April 7, 2016 by NowhereButPop
Anytime a musician is mentioned in the same sentence as Michael Jackson, it’s either because they’ve reached music immortality or because they’re in a heap of legal trouble. Thankfully for Katy Perry it’s the former. In the entire history of music, the only two artists to release an album that contained five chart topping singles are Michael Jackson and Katy Perry. Michael Jackson did this with Bad, and more recently Katy Perry matched that feat with 2010’s Teenage Dream.
What this feat really means is that an artist made a pop album, a really, really accessible pop album, but a pop album nonetheless. That’s exactly what Bad was, and that’s precisely what Teenage Dream is. If someone were to ask you what pop music sounded like, pure unfiltered pop music, you would give them Teenage Dream as it’s rife with catchy hooks, infectious choruses, and danceable beats. The album is pop music in its most concentrated form, a fact that both works towards and against its own success.
With 6 of its 12 tracks released as singles (all of which cracked the top 3 on the Billboard top 100), everyone in America is intimately familiar with at least half of the album. In fact, in another era, Teenage Dream probably would have sold over 15 million copies in the U.S. alone. As singles, and taken individually, the songs on Teenage Dream are great. “T.G.I.F.” is a pop classic that college kids in 2028 will still dance to at parties, “Teenage Dream” is a timeless retelling of young love that high school crushes swoon over, and “E.T.” is a slick wave of electronica. It’s just that 12 songs, and 45 minutes of pure, concentrated pop music wears very thin very quickly.
The first 2/3 of the album acts as its most stable, as all six singles are included in the first eight tracks. It’s in Teenage Dream’s third act, its final four tracks, where the whole train is derailed by songs that sound like repetitive filler. It also reveals that there’s very little diversity on the album, giving listeners the feeling like they’ve just heard that same song five minutes ago. Realistically, any of the 12 songs on Teenage Dream could have been released as singles and they all would have charted within the top five. What this means is that the songs are good pop songs, but incredibly interchangeable. Realistically, there’s not much that separates “E.T.” from “Who Am I Living For”. The chorus of “Hummingbird Heartbeat” meanwhile sounds like a carbon copy of “Teenage Dream”. On its own it could have been a standout track, but it’s overshadowed by the more successful opening track.
Teenage Dream is as light and fluffy as cake; overall it’s a happy album, which works on tracks like “Teenage Dream” and “Firework”, but songs like “California Girls” and “Peacock” overdo the sweet confections. It’s because of the idealistic and sometimes naïve nature of the album that “Circle the Drain”, an envenomed barb directed Perry’s former boyfriend Travie McCoy, became its most controversial song. It’s harsh, brutal, and unrestrained. Along with a few “fucks”, it’s for these reasons why “Circle the Drain” becomes a highlight on Teenage Dream. It deviates from the album’s path of being the soundtrack to your first crush that it serves as a breath of fresh air. On an otherwise formulaic album, “Circle the Drain” presents Katy Perry at her most raw and authentic.
Hearing one or two songs on Teenage Dream at a time would put a smile on most people’s faces, but listening to 45 minutes worth of songs about junior high crushes and sunny pop is a taxing endeavor for most people. It’s very difficult not to write a much better review because individually 11 of the 12 songs (“Pearl”, a duplicate of Lady Gaga’s “Dance in the Dark”, notwithstanding) are decent to great pop songs. Even “Peacock”, with its crude erotica and sexually harassing lyrics is still catchy as hell. But when combined in one album, the songs on Teenage Dream become less than the sum of their parts. It’s an enjoyable collection of pop songs that winds up sounding more like a greatest hits collection from your freshmen year in high school.
Unlike Madonna’s Like a Prayer, or Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, Teenage Dream isn’t an album that matters. It’s a fine exposition of pop music, but as an album, it doesn’t really matter; it holds no currency. Because it’s so concentrated around the themes of young love and innocence, Teenage Dream is an incredibly naïve album that at times is too light and sugary. If anything, Teenage Dream shows us that in moderation sweets can be savory, but too much can make you nauseous.