Though it inspired a film that grossed more than $32 million, sold nearly 5.5 million copies and spawned five chart-topping singles, the sum of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream can best be described in one lyric, taken from the title track: “You and I/We’ll be young forever.”
The optimism of new love, the invincibility of immaturity, the confidence that comes with throwing caution to the wind … it’s all there, in that one line, and throughout the entirety of the album, really. And those sentiments clearly resonated with the record-buying public, who rescued Perry from one-hit wonder purgatory and turned her into a global superstar. It’s not exactly a stretch to call her the most unlikely success story of the decade.
But here’s the thing: Inevitably, time marches on. Lovers let you down . Relationships decay. And that invincibility now feels more like naiveté. Katy Perry realizes all of that now; she is older, wiser, tougher. Or at least that’s the takeaway from Prism , an album that trades visceral thrills for verity, conflates sexuality with spirituality, and dispenses with immediacy in favor of intimacy. Those things certainly don’t make for a pure-pop experience on par with Teenage Dream, but they do paint a portrait of an artist in the midst of a rather dramatic career reinvention.
To wit, there are large portions of Prism where Perry reimagines herself as an Inspirational Icon, purveying her personal struggles in the hopes of maximum uplift. We all know about first single “Roar,” a self-empowerment anthem on overdrive, but there’s also the rousing rush of “Love Me,” where she reads off a laundry list of former failures before proclaiming “I’m gonna love myself the way I want you to love me,” the seize-the-now sentiments of “This Moment” (“Yesterday is history/So why don’t you be here with me?”) and, of course, album-closing ballad “By The Grace of God,” where, after being crushed by Brand, she literally picks herself up off the bathroom floor, looks herself in the mirror, and moves on with her life … because she “wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way.”
There’s nothing on Teenage Dream that compares to any of it (except maybe “Firework” or the maudlin “Not Like The Movies,”) though the differences don’t just end there. Compare the Prism track “Ghost” — a song inspired entirely by her divorce from Brand, including his now infamous divorce-via-text — with the biting Dream track “Circle The Drain,” where she dismissed former boyfriend Travie McCoy with lines like “You fall asleep during foreplay/ ’Cause the pills you take are more your forte.”
Back then, she was bitter, almost petulant, but now, despite having every reason to be angry (I mean, he divorced her with a text message), she’s using his shortcomings as a source of strength. He’s gone from her life — “Vanished like a vapor” — but that’s all right. It’s almost as if acrimony is beneath her at this point. Such is the wisdom that only comes with age.
Of course, given that this is a Katy Perry album, there’s no shortage of potential singles, though unlike Teenage Dream’s sunny smashes (“California Gurls,” “T.G.I.F.,” etc) songs like “Walking On Air” and “Dark Horse” are nocturnal and knotty. “Legendary Lovers” is an updated take on “E.T.,” though instead of lyrics about lasers, we get boho bon mots like ” I feel my lotus bloom/Come closer.” The giddy “This Is How We Do” seems destined to be the soundtrack to many a Girls Night Out, though rather than getting wild in the club, these days Katy and her Gal Pals are content to drink a bit too much bubbly and embarrass themselves at “Mariah Carey-oke.” I’ll freely admit that the ebullient “Birthday” would feel right at home on Teenage Dream, but that’s basically the lone holdover on the album.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? It sort of depends on how you feel about Katy Perry. When I reviewed Teenage Dream back in 2010, I took issue with its lack of cohesion and focus on radio-ready singles, noting that “it’s not a particularly solid album, but it’s one heck of a greatest-hits collection.” In a funny way, the opposite seems to be true with Prism: It is a decidedly better album than its predecessor, though it’s nowhere near as gratifying.
Gone are the instantly identifiable hooks and the saccharine sentiments, replaced instead with songs that reveal themselves gradually, lyrics that dare to explore the heartbreaks and hangovers that come after the (after)party. I suppose this was inevitable; after all, Katy’s battled her way to the top, has survived high-profile breakups and emerged with her crown still in place. She’s done the singles scene, now she’s looking for something a little more permanent.