For anyone still reeling from the sight of Katy Perry riding an emphatically not-subtle giant banana and smirking her way through the appalling (and borderline homophobic) ‘Ur So Gay’, giving Teenage Dream a fair spin is going to be a tough assignment. Pressing play on the once-straitlaced Christian’s second album, you may well brace yourself for forty-seven minutes of alternate tedium and outrage. But perhaps the most difficult aspect about the whole thing may well be discovering that—Jesus wept—some of it isn’t actually that bad.
First, the major stumbling blocks. Wears The Trousers is firmly of the belief that women artists should be free to explore any and every image or style that interests them. While it’s obvious that not everyone can be, or would want to be, as daring, adventurous and downright disturbing as, say, Karin Dreijer Andersson, it is terribly disappointing to see so many artists choosing from the same rigid and limited stylistic repertoire. Katy Perry’s Playboy bunny image of female sexuality is espoused repeatedly in her songs and videos – Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top and skintight jeans isn’t just a lyric, it’s seemingly a way of life (when she isn’t naked) – and this has unavoidably tainted many people’s perception of Perry.
But sex, of course, does sell. Perry, however, takes things to a new level, perhaps a result of being locked in an ever-escalating competition for column inches with Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. On the massively successful ‘California Gurls’, Perry duets with Snoop Dogg, a man who, lest we forget, presented the hardcore porn film series ‘Doggystyle’ (containing, as the Adult Movie Database will tell you, “five scenes of raw, uncut and unbelievable backyard fucking”). His rap on the bridge is a paean to Perry’s “toned, tanned, fit and ready” body, a shape that leaves him wanting to “kiss her, touch her, squeeze her buns…all that ass hangin’ out.” What’s worse, these lyrical gems are accompanied by the sound of Perry apparently simulating an orgasm.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Like the dialogue from a truly shitty porn film, the verses of ‘Peacock’ are a hagiographic hymn to the apparently incredible power and magnificence of the male member (“I’ve heard it’s beautiful / jaw-droppin’, eye-poppin’, head-turnin’, body-shockin’ / it’s time for you to shoot it off”) matched in tedium only by the predictable chorus of ”I wanna see your peacock cock-cock / your peacock cock-cock” repeated ad nauseam until the joke has well and truly worn out. And it was pretty damn weak to start with.
Yet at the centre of the album there is a cluster of punchy, hard-edged pop songs, each impeccably produced and containing a startling or unexpected element. Paramore fans will find much to love in ‘Circle The Drain’, a vehement and rageful tirade against a drug-addicted boyfriend. “I wanna be your lover, not your fuckin’ mother / I’m not gonna stay and watch you circle the drain,” Perry sings, convincingly impassioned – she isn’t messing around. Given a halfway interesting lyric for a change, one that deviates from the topics of sex and what skimpy outfit she’s wearing, Perry suddenly gets a whole lot more interesting.
‘Who Am I Living For’ taps into a bleakness that’s boldly atypical for such a commercial artist, and the vocal has a steely edge at odds with someone so often portrayed in postures of submission (as on the Teenage Dream sleeve). Deviating from the Girls Gone Wild script pays off, too, on future single ‘Firework’, which thankfully isn’t yet another song about ejaculation. Rather, it explores the sensation of awe, the soaring melody and Perry’s powerful vocal helping to shade some dreadful lyrics – “Boom boom boom / even brighter than the moon moon moon,” anyone?
A more decently crafted narrative lyrics is set to a muted and hypnotic beat on ‘Pearl’, a song about a woman whose self-esteem and character have been eroded by an abusive and domineering boyfriend, though however well intentioned it seems out of place surrounded by songs with little more to offer than simply being trashy and explicit. ’Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)’ serves up the same recipe that Ke$ha has been peddling over the past year. With lyrics about smelling like a minibar and blacking out through drinking, it’s fitfully entertaining (especially the couplet “Barbie’s on the barbeque / is this a hickey or a bruise?”) but mostly just surprisingly and overly familiar.
Elsewhere, the opening line of ‘Hummingbird Heartbeat’ – “You make me feel like I’m losing my virginity / the first time every time when you’re touching me” – is very telling both of Perry’s persona and the album as a whole. In the lyrical universe of Teenage Dream, with few exceptions, men are sexual stallions who bring ceaseless pleasure to pliant, vapid dolly-like women. The listening experience, however, is more like the reality of losing your virginity; to burst the porno-fantasy bubble for a moment, it’s awkward and painful, but – though many will be loath to admit it – quite fun, too.
In one of the key texts of noughties feminism, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy writes about “the frat party of pop culture” in which “a tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become ubiquitous.” This effectively sums up Perry’s scene, and like it or not, we’re all invited. The production has a top-class pop sheen; the vocals are strong; and it already seems destined to sell by the bucketload Stateside. It’s just a shame the persona at the centre of this enterprise is, for the most part, so regressive and repellant.
[Capitol; August 30, 2010]