The eighth-best song on Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, which celebrated its 10th birthday last Monday and remains one of the best pop records of the past decade, is called “Peacock.” You remember “Peacock.” It’s the one that starts with a chant of, “I wanna see your peacock-cock-cock / Your peacock-cock / Your peacock-cock-cock / Your peacock.” The one whose chorus rhymes peacock with beyotch. That one. One time in Brooklyn I was walking through Prospect Park listening to Teenage Dream, and when “Peacock” came up, I just assumed I was about to be arrested. It is not a great song, in the classic sense, but it always felt—in its gaudiness, its softcore porn-ness, and its wanton ill-advised-ness—like a crucial element of the Katy Perry experience. As though you’re not getting the Real Her until you’re cringing just a little, and attempting to shield the eyes and ears of any nearby children.
The eighth-best song on Smile, the new Katy Perry record that came out Friday and is neither as terrible as you might’ve feared nor anywhere near as good as you might’ve hoped, is called “Harleys in Hawaii.” You can clearly picture this song even if you’ve never heard it: the vague mega yacht–reggae vibe, the single-entendre stiffness (“I’m revving up your engine” and whatnot), the way Perry adds several “ai-ai-ai”s to the end of her lines, as though she’s trying to summon that GIF of Rihanna rolling up her car window. It basically sounds like half-asleep 311. “When I hula hula hula,” she coos, “so good you’ll take me to the jeweler jeweler jeweler.” It is not a great or even especially tolerable song, in any sense, but it feels good to cringe again, just a little, and you may come to cherish it as the only moment on Smile when she’s even trying to get a rise out of you.
Smile is Katy Perry’s album of relative contentment—she and her partner, Orlando Bloom, announced the birth of their daughter, Daisy Dove Bloom, on Thursday—and it is legitimately heartbreaking how dissonant and almost science-fictional that contentment sounds. I feel terrible even trying to write about pop music in 2020, given that due to standard glacial pop-music production cycles, the current music does not at all reflect, through no real fault of its own, the lived experience of being alive in 2020. (The quickest way to summarize the year in pop is that on a midnight in May, I hit play on a new Lady Gaga album and then went back to reading about a police station on fire in Minneapolis.) “Cause baby all we got are champagne problems now,” bellows Katy Perry on an album released, to reiterate, on Friday, and I believe her and am happy for her and feel sorry for her in painfully equal measure.
The album—in all its cheery, upbeat, benignly aspirational, and aggressively muted glory—is an attempted comeback after the relative failure of 2017’s misbegotten Witness, which failed precisely because Perry tried too hard to read the room and get fancy and serious and political, or at least “purposeful.” Smile’s grating title track is a strutting anthem about happiness and resilience—“Yeah, I’m thankful / Scratch that, baby, I’m grateful,” it begins, and already you’re gritting your teeth—that nods to an “ego check,” to “a piece of humble pie,” to the notion that “rejection can be God’s protection.” There is also a whole separate song called “Resilient” that begins, “I know there’s gotta be rain / If I want the rainbows.”
It’s not that Perry’s unaware of the tumult of the world around her: Wedged between “Resilient” and “Smile” is a stormy minor-key dirge literally titled “Not the End of the World,” in which she observes, “You can take a frown, turn it all the way around.” The problem is that you grit your teeth harder the harder she works to be aware of it.
Perry has betrayed, almost from the beginning, a weakness for squishy empowerment anthems (the third-best song on Teenage Dream is “Firework”) that clash oddly but not unpleasantly with her even squishier hedonism anthems. (The second-best song on Teenage Dream is “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” if only for the priceless way she blurts out, “Damn!”) But the tracks on Smile that even gesture at emo dance-floor abandon—including the Robyn-style double shot of “Cry About It Later” and “Teary Eyes”—sound lush and maximalist and ultraprofessional, but they also plainly sound exhausted.
Meanwhile, the songs on Smile that are worse than “Harleys in Hawaii” tend to be extra-empowering AOR jams like “Only Love” or the slight acoustic ballad “What Makes a Woman.” Her challenge now is to grow up but still retain enough of the flamethrowing, whipped-cream-spouting exuberance of her breakout years. (The best song on Teenage Dream is “Teenage Dream.”) Pink, for example, has gotten really good at the whole “I’ll Punch You in the Face If You Call Me a ‘Savvy Veteran’” thing. But Perry’s journey to that sort of volatile respectability is just beginning.
Smile’s bedrock sound, bolstered by a cruise ship of cowriters and producers ranging from Zedd to StarGate to the Monsters & Strangerz to Charlie Puth, is Perry’s standard brand of anthemic electro-pop, which will never quite go out of style but will also never quite be totally back in style again. “Daisies” is the hookiest and deepest song here, inspirational in an agreeably dorky way (“Took those sticks and stones / Showed ’em I could build a house”) but with a chorus that knocks you over in slow motion.
It’s slicker and moodier than Classic Katy Perry, but with more vibrance and unforced personality than most Newer Katy Perry. The trick is to evolve with dignity, but not too much; to acknowledge the outside world, but not too often. As expressions of domestic bliss go, Smile is a bit of a struggle, even if she gets a little more vibrant when she’s struggling. She’s straining for that last high note on “Daisies,” yes, but it feels good to cringe a little at that, too.