Review Summary: Katy Perry has no clue whether she wants to be an inspiration or a tease. Either way, she's got our attention.
Depending on whom you ask, Katy Perry is either a generational spectacle or exactly what is wrong with the music industry. Last year’s biopic, Part of Me
, promotes the innocent and fan-loving Katy who hit the scene in 2008, and it’s frankly hard to knock her for her personality. This is someone who was sequestered by her parents (both ministers) and rejected a number of times before convincing Capitol records to take a flyer on her and…well, the rest is chart-topping history. But perseverance doesn’t sell records nearly as often as sex appeal, and that teenager who left home with Hollywood dreams has increasingly fallen into the trap of naked album covers and thinking anyone over the age of sixteen takes her music seriously. After the unprecedented success of Teenage Dream
, it’s unfair to expect anything but more of the same on Prism
, for better or for worse.
Once again produced by songwriting team Max Martin (Backstreet Boys, Taylor Swift) and Dr. Luke (Britney Spears, Rihanna), Prism
wanders between the best and worst Perry has yet served up. Lead single “Roar,” with its meandering pace and cliché lyrics, could probably have been titled “Yawn” if not for its predictably rousing refrain, whereas “Dark Horse” throws pop norms out the window in favor of a surprisingly dynamic structure, even if it’s once again interrupted by an ill-advised rap solo. Katy has a decent voice (see her live performance of "Not Like the Movies") and generally doesn’t lean on digital enhancement, often opting to harmonize with herself for dramatic effect. Her high range is particularly vibrant on songs like “Walking on Air,” which follows on the heels of smash-hit “Firework,” batting cleanup on the album with its gigantic chorus and driving dance beat.
Unfortunately, for every successful song there seems to be an equally bad decision or two. “This is How We Do” follows “Dark Horse” and immediately halts its momentum by leaning on lame synths and Perry’s awesomely bad lyrics (“Now we’re talking astrology, getting’ my nails did all Japanesey / Day-drinkin’ at the Wildcats suckin’ real bad at Mariah Carey, oh please”). This is to say nothing of her multiple insipid crowd-addresses. And once again, there are mixed messages coming out of the whole affair: “Roar” and “Choose Your Battles” aim for an inspirational, self-empowering feel, but are largely nullified by the embarrassing puns of call-girl anthem “Birthday” (“Let me catch you in your birthday suit / it’s time to bring out the big, big, big, big balloons,” etcetera).
Perhaps including “Birthday” was another attempt to step on her producers’ toes a la “Peacock,” but it’s more likely that Perry shortchanged quality control in her effort to have too much fun for her own good. To that end, Prism would be a much stronger album if songs like PR-piece “International Smile” and the rhythmically-challenged “This Moment” were shelved from the start. Buried towards the end of the album are two solid songs in “Love Me," which features some deft use of vocal sampling and one of Perry’s better laid-back vocal performances, and "Ghost," which sounds like “Teenage Dream” in the best way. Perry also gets points back in the lyrics column for some earnest wordplay as she mourns a broken friendship: "And now you’re just a ghost (when I look back never would have known that) / You could be so cold (like a stranger, vanish like a vapor) / There's just an echo where your heart used to be / Now I see it clearly...I see through you now."
In the end, Perry has moments of inspiration and perhaps even excellence, but can’t decide what kind of role model she wants to be. There’s enough awkward innocence in her sexual overtures to convince us she hasn’t totally lost the plot, but that’s about as much of a compliment as calling “By the Grace of God” and “Spiritual” odd tributes to faith rather than uninspiring ending pieces. Prism
paints Katy Perry as a talented but confused artist still experiencing epic popularity growing pains. The singles are likely to be some of the better pop songs of the year, while the rest is pretty forgettable. So yes, Prism
includes the worst of pop music today, but it also shows that Katy Perry is at least trying – which is more than can be said for a lot of music these days.