It’s long been established that women in music have it hard. They are constantly compared, always expected to deliver and reinvent themselves. They’re on top until suddenly they aren’t. In the case of Katy Perry, the fall from the top was the bigger than it is for most. Katy Perry was the epicenter of pop culture. She wasn’t as eccentric as Gaga, as personal as Taylor, nor as diverse as Beyoncé. While her peers were busy reinventing themselves, she saw a steady stream of success, from a steady flow of songs cut from a similar cloth. The stratospheric success she saw from 2008’s One of the Boys and 2013’s Prism was nothing short of incredible. Earning nine number ones across three albums (six of which she pulled from the crown jewel of her discography, 2010’s Teenage Dream) is no laughing matter. Of course, nothing good is forever, and with the long wait between records and eventual underwhelming success of 2017’s Witness, the wheels came off the tracks for Perry.
On the recent 10-year anniversary of Teenage Dream, many outlets revisited the record, reconsidering it in the context of its legacy and success and lauding it as ‘pop perfection’. Not a week later, upon the release of Perry’s latest record Smile, the same outlets decidedly said much of the same: it’s not as good as Teenage Dream. Teenage Dream is a wonderful pop album, but there is little difference between it and Smile except for where their singles charted and how many copies each sold in their first week. Smile, just like One of the Boys, Prism, and even, Teenage Dream, is a good pop album.
On Smile, Perry leans into her signature sound. Ditching the awkward try-hardness of Witness, Smile marks a true return to form, creatively if not commercially. Many tracks here follow the blueprint Perry created for herself at her prime. Lead single ‘Daisies’ is a defiant power-ballad about overcoming other people’s doubts, following in the footsteps of 2010’s ‘Firework’ and 2013’s ‘Roar’. ‘Cry About It Later’ and ‘Not the End of the World’ perfectly walk that very fine line between trap and pop that hits like ‘Dark Horse’ and ‘E.T.’ did before it, and that much of Witness tripped over. ‘Tucked’ arrives with the same sickly-sweet guitar-pop that ‘Teenage Dream’ did a decade ago.
Little else has changed either. Perry’s song-writing still operates at the same level it always has. She continues to dole out clichés that work sometimes and make your teeth ache other times. The album’s title track is one of the latter unfortunately; “Yeah, I’m thankful / Scratch that, baby, I’m grateful”. It is, admittedly, a bit painful to hear, but no more painful than Prism’s ‘Birthday’ or Teenage Dream’s ‘Peacock’.
However, Perry also delivers some of her finer work here. ‘Harley’s in Hawaii’ is a sultry, mature number that feels more like growth than much of the record. ‘What Makes a Woman’ is a wonderful closing track; a quiet and sweet guitar-ballad that, while cliché, still resonates in its message. Of course, it’s hard to ignore the brilliance of last year’s ‘Never Really Over’, which is not only a true highlight on this record but in Perry’s entire catalogue. Perry’s voice also sounds marvelous across Smile, allowed to simply be what it is, and soaring high on tracks on ‘Daisies’ and ‘Resilient’.
It’s long been established that women have it hard in this industry. They’re expected to reinvent themselves to stay relevant. Men like Drake and Ed Sheeran churn out the same song five times a year and get away with it. Unlike Gaga, Taylor and Beyoncé, Katy Perry isn’t quite the reinvention type. She isn’t a chameleon. Witness proved that. While she may never return to the commercial success of Teenage Dream, she more than matches its creative success here. Admittedly, it may not be new, or different, or anywhere close to ground-breaking, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. If you are searching for something deep and soul-searching, Smile is not the album for you. If you are looking to have fun, dance around and simply smile, then it just might be exactly what you’re looking for.