Remember when Madonna’s cone bra was the vanguard of non-silicone breast augmentation? Things were so simple then. Now, Lady Gaga is on the cover of Rolling Stone with two machine guns affixed to her chest, pushing her antagonistic ideas about modern feminism and sexuality; Katy Perry, meanwhile, is shooting streams of whipped cream from her bosom in the “California Gurls” video, pushing her ideas about . . . um . . . the benefits of can-based whip over tub-based whip? Does she have some sort of password-protected, fetish-message-board agenda? And who’s gonna clean all that shit up? Things are more confusing now.
But there’s a giddy charm in Katy Perry’s method. Or, perhaps, her lack of one. While Gaga breathlessly fulfills pop culture’s desire for a blank slate we can project our various sociological theories upon, Perry is just making hits, jokes, fun. She got one-time murder suspect Snoop Dogg to wear a rainbow-colored cupcake suit and play an evil Gummi Bear Overlord in her video, because she can. The packaging of her new album, Teenage Dream, features the singer painted into a bed of cotton candy; it’s also doused with chemicals that make it smell like swirling pink sugar. (“It actually stinks!” she gushed.) Her new Sanskrit tattoo translates as, “Go with the flow.” “I want to be a legend,” Lady Gaga told Rolling Stone; Katy Perry just wants “to see your peacock-cock-cock, your peacock-cock,” according to a new song entitled “Peacock.” They want different things.
Which is not to say Perry’s yearnings are somehow less vital. Quite the contrary. Gaga’s quest thus far has been bound to the concept of celebrity: “Don’t ask me how or why/But I’m gonna make it happen this time/My teenage dream tonight/Fame, doin’ it for the fame.” But Perry herself is the dream: “I’m-a get your heart racing/In my skin-tight jeans/Be your teenage dream tonight,” sings the 25-year-old. At its best, Teenage Dream provides the euphoria of adolescence with just a tinge of wistful nostalgia. There’s no overarching concept. The tone moves from silly to stupid to sentimental like a high-schooler switching from class to class. There are love songs, party songs, introspective songs, motivational songs, and one about an alien abductor who is also her lover and fills her with poison. There’s no talk of fame, though Perry is circumspect on the subject: “Fame Mountain is the smallest mountain when you get to the top of it,” she recently told The New York Times.
More like a Ben-Day-dotted Lichtenstein cartoon girl than a self-reflexive Warhol idol, Perry is all bright colors and first-thought emotions. Surefire hits “Teenage Dream” and the ’80s-perfect “Hummingbird Heartbeat” are perked-up simulacra of sudden, straight-faced infatuation, while “Peacock” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” mine Looney Tunes territory while knowingly playing up the zany sexpot role that got Perry this far. The latter mixes blacked-out threesomes, probably-obsolete Internet lingo, a Lisa Simpson–worthy sax solo (!), and a tidy uptick beat reminiscent of Cadillac-soundtracking French band Phoenix—it marks the album’s most ridiculous (and finest) peak.
As on her 2008 breakthrough One of the Boys, Perry’s (theoretically) less frivolous tracks are more worrisome. “Who Am I Living For?” crawls on warmed-over Timbaland-style synths, its quasi-religious themes hinting at her previous life as a Christian artist. One of the record’s omnipresent four-four beats attempts to revive would-be ballad “Pearl,” but the maudlin lug would be better suited to a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants credits sequence. Hope for her non-winking guise comes in the form of the rigorous, rising “Firework,” essentially a Taylor Swift song stuffed with enough sparkling pop stuff to level Z100. Perry says the song was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and is about how she wants someone to blow her ashes into the sky upon her demise, though its simplistic back-patting (“Baby, you’re a firework!/Come on, let your colors burst!”) indicates nothing of the sort. But she actually cares about these words that would likely mean little to anyone over 15, and her underrated rocker-chic growl manages to push the song across anyway.
Though Perry co-wrote every song on Teenage Dream and is reportedly too boisterous to be bossed around, she’s also smart enough to know when she’s found the right partners. After working with her on “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot ‘N Cold,” unearthly Top 40 masterminds Dr. Luke and Max Martin are back, and their uncanny calibration of pop, rock, and dance has already given Perry coveted Song of the Summer honors with “California Gurls” and its less-seasonal yet more-trenchant follow-up, “Teenage Dream.” Though both tracks rip off previous Luke/Martin hits (“TiK ToK” and “Since U Been Gone,” respectively), Perry’s plugged-in performances make them worthy sequels, and the record is filled out with new collaborators who try to meet halfway between her pop-rock leanings and their own streamlined r&b tendencies. Stargate (Ne-Yo, Rihanna) succeed by basically following Dr. Luke’s formula, but Tricky Stewart (The-Dream, Mariah Carey) has some trouble bringing out the best in Perry, especially on the instantly dated kiss-off aimed at emo-rap ex Travis McCoy, “Circle the Drain,” which bypasses the singer’s youthful sweet zone and ends up with something that’s simply childish.
No matter how inevitable a song like “California Gurls” sounds, there are no guarantees, even at the highest levels of pop stardom (see Christina Aguilera’s career-jeopardizing 2010 super bomb, Bionic). For Madonna or even Britney, changing your look or sound every album cycle was enough. No more. Largely thanks to Gaga, everything’s accelerated. Perry knows she can’t quite keep up with that pace. So instead, she’s cruising in the wake, comfortably alternating between looking like a blue-haired Smurfette, a Bettie Page acolyte, and Zooey Deschanel. But super-stardom is more than an infinite clothes rack—it’s about being untouchable and universal at once. “I don’t want people to see that I’m a human being,” Gaga has said. Katy Perry doesn’t have that problem.