Katy Perry Attempts to Revive Her Old Sound on ‘Smile’

Katy Perry ‘Smile’ album cover with a checkered blue-and-white shirt and a clown nose.
Katy Perry ‘Smile’ album cover with a checkered blue-and-white shirt and a clown nose.
Photo Credit: Christine Hahn

Let me preface this by saying that I love Katy Perry. Whether it’s because of Teenage Dream, her defining album and one of the greatest masterpieces in pop music history, or my struggle through her short-haired Witness phase, which was mostly a flop era, but did give us the undeniable bop that is ‘Swish Swish,’ I am a Katy Cat and that is not up for debate.

My initial reaction after having listened to her new album Smile once through (and the singles at least 5x to each, maybe 100x for ‘Never Really Over’) is that it’s overall enjoyable and fun, but nothing here is innovative or inspiring. Pitchfork gave her a 5.7 and Stereogum called it a ‘pivot to boring,’ which I did scream at, but I don’t feel quite as harsh about it. Where do I start?

‘Never Really Over’ is the most radio-friendly, energetic dance-pop song on the album, and that song is gold. ‘Cry About it Later’ is another simple-yet-effective track, embodying Katy’s commitment to being carefree meshed with an infectious hook, reminding me of the Prism underappreciated bop ‘This Is How We Do.’ Then with tracks like ‘Teary Eyes’ or ‘Daisies,’ there are nods to life’s hardships and perseverance, reminiscent of ‘Roar’ and the ethos of Prism.

“Just keep on dancing with those teary eyes,” sings Katy in an upper, airy register on ‘Teary Eyes.’ The track wants to run parallel with the emotional-yet-pulse-pounding pop smashes like ‘no tears left to cry’ and ‘Rain On Me’ from some of the other leading ladies of pop. Katy is embarrassingly late to the dancing through tears game.

Then on ‘Resilient,’ we’re hearing about “pulling out the weeds” and watching the “flower grow right through the cracks,” which feels redundant after the uplifting single ‘Daisies,’ positioned directly before it on the tracklist. Is this album really, in any tangible way, related to the clown-and-circus theme it’s been marketed as? ‘Smile’ sits wonkily, like an unfinished blend of Katy’s older, carefree sounds (safe) and uplifting ballads generally about rising up or being strong (tired); didn’t we already get the former in Teenage Dream and the latter on Prism?

That said, there are signs of life on this album. ‘Champagne Problems’ may not be up to par with the 80s/disco moment curated by Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and (a bit less so) Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, but it’s a likable track with dramatic strings that sound 80s-enough. ‘Tucked’ gives us that sexy, effortless twirl evocative of Kylie Minogue, though the song title initially and immediately suggests a connection to drag queen culture, at least to my gay self (and gays make up 115% of her following), which ends up not being remotely part of the song.

Perhaps it’s the end of the album that shines strongest for Katy, as ‘What Makes a Woman’ is a very sweet ballad that doesn’t feel over-produced, oversaturated, or overworked. It’s soft, melancholic, and it’s been on repeat since she released it last week. Something about her saying ‘there it is, Katheryn’ at the very end of the track, and album, feels like I’m actually getting authentic Katy. The track makes my heart melt a bit.

If there’s a lesson in here, maybe it’s that the defining artists of the 2010s don’t always have the longevity we so badly want them to. Katy, who just had her baby (aptly named Daisy) with Orlando Bloom, will ALWAYS be around. She is never going away. But the standards she set for herself after Teenage Dream continue to prove unreachable, which speaks both to the middling effort that was Smile and to the towering level of pop magic that was Teenage Dream.

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