(Originally written for Reverb1)
It’s been three years since “Teenage Dream” hit the shelves and solidified Katy Perry as the reigning international superstar who starred in a lucrative film about herself. Even if you had some medical intolerance to pop music, you probably stumbled onto “California Girls” at some point, and it probably won you over, if only once. Title track “Teenage Dream” wasn’t too shabby either, regardless of the reluctance most of us would have in reliving their teenage anything, let alone dreams.
As for the rest of it, who’s to say? “Popular” or not, most of us aren’t actually listening to these albums. We hear the singles, nod, smile, eventually tear our ears off on their inevitable over saturation and go on with our lives.
Based on repeat listens to Katy Perry‘s latest album, “Prism,” that’s the way it should be. Not to say that all pop albums are a waste of time, but most of the songs off “Prism” wear their welcome before they’re over.
This is due foremost to what we’ll call chorus overload. About three-quarters of the songs on “Prism” are dominated by their choruses, which themselves tend to be ruthlessly repetitive. Take “Roar” for example, the album’s lead single that’s already charged up the Billboard charts. “Roar” features three choruses, pretty standard for a pop song. But at 38 seconds apiece, the song dedicates almost two minutes of its 3:44 to an almost aggressively cliched chorus. Add another 40 seconds for pre-choruses and that leaves only about a minute for the bridge, intro and verses it manages to just barely squeeze in. (This is literally the entire second verse: “Now I’m floating like a butterfly / stinging like a bee I earned my stripes / I went from zero to my own hero.”) “Birthday,” “Walking on Air,” “Double Rainbow” similarly offend, though not quite to the same insane extent.
Of course, this is what pop music necessarily does. As a shareholder, you want an artist’s songs to stick with the listener so that no amount of prying can loose it from their heads. I get that. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the lyrics we hear over and over weren’t such obvious afterthoughts. Besides its grating chorus, “Unconditionally” describes what it means to love someone unconditionally rather than risk any interesting angle (“Come just as you are to me,” “I’ll take your bad days with your good” etc.). Print out the lyrics to “Roar” and you’ve more or less got a page of trite English idioms (see above verse). ”Prism”‘s sole vocal guest and Three Six Mafia legend Juicy J actually comes as a reprieve with his verse on trap joint “Dark Horse.” As crazy as it is to compare a girl to Jeffrey Dahmer, it makes more sense than the song’s actual chorus: “So you wanna play with magic / Boy you should know what you’re falling for / Baby do you dare to do this? / Cause I’m comin’ at you like a dark horse.”
Part of the fun of pop albums is they act as sort of a retrospective conglomeration of musical trends of the past year or so. “Prism” doesn’t merely acknowledge this capacity, but takes full advantage of it. With identical plinking toy pianos and the same anthemic message, the controversy over “Roar” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” is merited. “Walking on Air” manages to bite on both Lady Gaga’s vocals and Tiesto-esque EDM club rhythms. “International Smile” riffs on Daft Punk hard, specifically “Digital Love.” “This Moment” is a thinly camouflaged version of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” shifted down just a few steps.
On the plus side, Perry is vocally strong throughout “Prism.” It’s apparently the only thing she has to do to qualify as a multi-million dollar, world touring artist, and yeah, she does it well. To harp on the choruses yet again, they sound copy-pasted and sterile; more vocal variations and harmonies would do wonders to breathe life into the songs, as in the final choruses of “Birthday” and “Legendary Lovers,” which is the album’s most interesting track. Dig that tabla solo!
Otherwise, “Prism” is something of a creative wasteland. When you think about the calculatedly general lyrics, formulaic song structure and their similarity to one another, you imagine the songwriting process headed by a group of well-paid statisticians after your cash and long-term memory banks, not a passionate artist after your soul. Perhaps reviewing this sort of center-mainstream pop music is inherently ridiculous, like judging an infomercial on its cinematography. Put simply, there’s just no reason to seek out “Prism.” Even if you’re curious, it’s only a matter of time before these songs find you.