Sunday, August 30, 2020

Review: Smile • Katy Perry

The coordinated narrative embedded into Katy Perry’s most recent album campaign allows her to paint herself as a living relic of the early 2010s. Conveyed as someone who had hit fame’s unimaginable pinnacle and later fell from it, she explores the mental ramifications after the rug was pulled from beneath her in interviews with The Guardian and Zane Lowe. After having digested failure and its effects on someone who thrived on popularity, she claims to be apathetic toward success, having matured past the need for external validation. The linear story line, however, inappropriately stamps an expiration date on her career as if to justify her latest album’s under-performance in advance without referencing any specific mistakes that may have led Katy Perry to where she is now. 

Perry has been a mirror of the times she occupies, even if it meant she magnified errors in her own judgement. Two of her earliest notable hits trivialize bisexuality and demean gay stereotypes in a time when it was considered acceptable in mainstream culture – and surprisingly, they haven’t been scrubbed silently from streaming platforms as an overprotective afterthought or even addressed since their initial splash. Most of her chart-toppers were produced with the man who was once the largest name in pop music but since has had his career obliterated with accusations that he sexually assaulted one of Perry’s peers. She stayed silent as Hollywood erupted over the case and silently shifted away from the accused producer – though an unsealed deposition reveals she felt more like a pawn in a game she didn’t ask to play.

Her silence on serious matters was characteristic: For most of her career, she had never presented herself as any more than entertainer – and while that may have never settled well for those who penned very serious reviews for very serious major publications, it certainly wasn’t an unpopular career model. After three blockbuster records – one of which will forever act as a near-impossible benchmark for not only her own popularity, but any other pop star to follow – it could be said that Witness, her fourth record, was a sign of fatigue for both the artist and her casual listeners. Or perhaps it can be pointed to under-baked songwriting and faulty delivery on promises to make her pop music more meaningful in a divided America. Or likely, it was just an odd fit for a woman who had spent most of her career making ignorant mistakes that she blames on her sheltered upbringing.  

Whatever the reason, Witness is undoubtedly Katy Perry’s least enjoyable record for her and us alike: She has now admitted to a deep depression after Witness and its commercial performance left her without the external gratification to which she had grown accustom. Since its release, she retreated to light entertainment in its purest form – reality television – and entered a steady relationship with Orlando Bloom, resulting in her pregnancy announcement this spring. But when most women would retreat for a moment to enjoy their first experiences in motherhood, Perry charged forward with Smile, a course correction record released one day after her first child’s birth. Its short, disconnected hits total up to about half an hour of music, all packaged as a chintzy red-nosed reminder to hold out hope – that is, if that message wasn’t already made painfully evident in her return to straightforward pop music.

Perry built an empire atop massive synthpop tracks courtesy of Max Martin and Dr. Luke, the latter of which became a commercial and moral liability not long after the release of Prism in 2013. That may explain the literal army required to bring both Witness and Smile to fruition as she redefined herself without them, but Smile is certainly more loyal to the Katy Perry lore than expected. “Never Really Over,” a Zedd collaboration from last year, gets top billing on the record – and for good reason. Its rapid-fire stanzas and stair-step harmony make it her stickiest offering in years. Directly after it, however, she was brave enough to abut two songs about distracting from the urge to cry – both perfectly fine archetypal sad bangers, but a bit strange to hear in succession.

Perry might be at her dullest when presenting as blatantly inspirational: Just as “Firework” might contain the worst songwriting from Teenage Dream, “Smile” and “Resilient” from this record lack integrity. “Resilient” particularly suffers, especially without the benefit of a memorable melody or a Naughty by Nature sample like the title track. On the rare occasion that she doesn’t dress down her experiences in the tired token phrases she employs on otherwise enjoyable songs like “Daisies” and “Champagne Problems,” she can address issues with tact: “If I had nothing to lose, I’d call my mother and tell her I’m sorry for never calling her back. I’d pour my soul into a letter and send it to my dad,” she sings on “Only Love.” That is the kind of reflection one would expect from a record billed as a therapeutic rejuvenation.

Though Smile may feel like much less of a cultural takeover than Perry’s previous records, that seems to be by design – perhaps to avoid the potential for backlash, or maybe more importantly, to focus attention toward a newborn baby girl. Its gentrified disco and succinct bursts of energy boil down heavy subjects into much easier listening. It has its truly bright moments – “Never Really Over,” pandemic-appropriate “Not the End of the World,” “Only Love,” and even the under-appreciated “Harleys in Hawaii” make the album worth a listen – but Smile is largely an uncomplicated, unsurprisingly surface-level look at her depression and recovery that serves better as feel-good fodder than a dead-on confessional. And even if you haven't accepted it by now, that's exactly what should be expected from the artist at hand.

Smile is available now under Capitol Records.

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