. There is a cover, and a track list and a lengthy list of songwriting credits attached to it, but those things all seem like formalities. This is a collection of singles, a Whitman’s sampler of pop tunes, with seemingly no thought given to cohesion or sequencing. It is a no-concept record; there are no through lines or plot points or so-called “album tracks.” You can listen to it in any order and have roughly the same experience. In fact, it’s almost better that way. This is perhaps the first album in history that lends itself to the shuffle function on your iPod, which is sort of ingenious when you think about it.

And none of that is meant to suggest that Teenage Dream isn’t a genuinely rousing success (in parts, it definitely is), but rather, I mention it because it makes writing about Dream as an album rather pointless and unfair. Because as an album, it’s sort of a mess. Sequentially, it jumps from a sweeping ballad (“Firework”) to a song about dudes with big dongs (“Peacock”) to an angry breakup tune (“Circle the Drain”) to a sweetly voiced lament on lost love (“The One That Got Away”). It’s the kind of arranging only R. Kelly is crazy enough to try — check his 2007 album Double Up, on which he follows a song called “Sex Planet” with “Rise Up,” a tribute to those slain in the Virginia Tech shootings — and it’s jarring, to say the least. And then there’s the matter of Perry’s emotional range, which, on the album, seems limited to just two extremes: starry-eyed ingénue (the title track, “Firework,” “Hummingbird Heartbeat,” album-closing “Not Like the Movies”) or bloodthirsty, sex-crazed she-devil (“TGIF,” “Peacock,” “Circle the Drain”). There truly is no in-between, and while the dichotomy is interesting at first, by album’s end, you’re left dizzied and disoriented. There’s a reason no one likes whiplash: It tends to hurt.

Then again, those are all rock-critic nitpickings. Teenage Dream is not meant to be experienced as a cohesive thing, and chances are, most won’t listen to it that way. There are a dozen gleaming slivers of pop here, all of which you will probably hear on the radio at some point, and each has its merits. There’s the party-ready pump of “TGIF” and “California Gurls,” the club-ready thump-and-dazzle of “Peacock” and “E.T.,” the breakup/makeup machinations of “The One That Got Away” and “Drain,” and the tear-jerking melodrama of “Pearl” and “Movies.” They are all really pretty great, they are all destined to be smash hits, and it doesn’t really matter if they work together.

Because Teenage Dream is not about the sum of its parts. It’s about the parts themselves — the gloriously shiny, studio-honed guided missiles hell-bent on hammering radio. And in that regard, Dream is one of great pop albums of recent times. It is purposeful in its precision. So perhaps the best thing you can say about it (and certainly the most fair assessment of its charms) is that it’s not a particularly solid album, but it’s one heck of a greatest-hits collection.

Do you think Teenage Dream marks the end of the album era? Let us know in the comments!