Inciting a minor shit storm with her 80-character review of Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” video in June, Katy Perry tweeted: “Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke.” Having declared flatulence beneath her, Ms. Perry’s instead churns out maladjusted sleaze. On her latest release, she finds humor in drunken make-out sessions and single-entendre sex talk, finds that being a celebrity isn’t always a walk in the Candyland porno park, and through it all, finds maybe two or three songs to justify her album’s existence. From Ke$ha’s Animal to Christina’s Bionic, pop music in 2010 already looks like a trainwreck of over-produced bad-girl debauchery, and Teenage Dream only adds to the pileup. That anyone managed to make a pop album worse than Animal this year is both perversely impressive and hard to believe, but Ms. Perry has found a way to lower the bar.
At that, it’s hard to imagine a song crasser or more aggravating than “Peacock.” Every review of Teenage Dream will mention this track, and that’s because it’s potentially historic in its badness, to the point that, once you’ve heard it, you too will have to describe it to other people just to convince yourself that it really exists. The short of it is that Perry wants to see some guy’s peacock, and by peacock, she, of course, means penis; she says the word “cock” somewhere around 100 times, and the only thing she successfully rhymes it with is “cock” (some of the misses include “biatch,” “payoff,” and “shoot it off”). It’s one of those viscerally embarrassing musical moments where you start to feel ashamed of yourself just for witnessing it, like Fergie rapping on “My Humps,” or that YouTube video where Fergie pees herself on stage, or Fergie misspelling “tasty” (“T to the A to the S-T-E-Y”) in “Fergalicious.”
And Teenage Dream doesn’t come off much better when discussed in terms of its highlights. “California Gurls” became a summer anthem by force of will: As a frothy club track about beaches and babes with a high-budget video and a big-name guest spot, the song’s inevitable rise to the top of the charts was pretty well bought and paid for. But the chorus lacks a strong hook, the verses lack melodies, and Perry’s vocals aren’t any closer to on-key than they’ve ever been. Second single “Teenage Dream” is much better. It realizes the Cardigans-meets-Madonna sound that Perry talked up in pre-release interviews, and, as a genuinely enjoyable track in the company of so many unmitigated disasters, suggests that the intermittently pious Perry may have earned herself a small miracle by choosing God over Gaga.
“Firework” will probably be a single at some point too, on the grounds that it’s not an actively painful listen. Sure, the would-be inspirational lyrics (“Baby you’re a firework/Come on show them what you’re worth”) are nonsensical, and the vocal lines, which sound like they were written for someone like Leona Lewis, are well beyond Perry’s capabilities, but the chorus gains some momentum and the song would work well enough in a club setting that you could forgive its otherwise glaring weaknesses. And with that, we have concluded our brief tour of the listenable songs on this album.
The remainder of Teenage Dream is a raunchy pop nightmare, with A-list producers lining up to churn out some of the worst work of their careers. Over the last decade, DJ Luke’s production has gone from brilliant (“Since U Been Gone”) to serviceable (Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”) to nearly unlistenable (every Ke$ha song you know). The god-awful “Tik Tok” signaled that his metamorphosis into an artless industry hack was nearly complete, and on Teenage Dream he bursts out of his cocoon like a horrifying electro-pop Mothra. “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is a lifeless roller-rink jam with a “T! G! I! F!” shout-along that will no doubt provide the soundtrack to any number of trashy sorority parties this semester, and on the inscrutable “E.T.” Perry compares her lover (favorably?) to a space alien and Dr. Luke nabs the backing track from t.A.T.u.‘s “All the Things She Said,” presumably as a tribute to his forbears in the field of exploitative dance-floor schlock.
Perry’s ironic persona—all gum-smacking, eye-rolling sarcasm—signals that those tracks are, if nothing else, shallow by design; it’s the album’s second half, when Perry dons her serious artist face, that Teenage Dream transcends its own middling crappiness and becomes truly, remarkably shitty. “Circle the Drain” finds Perry telling off a self-destructive ex, but she’s almost less sympathetic than the pill-popping object of her scorn. Her put-downs are alternately pedantic (“Wanna be your lover, not your fucking mother”) and hypocritical (she’s offended that he takes drugs before foreplay, but wasn’t she the one blacking out and hooking up “Last Friday Night”?). Tricky Stewart’s “Who Am I Living For?” is a one-note wallow in self-pity, weighed down by clichéd lyrics, a leaden beat, and a tone-deaf vocal turn from Perry.
That track is intended as a stark confessional, but if Perry is indeed baring it all, it’s only because she gets off on you watching. Her career has been one voyeuristic stunt after another, and at this point, it’s hard to read self-exposure as anything but another surface—just like the “California Gurls” video, where she sheds her cutesy Zooey Deschanel dresses to reveal a spray-on tan and a pair of synthetic foam-spouting tits.