No one contains multitudes like Katy Perry. Her pool of bubblegum tracks, ballads, and campy, colorful music videos have helped Perry illustrate and actualize her character since the release of her debut album, 2008’s One of the Boys. But it was Teenage Dream, Perry’s 2010 sophomore album — the one that received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album, is 8x Multi-Platinum RIAA certified, and became only the second album in history to net five No. 1 hits, tied with Michael Jackson’s Bad — that cemented Katy Perry’s power status among her pop peers and foretold her trajectory within mainstream music as well as the direction pop was going. (It also verified that, yes, nothing really does come close to the Golden Coast.) From “Firework” to “Teenage Dream,” the collection of 12 songs jolted the pulse of pop.
Many credit Lady Gaga for opening the doors to making weird and electronic and identity and disco a combined norm within modern Top 40 pop with The Fame Monster (namely: “Bad Romance,” “Monster,” and “Alejandro”) the fall before Teenage Dream. And it’s true that Teenage Dream paralleled Gaga’s lane while also hyping Perry’s own aesthetic — pink and bright, Tumblr-esque, sexy but pure, nostalgic with its volume blasting — but, in doing so, it also made her and Gaga’s weirdness palatable. Teenage Dream sounds like what the best of high school felt like, and even now, transports you back to an era when the album seemed like a bridge to the future while still indulging in the past.
In its compilation of slut jams, metamorphosed queer anthems, and poppy, heartbreak lullabies, Teenage Dream might be one of the best records pop music has seen in the decade since, a body of work whose songs are bulletproof against criticism and trolling (despite serious allegations against Perry at the time and Dr. Luke casting a shadow over the album’s production). Teenage Dream is fun, and a fucking good album — open for interpretation by the listener. Perry teases horny pleasures through the rhythms of “Hummingbird Heartbeat” and “Peacock.” On “The One That Got Away,” she sings of the emotions of moving on, and of losing someone you loved … or maybe didn’t in the end. She’s mythic on “E.T.” And on the album’s title track — probably one of pop’s most Zeitgeist-y songs ever — Perry’s sonics animate the vulnerability of love, and where it can lead when it’s good.
(In March 2012, she even released Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection; it was a rerelease of the 2010 record, but added “Wide Awake” and “Part of Me” — both self-aware, confessional, robust pop songs that tell Perry’s story, and maybe our own. Hypothetically including them in the ranking with the original version is competitive, but there’s a higher energy and more supreme sense of self-victory and honesty in each verse of “Part Of Me” that prevails over “Wide Awake. It’d be worthy of a spot below in between “Who Am I Living For” and “Not Like The Movies”; Wide Awake” is similarly transparent and candid, just to a lesser degree, putting it directly behind “Part of Me.”)
Katy Perry was just 25 years old when Teenage Dream came out on August 24, 2010. Ten years later, in a list that welcomes absolutely nothing related to clownery, we rank the songs that make up an album that shook the pop industry with its originality, oddity, and ultrafantasy, an album whose influence can still be heard on midsummer-themed playlists, a slow-dancing nanosecond at prom, and in the vivid gestures of pop artists like Dua Lipa or Doja Cat today. But perhaps its greatest legacy is affording Rebecca Black the chance to play the “cool girl”/neighbor who throws a giant house party, which “Kathy Beth Terry” attends to play Just Dance, in the 1 billion-plus viewed music video for “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” Iconic.
“Pearl” starts out hinting it’s going to be bigger than it actually is. The tenth track on the album, the song is, according to Perry, for anyone “who’s been held down” or disallowed to shine like the “pearl” they are. It’s a cute message and “Pearl” is a pretty song, but it never delivers on the build. I will acknowledge one of its better verses, though: “She could be a Statue of Liberty / She could be a Joan of Arc” — the way she stretches the vocal is textbook Katy Perry. But it’s also followed by an underwhelming chorus. One of the slower songs on the album, “Pearl” is almost too boring.
11. “Circle The Drain”
In a 2010 Spin review, Mikael Wood referred to “Circle the Drain” as Katy Perry’s “most convincing” track on Teenage Dream, describing the song as a “techno-goth rant.” It’s a side of pop music that Perry hasn’t delved into frequently. Presumably a nod to a toxic ex-relationship, “Circle the Drain” has power. Perry sing-screams, “Wanna be your lover / Not your fucking mother / Can’t be your savior / I don’t have the power.” It’s a raw, resilient, and twisting song that shows a different side to Perry than most songs on the album, but it’s equally an ode to the more thrashing, guitar-based rock persona that Perry first introduced herself with on songs like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Waking Up in Vegas.” (Speaking of Rock-and-Roll Katy, never forget her “Thinking of You” Warped Tour performance from 2008 — another predecessor to the rock-with-a-dash-of-pop sound of “Circle the Drain.”)
When Perry sings, “Don’t be a chicken boy / stop acting like a bi-otch,” all I can think about is Lindsay Lohan’s Cady Heron in Mean Girls calling Aaron Samuels a “bi-otch.” Anyway, “Peacock” is self-explanatory: aside from being played way too many times at any gay bar — I’m not complaining! — Katy Perry sings to a high-beat tune about climaxing to a boy’s reveal of the “jaw-droppin’” whatever he’s “hiding underneath.” It’s a totally catchy, risqué, and “cheerleading song,” according to Perry; the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, among others, even noticed the song’s immense similarity to Toni Basil’s 1981 hit “Mickey.” But the chorus is blatantly repetitive and goes out of style rather quickly.
“Firework” is an identity-inspired, Diamond-certified song that attempts to be magical and motivational, and to help — or urge — you to find that very special “spark” residing within. But detaching the uniqueness and strength sustained in Perry’s voice, “Firework” curiously lacks substance elsewhere. Beginning a song with the lyrics, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag / Drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” is an awkward way to frame insecurity (and, like plenty Katy-isms, kind of doesn’t make sense). The music video is equally questionable, seemingly venturing into a space that strives too hard to immediately solve deep societal problems, like homophobia or fatphobia, drowning the song in the sort of girl-boss platitudes of that era. The song, I’ll admit, once gave me the boost of confidence I thought I needed at a certain time in my life. But reflecting back, I didn’t actually need “Firework” — or any song — to tell me that I “don’t have to feel like a waste of space,” or that I’m “original” and “cannot be replaced.” Music should make you feel good, or sad if you want (or any emotion); it shouldn’t spotlight what you hate about yourself, though, or add pressure on to sensitivity.
“Firework” also missteps in that Perry is just comically literal, issuing her command to “ignite the light,” “let it shine,” and “Just own the night like the Fourth of July” — a song that, while demonstrating the best of her range as a singer, was clearly written for a different decade. (“After a hurricane comes a rainbow …”? Please!) So despite the song’s popularity in American Idol auditions, YouTube covers, and with talent-show try-hards — and not to totally dismiss its two Grammy nominations for Record of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance — “Firework” doesn’t age as well as the bulk of the album.
If we were ranking Teenage Dream music videos specifically, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” would probably be higher. But at 12:45 a.m., with no sound but the vacuum-like noise coming from the AC in my East Williamsburg apartment, I’ll attempt to separate the song from its visual. See, the video features random cameos from Rebecca Black, Glee’s Darren Criss and Kevin McHale, and … Kenny G on saxophone. It yells high school. It’s the cliché party no one really wanted to go to, but also got upset about when you weren’t invited and found out about it on Snapchat. The music video for “Last Friday Night” is what captures you — it paints the whole picture that the song can’t on its own.
Listening to the words without imagery presents a labyrinth of correlation. “Glitter all over the room / Pink flamingos in the pool” and “Think I need a ginger ale / That was such an epic fail” sound appealing with the background music, and the lines … rhyme. But outside the vibe-y silliness ensuing in between each scene that the lyrics depict — a suburban-teen summer bash complete with “skinny-dipping in the dark,” thinking you kissed but you “forgot,” and “Barbie’s on the barbeque” — “Last Friday Night” doesn’t hold much weight to the rest of the playlist. I love this song, don’t get me wrong; I love the music video even more.
7. “Not Like the Movies”
“Not Like the Movies” was the first song Katy Perry wrote on Teenage Dream. It’s also a song that easily gets lost in the shuffle of the upbeat pop it exists among. Each line on “Not Like the Movies” tells a story about being desperate for love. And it works. While references to Snow White, aligning stars, and a “prince” who “finishes your sentences” are inexplicably adolescent (again, she was 25 at the time), “Not Like the Movies” is still a song that doesn’t rush, or make you wish it would stop. Her 2011 Grammy performance of “Not Like the Movies” is timeless, and also verifies that most Katy Perry songs sound better, and more eccentric, live. In an odd fairy-tale-type of way, you want to know how the story ends.
6. “Who Am I Living For?”
A large part of Katy Perry’s career, both in and out of music, ties back to her roots in the Christian church. “Who Am I Living For?” is tangled up in struggle, an internal battle — in the pre-chorus, she sings, “I can see the heavens, but I still hear the flames / Calling out my name.” The edginess of the song’s beginning, tethered with Perry’s opening verse, “I can feel a Phoenix inside of me / As I march alone to a different beat / Slowly swallowing down my fear,” is dark as much as it is triumphant. It recalls Evanescence circa 2003, but with synth-pop explosion. Perry’s ode to the Bible’s Esther, Jesus Christ, and her “own cross to bear” blares as her words wander into each of their consciousnesses. This beautifully trippy deep cut ultimately sketches Perry’s own reckoning with herself and her upbringing in ways that bring the rest of the album’s galaxy brain back down to earth.
5. “E.T.” ft. Kanye West
Ah, the out-of-this-world, supernatural, cyber-creepy single that featured a verse from Kanye West, also known as Katy Perry’s “E.T.” The A.V. Club’s 2011 review — where Vulture’s own Genevieve Koski referred to the song as “dark futuristic” — noted that “E.T” exhibits the minimal, brief shift Perry makes from her original pop sound to something a bit more shadowy. And musically, it’s a song that strays from the rest on this album. At the peak of Teenage Dream, “E.T.” might not have necessarily made sense coming from Perry, especially next to songs like “Firework” or “Last Friday Night.” She robotically commands, “Kiss me, ki-ki-kiss me / Infect me with your lovin’ / Fill me with your poison / Take me, ta-ta-take me / Wanna be your victim / Ready for abduction.”
However, one decade later, “E.T.” is one of the few tracks from the album that actually, weirdly, makes sense. Holding the No. 4 spot on Billboard’s Hot-100 Year-End list for 2011, “E.T.” was Perry’s freaky, electronic, alien smash that could still dominate a dance floor; her lyrics crawl out into whatever atmosphere you’re inhaling, and it’s eerily intoxicating. “E.T.” also teases a later Katy Perry era, the synth that reigns on her mostly panned 2017 album Witness, and in songs like “Roulette,” “Mind Maze,” or “Tsunami.” Her bridge toward the end of “E.T.” — “I wanna walk on your wavelength / And be there when you vibrate / For you, I’ll risk it all, all” — is Perry’s attempt to demonstrate her adaptability, and that she had more to show.
Behold a quintessential Katy Perry pop masterpiece. The inspiration for this track — you guessed it: a hummingbird, and new love, of course — creates a confection formulated 100 percent with Katy Perry’s aesthetic as its main ingredient. The initial power chords gently lift you to a percussive sweet spot between past, present, and future Katy Perry sonics. And for three minutes and 32 seconds, a narrative that’s simply about a tiny, fluttering bird and a beating heart suddenly matters. The way Perry sings lines like, “You make me feel like I’m losing my virginity,” and “Spread my wings and make me fly,” is gravitating.
“Hummingbird Heartbeat” also samples a slightly rock-heavier sound that can be found on her older tracks like “Hot N Cold” or “Waking Up in Vegas.” Perry wrote it about her at-the-time lover and now ex-husband, Russell Brand, but “Hummingbird Heartbeat” is nonetheless a relevant part of her discography. Revisiting Perry’s Saturday Night Live performance of “Walking on Air” in 2013 produces the same goosebumps on the back of my neck as it did then. “Hummingbird Heartbeat” doesn’t have the amount of Spotify streams or musical accolades that her other songs do, but that is, in a way, the allure of it. “Hummingbird Heartbeat,” one of the best Katy Perry songs, is its own one-hit wonder to those who find it.
3. “California Gurls” ft. Snoop Dogg
“California Gurls” is unmatched. Rob Sheffield wrote in August 2010 for Rolling Stone that the song “sets the tone for ‘Teenage Dream.’” The same year, “California Gurls” was Grammy-nominated for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals with Snoop Dogg for his feature. It’s a song that accomplishes what “Last Friday Night” tries to. “California Gurls” is an anthem for, yes, living it up in California, but really being anywhere that’s hot and “sun-kissed,” or “warm, wet, and wild.” Lyrics like, “I know a place where the grass is really greener” and “Sipping … gin and juice / Laying underneath the palm trees” are contagious for their just-within-reach fantasy. Perry makes you want to move to L.A., or anywhere that’s not not the Golden State. The song never gets old, and the only thing that can top it is the music video — an anthology of sugary sweets, cotton-candy clouds, angry gummy bears, iconic purple and blue wigs, whipped cream, and above all, the Candyland that Teenage Dream intends to re-create. “California Gurls” is the one that most accurately showcases the campy irresistibility of Katy Perry’s track record.
“The One That Got Away” is tear-jerking, heartbreaking, and melodramatic — everything a pop song about losing someone you loved should be. The album’s sixth single, “The One That Got Away” is a treasure chest of emotional intimacy that Perry was more hesitant to expose at the time, though it often peeked through. It’s a gem that is also an endgame — a reluctant realization that whatever happened did, and no matter what, is unchangeable. When she sings, “Summer after high school, when we first met / We’d make out in your Mustang to Radiohead / And on my 18th birthday, we got matching tattoos,” it’s a specific but familiar enough visual to recall your own bittersweet memories.
The bridge delivers the brutal finality of it all: “All this money can’t buy me a time machine, no / Can’t replace you with a million rings, no / I should’ve told you what you meant to me, whoa / ‘Cause now I pay the price.” It’s pure pop and pure sadness, too. As Perry sings of hoping that “in another life” she’d “make you stay,” we become the person wishing the same. “The One That Got Away” is an engaging tale that makes heartache seem less isolating; hurt is expected, but empathetic, and also bearable, and we have no choice but to accept that.
1. “Teenage Dream”
It’s classically obvious but no less true: “Teenage Dream” — the single — deserves the album’s No. 1 spot. Written by songwriters including Bonnie McKee, this is inarguably Katy Perry’s best song, not only on this album, but of her entire career. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, was memorably performed by Darren Criss’s Blaine Anderson on Glee, and was Perry’s only song to make it on to Pitchfork’s list of the 200 Best Songs of the 2010s. In its opening verse, “Teenage Dream” gets vulnerable — Perry sings softly, “You think I’m pretty without any makeup on / You think I’m funny when I tell the punchline wrong / I know you get me / So I let my walls come down, down.” The track then belts about the joys of love at its beginning, as Perry sings about finding someone who will be her “Valentine” for “every February,” her “missing puzzle piece,” with whom she’ll build “a fort out of sheets.” The poetry! The romance! The drama!
In a 2010 interview, Perry explained that “Teenage Dream” underwent “probably four or five different versions of the song.” Its chorus needed to be rewritten to perfection, so that anyone listening would “want to release, let go, and dance” — reexperiencing “that euphoric feeling of having a teenage love all over again.” The imagery in the song title also nails the mood: car windows down, driving down a long highway, seated in the passenger seat next to someone you nervously can’t wait to kiss; the intrigue of a new relationship; the movie version of love, falling fast, head over heels. “Teenage Dream” is imaginative, fun, and sets the bar for the Katy Perry mid-tempo bop. It’s a symbol of Perry’s tenure as an artist, both then and now, and exemplifies the rush of young love, or something like it, that we all desired at one point (or still do). “Teenage Dream” remains the pinnacle of Katy Perry’s music: It permits you an escape to a place that’s happier and romanticized, emotional but also electrifying and heart-stopping — and then, heart-racing. Its relevance is forever sealed.