EXPECTATION VS. REALITY: “SMILE” BY KATY PERRY

This article is part of an Untitled Magazine series called “Expectation vs. Reality,” where we examine the hype surrounding popular projects before and after release, and examine whether they ultimately meet the general public’s expectations. The first part, “Expectation,” was written prior to release, while the second part below, “Reality,” was written after release.

Album cover art for “Smile.” Courtesy of Capitol Records.

EXPECTATION

What a difference a few short years can make. Less than a decade ago Katy Perry became the first female artist and only second ever artist after Michael Jackson to score five No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 singles off the same album, Teenage Dream. In 2010 and 2011, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the teenybopper anthem “California Gurls,” the sci-fi power pop of “E.T.” or the party song extraordinaire “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”; not to mention the Glee-worthy power ballad “Firework” or undeniable earworm title track. A decade later, and expectations for Perry’s upcoming LP, Smile, are astonishingly low, and it has become remarkably easy to forget that historic pop culture milestone.

But of course, ten years is an eternity in pop culture time, and two eternities in pop music time, and all it takes is a few disappointing singles to taint a track record. On that note, you’d be hard-pressed to name a Katy Perry track from the last half decade that has made any significant impact on the charts, at least in the states. The closest thing to a hit was 2017’s “Swish Swish” (excluding her feature on Calvin Harris’ “Feels” in 2017), an admittedly catchy, Platinum-selling tune that was really more of a capitalization on her infamous feud with Taylor Swift than any sort of worthwhile musical statement. It’s most notable thing frankly was it’s celebrity cameo-laden music video, which didn’t spell all that much longevity. Even her last No. 1 one hit “Dark Horse” from 2013’s Prism has been somewhat retroactively tainted by its copyright infringement lawsuit that alleged it stole from a Christian rap song (though earlier this year Perry successfully had her loss overturned. Even “Firework,” once the track of choice for those in need of a self-worth pick-me-up has today been reduced to a sea of plastic bag memes.

Which brings us to Smile. Single “Daisies” was a strange choice for the lead, with a standard chorus, forgettable hook, and really nothing worth noting. It came and went, along with four promotional singles (“Never Really Over,” “Harleys in Hawaii,” “Small Talk,” “Never Worn White”), down to the depths of obscurity, with hardly any US radio presence or even memory with listeners. The fact that these tracks were originally intended to be non-album singles could prematurely indicate the phoned in-nature of Smile as a whole, but for now let’s give Perry the benefit of the doubt.

That is certainly difficult however, considering the pure banality and lack of imagination on display with these songs. Forbes even ranked “Harleys in Hawaii” the 7th worst song of 2019; and while we wouldn’t necessarily go that far, it’s lackluster hook and hollow attempt to grasp the same summertime, easy breezy vibe of past singles like “California Gurls” and “This is How We Do” certainly make it feel like a shallow imitation of Perry’s former work. The same goes for “Never Really Over” and “Never Worm White,” two ballads that are, for lack of a more descriptive word, boring. The substance just isn’t there, and while you could argue it never was, there was enough freshness and fun-loving energy in the tunes of last decade. The exception to the monotony is the title track, if only because it is essentially a carbon copy of Perry’s Teenage Dream-era work.

Katy Perry performing in Glasgow, Scotland for her “Witness Tour.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Part of Perry’s downfall has been her recent inability to successfully adapt to modern sensibilities, keeping her stuck in the early 2010s. For contrast, Perry’s debut hits of “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot n Cold” established her as a pseudo-edgy pop-rocker with some gritty sensibility underneath a hyper-feminine exterior; a titular “one of the boys.” One album later, she was able to seamlessly transition from that persona to a summer jam pop sensation, ditching the edge for a more innocent approach. Since then, she has struggled to form herself to the genres of today, releasing lackluster singles and a critically underperforming album, Witness, that just couldn’t maintain the same audience.

And look no further than her June music video release of “Daisies” with the cringe-inducing amended parenthetical “(Can’t Cancel Pride)” to understand why Perry hasn’t been adopted as a queer icon like many of her contemporary peers (to be fair, the song itself, a remix of the single mashed up with some of Perry’s biggest hits, is undeniably miles better than the original). In fact, that cringe factor is largely what has held her back in recent years. While it would be unfair to call her and her work dispassionate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that her more recent singles like “Bon Appétit” and the aforementioned “Harleys in Hawaii” are trying too hard to fill a niche that has been filled time and time again in Katy’s absence from the limelight.   

So, while nobody is expecting fireworks (no pun intended) from Smile, such low hopes certainly leave room for a pleasant surprise. Then again, it’s equally likely it will not be so much as a blip on our collective consciousness.

Overall Expectation: Outlook not so good

REALITY

The first half of this little thought experiment mentioned Katy Perry’s inability to adapt her music to modern trends, but upon listening to Smile in its entirety, hanging on to her 2010’s pinup persona could have actually been advantageous for her career, had she taken the risk.

One of several alternative covers for “Smile.” Courtesy of Capitol Records.

Everyone’s turned the same nowadays style-wise. The genre-blenders in the world of pop music, like Poppy, Charli XCX and Rina Sawayama are in the clear minority to more ubiquitous personalities like Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa. That is not meant as a dig at the latter artists, simply a statement that their music has somewhat blended together in today’s pool of pop idols.

Katy Perry’s attempt to mold herself to that genre of moody teen throwback pop princess has, as we have established, been her commercial downfall in the later half of the 2010s. Had she stuck to that innocent Teenage Dream persona of rocker chick Dita Von Teese — her queen of the summer jam attitude — she might have continued to stand out in the boss-ass-bitch spirit of today’s top 40. Not that the aim of Perry’s earlier persona was to dumbfoundedly submit to the male gaze, but to claim unabashed sexuality in a different fashion to the modern archetype. Retro Katy Perry expressed her sex appeal though a fun loving, carefree nature, as opposed to the more high fashion, slick and erotic approach of most of today’s stars. But hindsight is 20/20, and of course we can not expect or demand any artist to remain in the same mold forever, and unfortunately it is easy to see a world in which Perry did return to her roots and get lambasted for lack of creativity. After all, if Perry does not want to don a sex-forward persona for this album, that is her choice both as an artist and a woman. It is admirable that Perry has at least attempted to change with the times at all, so we acknowledge the Catch-22 in the suggestion.

But that’s why Smile’s title track was such a glimmer of hope (despite a slightly cringe-worthy music video, but that’s part of Perry’s charm at this point). In the wave of “Don’t Start Now”s and “Lose You to Love Me”s (both great songs in their own rights), “Smile” was a much-needed burst of Icona Pop-esque escapism. Full of bouncy horns (which after having a significant moment in pop music about a decade ago, thanks in large part to Perry, followed her lead and took a backseat on the charts) and playful lyrics, “Smile” reminded us that pop music color palettes can be warm rather than cold sometimes.

But as is the case with many pop albums, the lead single is the exception, not the rule (gotta keep it upbeat for radio right?). Filler track “Tucked” attempts the same feeling of fun-in-the-sun flair, but falls flat in the earworm department, despite a decent beat. For the most part, the rest of the album’s 11 tracks suffer from the same major issue that plagued previous album Witness: derivation. Overt inspiration is not an inherently bad thing of course. As they say: good artists borrow, great artists steal. The issue is not production value, but artistic identity and predictability.

Absolutely nothing about Smile, with the possible exception of its cheeky album artwork, feels fresh. Even the title “Smile” has been used time and time again by artists of a million different ilks for decades. And while round two of an established formula certainly is common practice, Witness was simply not enough of a hit to warrant a sequel. To be fair, Smile comes closer to its own identity or even old school Perry than Witness did, with united themes of overcoming derision and imposter syndrome feeling fairly cohesive throughout. Even dynamic tracks like “Not the End of World” manage to feel independent of most previous Perry work while staying quite listenable. But these themes have been more than trodden on in pop of future past.

The raw emotion on display is certainly admirable, and it is genuinely touching to hear major song inspirations like Perry’s newborn daughter Daisy and her willingness to accept her pain. But it’s hard to ignore (or easy, if you will) the sheer lack of actionable, radio ready hooks on Smile. And while accessibility is not necessarily a prerequisite of pop music, for an artist like Perry it is very much part of her musical brand.   

So while we can’t say the results of Smile were lesser than expectation, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed Perry wasn’t able to re-grasp what made her music so omnipresent in her heyday. Then again, perhaps it isn’t the worst thing that we are making way for some fresh faces.

Overall Reality: Was Smile what we were expecting? Unfortunately, yes.

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