Teenage Dream: Album review

14 September 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

Assigning an artist to a particular genre can be a challenging task. Do Ke$ha’s drunken ramblings count as crunkcore, hip-hop or electropop? Should The Mars Volta be filed under psychedelic-rock, jazz-fusion or progressive-punk? Are Godspeed You! Black Emperor an embodiment of post-rock or should we just call them alternative? Thankfully, some musicians are a little easier to pigeonhole; Katy Perry for one.

If you were looking for a definition of ‘pop music’, Perry’s recently released second album, Teenage Dream, would be all you’d need to know. It’s a 40 minute trip through a sugary world of catchy choruses, up-tempo dance beats and barely-restrained sexual desire. The songs are short and sharp, produced and processed within an inch of their lives, and Perry’s vocals sound like they’ve been tweaked and tuned at every possible opportunity.

In fact, the entire album is one giant pop cliché; there’s the token party anthem, complete with a celebration of teenage booze culture (‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)’), the predictable declaration of undying love (‘Hummingbird Heartbeat’) and, of course, the heartfelt piano ballad (‘Not Like the Movies’).

In many ways, this album encapsulates everything that’s wrong with popular music today. It’s a formulaic, over-produced and largely lifeless outing that does little to advance the state of music. The majority of the lyrics are bland, predictable or both and singing about the virtues of weekly intoxication is so 2008.

Strangely though, it’s still thoroughly listenable.

Thanks to strong support from commercial radio stations, dance-pop tracks like ‘California Gurls’ and ‘Teenage Dream’ are already firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness. But while hits like these will draw listeners to the album, it’s the non-radio tracks that are likely to give Teenage Dream some sort of longevity.

In ‘Pearl’ Perry recalls a time when she allowed herself to be controlled by the man in her life, meanwhile reassuring the listener that such a relationship isn’t all that conducive to personal growth. In ‘Circle the Drain’ Perry takes a break from sugar-sweet party anthems and delivers a fairly biting account of her ex’s seemingly-destructive drug habit. While a break-up song is hardly a novelty for a pop album there’s something refreshing about Perry’s change of pace here.

In fact, it’s the album’s darker, more thoughtful moments that really give Teenage Dream substance. ‘Who Am I Living For?’ is probably the album’s strongest track due largely to its surprising, and refreshingly original references to the biblical figure of Esther. With lyrics like ‘It’s never easy to be chosen, never easy to be called, standing on the front line when the bombs start to fall’, this track is a far cry from the clichéd dance-pop that dominates the album.

Unfortunately, Perry’s foray into the world of thoughtful subject matter is short-lived. On ‘Peacock’h she delivers one of the most unconvincing attempts at subtlety in the history of popular music;

I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock,
Your peacock, cock.
Your peacock, cock, cock,
Your peacock.

But lest the audience be confused by her attempted double entendre, Ms Perry makes it quite clear that she isn’t talking about brightly coloured birds;

Are you brave enough to let me see your peacock?
What you waiting for, it’s time for you to show it off.
Don’t be a shy kinda guy, I bet it’s beautiful,
Come on baby let me see, what you’re hiding underneath.

Teenage Dream will not win any awards for its musicianship, its originality or its lyrical content but there are certainly worse things you could be listening to. This is about as ‘pop’ as pop music gets but if you’re prepared to listen to it as such then Perry’s brief departures from the pop-princess paradigm will come as a refreshing change.

The Verdict: 3/5

Matt de Neef is a former upstart co-editor, and blogs at A Cursory Glance.