Ten years after redefining 2000s era pop music, Katy Perry muses on the fourth track of her new album, Smile:“when did we all stop believing in magic?”. This lyrical question encapsulates what many have been wondering: what happened to Katy Perry? With gimmicky self help lyrics, and musical nods to catchier songs in the past, Perry’s fifth studio album is more reminiscent of a rictus than a loose grin.
Smile is interestingly positioned at the intersection of two resonant moments in Perry’s career. The first is the tenth anniversary of Perry’s third studio album, Teenage Dream, the first album to have five number one singles since Michael Jackson’s Bad in 1987. Yet in 2017, when promoting her lackluster fifth studio album, Witness, Perry branded her earlier work as “superficial” and “disingenuous.” Ultimately, Smile is an awkward corollary to both of Perry’s aforementioned artistic milestones.
Following the storyline of Perry’s growth from her initial breakup with actor Orlando Bloom to their ultimate reunion, Smile continues Perry’s established branding in Witness that “vulnerability is radical.” This theme is given sub themes of “resilience” and “gratitude” (Perry even declares so in the album notes with “resilience” written in all caps). Perry’s “vulnerability” is backdropped by EDM dance beats and lyrical throwbacks to her past songs. The degree of success with which Perry marries her concept of “radical vulnerability” and her iconic self-empowerment ballads of the past is highly variable and often ends up translating as a pale imitation of her former work.
The songs that focus on Perry’s breakup with Bloom tend to be the most successful. “Never Really Over” , the opening song on the track, most astutely captures Perry’s “purposeful pop” branding without losing broad appeal. A steady bubblegum pop dance beat gives a hopeful flair to Perry’s melancholic and reflective musings. The main assertion of the song is an updated and more nuanced take on Perry’s past breakup songs which previously framed their lover as in the wrong (“Hot n Cold”) or a phantom of the past (“The One That Got Away”). Rather in “Never Really Over”, Perry thoughtfully postulates that relationships will continue to influence both partners long after its conclusion.
Similarly, “Teary Eyes”, Perry’s self professed “crying in the club” song feels more modern than her previous party centered ventures. The song is given a fresh vibe through the songwriting and producing contributions of Madison Love, a master of crafting lovelorn lyrics to cheerful instrumental beats. Nevertheless, the trancelike mood evoked from the uniquely fizzy quality of Perry’s voice for this track and the limp EDM beats signifies a sense of darkness and blind hedonism rarely evoked in a typical Katy Perry soundtrack. Thus, “Teary Eyes” appears to be an artistic stretch for both Perry and Love, which showcases their adaptability.
Unfortunately, the same praises cannot be applied to the latter majority of the album in which Perry and Bloom have reunited. Self empowerment anthems, which were Perry’s wheelhouse, are now cliched under the scope of Perry’s faux-vulnerability and “purposeful pop” genre. This is particularly evident in Perry’s first single off the album, “Daisies”. “Daisies”, written as an ode to Perry’s newborn daughter, Daisy. is intended to be a fresh and mature self empowered pop anthem. Instead, the instrumental track and Perry’s cadence with which she belts the chorus is eerily similar to her more commercially successful “Roar”. “Daisies” is differentiated from “Roar” with its noticeable lack of personal, minute descriptions that made Perry’s earliest songs so addictive. Perry’s self admission in “Roar” that she “bit [her] tongue and held [her] breath” is swapped for Perry priding herself in the cliche declaration that “[she] took these sticks and stones, showed ‘em I could build a house.”
Subsequently, Smile is a self reflective encapsulation of Perry’s career, she is at the crossroads between recreating past greatness and re-branding herself as more mature and progressive as an artist. Unfortunately, Perry flails in both efforts. While Smile was intended to be a portrait of Perry’s resilience, instead it unflatteringly emphasizes her regression as an artist.