Sunday, November 27, 2011

Why Are We STILL Listening to Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream"?

There's defying low expectations, and then there's trouncing them. By now, Katy Perry has mastered the art of both.

She had every right to be a one-hit wonder. Singers of songs as corny and novelty-esque as "I Kissed a Girl" deserve what they get, and usually it's a career that's over in 15 minutes flat. But that Katy Perry. She defies expectations. Her follow-up singles were better, and a few of them were even hits. By the time her second mainstream album, Teenage Dream, rolled around in August of 2010, we had every reason to expect it to be a respectable hit -- one million copies sold, a number one single, maybe two, another Top 10, and then on to the next one.

When I woke up in Melbourne in October of 2010 with Brendan singing "Teenage Dream," the album's second single, in my ear, never in my wildest middle-aged dreams did I imagine that more than a year later, Perry would be entering the Top 10 with "The One That Got Away," her sixth single from the album. (I wonder if Brendan woke up this morning singing that song and thinking about me.)

But what was that I said about Perry and the trouncing of expectations? Despite receiving pretty crummy reviews upon its release, Teenage Dream ended up bagging Perry several Bad when "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" became its fifth No. 1 hit. My best friend Lori recently said that years from now when we look back at 2010, Teenage Dream, an album that was released under a dark cloud of critical contempt, will be regarded as the defining music of its time, and you know what? I don't disagree. But it will be more because the music was that inescapable than because it was that good.
key 2011 Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. She continued to score No. 1 singles from it and eventually tied the record set by Michael Jackson's

Unlike artists who defined the music of other times with one or two key albums (Alanis Morissette in the mid-'90s, Nirvana in the early '90s, Michael Jackson in the '80s, Fleetwood Mac in the late '70s, Carole King in the early '70s), Perry has no solid musical identity or creative vision. Teenage Dream is all over the place -- moving from techno-lite pop to pure pop to soft-rock-inflected pop but never settling into one particular groove. How could she with so many different producers and songwriting collaborators, many of whom have their fingerprints on so many hits of the moment? She's a singer of great singles but not necessarily great songs.

So why can't we seem to get enough of them? Great videos help, and Perry's recall the golden era of '80s videos when the clips in heavy rotation on MTV had actual storylines and weren't just an assemblage of quick-cut shots and a billion back-up dancers. In Perry's case, they have to be great, because more than with any of her peers, they sell her music. It's hard to separate "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" the video from "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" the song. Without the mini-movie clip, I doubt she would have matched Michael Jackson's record. And had a song as average as "The One That Got Away" been sung by Rihanna or Britney Spears or even Lady Gaga, it wouldn't have gone anywhere near the Top 10. But listening to it while watching Perry's video, it's not only tolerable but almost likable.

Then there's Perry's image, which is something she got right from day one. She's just like one of us -- or she's skilled at making us believe she is. Rihanna might be the fantasy of every straight guy -- and, as the Rated R track "Te Amo" suggests, every lesbian as well -- but she's too out of their league. Lady Gaga is too weird -- or she tries too hard to be. Beyonce is too glamorous, Ke$ha's too skanky, and Britney Spears has too much baggage.

Perry, though, is the perfectly relatable pop star. She plays in the big city and smalltown U.S.A., on the coasts and in Middle America, at home and abroad. She can hang out with Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and Rebecca Black and never seem out of her element. She's the ultimate egalitarian A-lister, with a name that's as suburban and down-to-earth as her music and image. She's gorgeous, but not intimidatingly so. One could easily imagine her working the phones in a doctor's office or behind a cash register at the local mall. She could be the best friend who listens while you share intimate details about your love life, offering sympathetic nods and the kind of uplift that only a BFF could give. Her biggest fans probably thought she was singing "Firework" especially for them!

She's also not afraid to downplay her beauty. Hollywood actresses get ugly to win the attention of Oscar. Perry does it with less lofty goals (an MTV Video Music Award?), whether it's dressing up as a sister from another planet in "E.T." or doing her best nerd imitation in "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)." I can't think of another pop goddess who would put on old-lady makeup and age herself 50 years, as Perry does in the video for "The One That Got Away." But that's precisely why most of them have released several albums during Teenage Dream's chart run -- and Perry didn't even have to stoop to the expanded-edition ploy to keep the big hits coming (though she did have to add Kanye West to "E.T." to give it edge and a better shot on Billboard's Hot 100).

I wouldn't be surprised if next November when Rihanna is already releasing her next album, Katy Perry is still squeezing hits out of this one.
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