It’s worth recalling how we first met Katy Perry, back in 2007 — 150 years ago, approximately, in pop-culture space time. That November, Perry released her debut single “Ur So Gay,” a send-up of emo girlie-boys that was offensive not so much for its homophobia as for its dreary eagerness to give offense. (Opening couplet: “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf/While jacking off listening to Mozart.”) “Ur So Gay” didn’t crack the Billboard Hot 100, but it did its work anyway, prompting a few stray think pieces decrying Perry’s gay-baiting, thereby putting her on the map. What the song’s critics failed to notice was the key word in the title: not gay, but that SMS speak ur, which baldly telegraphed the marketing strategy, Perry’s hard-sell appeal to the Children of the Internet. The video, accordingly, was cutesy-quirky. There were Barbie and Ken dolls, shown checking out each other’s Facebook pages, of course; there were cartoon clouds with smiley faces drifting over a field of wildflowers where Perry sat, playing guitar and singing, in a polka-dot dress with a big white bow in her hair, looking every inch Zooey Deschanel’s doppelgänger.
The Katy Perry brand was thus established. She gave old-fashioned bubblegum a goofy, naughty 21st-century makeover, complete with mild sexual button-pushing and milder curse words. An album, One of the Boys, followed in 2008, bringing two huge hit singles in this mold, “I Kissed a Girl,” a song about lesbian experimentation that seemed tailor-written for the frat-dude fans of Girls Gone Wild, and “Hot N Cold,” the most misogynist misandry anthem ever recorded: “You change your mind/Like a girl changes clothes/Yeah, you PMS/Like a bitch/I would know.” The songs were obnoxious but undeniable, a fact attributable to the titanic songwriting and production duo of Max Martin and Dr. Luke, but also to Perry herself, an able but not outstanding vocalist, who pushed out the songs with just enough flair, but not too much — all you want, when the music’s so sturdy.
The rest — by which I mean the megahit album Teenage Dream (2010) — is history. Perry became one of pop’s biggest hitmakers (the biggest, by some measures), mostly by staying out of the way. She has teamed up with planet Earth’s finest hit songwriters and record producers, and delivered their top-drawer product solidly and straightforwardly, with little in the way of histrionics, and no virtuosity to distract from the songs itself. It’s not the most exciting pop-star formula — but it works like a charm for those of us who, you know, love a great verse and a better chorus. It was certainly just right on Teenage Dream, which served up four perfect singles: two in Perry’s daffy day-glo mode, “California Gurls” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” one sublime malt-shop pop update, “Teenage Dream,” and “Firework,” the swooping ballad that established the template that the newly mature, “spiritual” Perry now favors.
Which brings us to the unfortunate matter of Perry’s latest record, Prism, out today. You can tell the album is spiritual by its cover photo, which captures Perry in a field of wildflowers — this time not wearing polka dots but some kind of shroud or shift, while fixing the camera with the blank, level gaze that creeps into the eyes of those who have spent 48 hours on a luxury yoga retreat, or an afternoon curled up with Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, one of the inspirations for Prism, according to Perry. In any case, the old Katy Perry, the wacky-party-chick Katy Perry, has given way to the wounded-but-enlightened Katy Perry, a Perry whose big tunes and big beats come with homilies, tales of resiliency and self-actualization — EDM plus Est. The are a couple of nods to Perry’s old persona, notably the grating “This Is How We Do.” There is a straightforward nineties club-music revival (“Walking on Air”) and a song, “Dark Horse,” that squishes together pop and trap. The production, of course, is clever. (Martin and Luke are back, along with other heavy hitters.) But these songs feel both overdetermined and underdone — crudely calculated and three-quarters baked.
The heart of Prism, anyway, is the inspirational stuff. The titles tell the story: “This Moment,” “By the Grace of God,” “Double Rainbow” (which swipes a simpering melody line from a Keane song), and the Deluxe Edition track “Spiritual,” which spells things out for those who haven’t been paying attention. The songs are big and grand, with gusty crescendos and huge choruses. A couple of these I like, including the cheesiest of them all: the Orientalist “Legendary Lovers,” which places a noodling sitar behind sentiments such as “I want your energy/I want your aura/You are my destiny/My mantra.”
Perry sings the songs fine; she is nothing if not competent. But her voice remains pallid — the color on a Katy Perry record has to come from the songs themselves, and on Prism, Perry’s all-star collaborators have let her down. I reserve the right to change my opinion; Perry’s music has a way of insinuating itself into your consciousness, especially when it’s clobbered home by a zillion radio plays. But as of now, I count only one great song on Prism, “Roar,” which doles out its hooks and pep-rally sentiments in precisely the right proportions. As for the rest? As Perry herself might have put it, before she started dabbling in auras and mantras: ur so meh.