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The Dartmouth
June 12, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Katy Perry’s ‘Smile’: Can (and should) she deepen her pop?

Katy Perry’s fifth studio album, “Smile,” arrives on August 28. To generate buzz, she hosted a Zoom question and answer press conference with college reporters. I clicked out feeling underwhelmed, and I’m trying to pinpoint why.

The album emerges from a period of clinical depression that Perry went through, and she points to “hopefulness, resilience and joy” as themes.

“I wrote this record during one of the darkest times in my life, where I didn’t really plan for the next day,” she said. “I was very flat-lined.”

Now, looking forward to giving birth to her baby, Perry says she’s “excited to bring life into the world and choose to live and make plans.”

Perry compared the vibe of the album to some of her earlier ones.

“This record, musically, is a lot like some of the tones of ‘Prism’ and ‘Teenage Dream,’” she said. “It’s really pure pop.”

“Teenage Dream” was deliriously pure pop, but “Prism” felt ill-defined and cluttered, like Perry was having trouble finding herself. Her latest album, “Witness,” was her low point with its flat, tinny songs. Perhaps “Smile” will emerge as a more grown-up, mature version of “Teenage Dream.” It sounds like it has a similar theatricality: the album cover shows Perry wearing a clown nose.

“It’s clownery,” she said. “I’ve always felt like the court jester and I’ve always had a little bit of humor and self-deprecation injected into everything I do. I wasn’t taking myself seriously when I was spewing whipped cream out of my boobs. I continue to use humor as a way to bring a little levity into the seriousness of life.”

This is what I love about Katy Perry. She was known for her over-the-top, girly spectacle with her first two pop albums (“One Of The Boys” and “Teenage Dream”). She dressed in colorful, candied outfits, as she could never participate in Halloween when she was younger and wanted to make up for it. This all struck me as Perry joyously taking part in an extreme, satirical version of herself. It was just fun — you couldn’t help but smile and sing along. 

Everyone grows up and changes, so when curmudgeons bemoan an artist’s shift in style, I tend to roll my eyes — but because I was attached to the old Perry, “Prism,” with its trade-in of smashing bangers for tempered ballads, was disappointing. In this meeting, Perry hinted at this change when she talked about moving from her twenties, when her stardom was new and dazzling, into “real life.”

“When things shift slightly, you’re like ‘I can’t handle my thirties or real life,’” she said. “There’s responsibility. My body’s not moving like it used to and not all of my dreams are working in my favor.”

It sounds like “Smile” will center around a lot of these doubts and fears, eventually blooming into regained confidence and security. Given these themes, I worry that the lyrics won’t impress. 

The most iconic Perry songs aren’t the ones that speak about huge, grand emotions; they’re the anthems about fun and partying and freedom. It’s not that I have a preference for the lighter themes — she’s just more skilled at singing about them. She’s funny and theatrical, making those songs a delight to revel in. When she sings about something more serious, the lyrics often fall flat.

Perry released the single “Smile” on July 10. The lyrics are juvenile: “Every day, Groundhog Day / Goin’ through motions felt so fake / Not myself, not the best / Felt like I failed the test.” Perry implied that the subject of depression will be a theme throughout the album. It’s an extremely difficult subject to write about, but will all the lyrics be this bland?

Perry cited the lyrics of “Smile” as she described what the songs discussed. “These songs talk about how sometimes it’s difficult to change your perspective or your mindset or how you view things,” she said. “I was just in this negative loop and had to snap out of it.”

I have no doubt that Perry has interesting, personal and valid thoughts on weighty topics like depression, but few of her more serious songs impress me. Even “Roar,” one of her hits, doesn’t compare to the tongue-in-cheek “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” or the unapologetically boastful “California Gurls.” I’m much more excited about her songs that are redolent of these classics.

“There’s a song called ‘Cry About It Later,’ which is really about drinking too much champagne on ice and getting under someone to get over someone,” Perry said.

While thinking about eloquence, I realized that I was subconsciously comparing her to the very articulate Taylor Swift. I try to avoid doing this, as it feels deeply unfeminist to suggest that they can’t share the spotlight. However, the similarities in their career timelines, their famous feud  and their shared release of summer 2020 albums (Swift released “folklore” on July 24) invites a comparison. Taylor Swift seamlessly switches moods from album to album with none of the “Witness”-esque messiness. She dips between depth and lightness more easily than Perry. Her lyrics are specific, original and poetic. 

It’s easy to think that I’m slamming Perry by saying she’s not as talented at writing “deep” songs. I’m not. Pop culture doesn’t benefit any more from soulful songs than it does from light, cheeky ones. (“Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” could be viewed as mindless and grimy, but in it I see teamwork and freedom and togetherness. It’s a great pop song.) Both moods have their place, and both require intense talent and artistry to pull off. I simply see Perry as better at one than the other.

All of that said, when Katy Perry is at her best, she is effervescent. I hope that “Smile” will prove to be as delightful as Perry’s best songs as she navigates her personal growth and changes. 

As Perry said, “Life gets real the longer you live it, but it does get more expansive if you can survive it.”