It’s undeniable that the OG Californian Girl remains unforgettable, consistently churning out number 1 hit singles in every album cycle since the start of her decade-long career in 2007. Katy’s discography has also evolved alongside her, channelling influences from her personal life experiences and the zeitgeist of the day. Her brand of music is known for being quirky and relatable, often drawing fans with playful lyrics and undauntedly pushes against accepted boundaries, through its discussion of social taboos. Brandishing a genuine frankness, she has been able to cut a swathe through the years, establishing herself as a constant in a pop landscape that has been unforgivingly fast-paced with change.
As Katy continues to reinvent herself, the time is now for fans, critics and this millennial to rewind through her album cycles, to better understand what we have come to witness.
“One of the Boys”
As a pop classic, “One of the Boys” was the album that undoubtedly proved Katy had what it took to become one of the greatest pop stars to grace our ears. Breaking out into the market in 2007 with her single, “Ur So Gay”, she instantly courted controversy that only served to hype things up for the album’s release in 2008. It generated multiple hit singles and saw her attain mainstream pop prominence.
I have to confess, as a millennial who was only 10 years old back when this album was released, and in an age predating Spotify and the ubiquity of smartphones, this album of Katy’s is rather foreign with some songs having remained unheard till now. On listening to it anew, I find myself smiling as I recall jamming along to some of her classic hits such as “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold” as a primary school kid, blissfully ignorant of some of the more explicit innuendos of the songs. These singles continue to receive radio play even till today, after a solid decade since the album’s release – that’s a testament to how catchy and popular her songs can be.
The album gave us an initial tantalising taste of her inclination for provocation, with lyrics that cheekily discussed social taboos in an age when being “woke” as a concept had yet to exist. While in hindsight, some songs such as “Ur So Gay” come off as a bit tasteless, it is perhaps better viewed as a mark of who she was rather than who she is now as an artist and also as a product of the then-prevailing socio-political landscape. At the same time, her lesser-known songs from the album that didn’t achieve cult status, such as “I’m Still Breathing” and “Self-Inflicted” hint at a capacity for emotional depth which we come to see develop fully in her later albums.
The best memory of this album is without a doubt, this really cute video of Katy Perry singing a duet of “Hot N Cold” with Elmo you can check out here right now:
Teenage Dream and Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection
Released in 2010, “Teenage Dream” and its 2012 reissue, “Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection”, are widely thought to be the pinnacle of Katy’s discography, cementing her as a bona fide queen of pop as it became the second album in history to generate five number-one singles.
It is impossible to mention “Teenage Dream” without recognising that it was an absolute riot at the time of its release, instantly becoming a hit with youngsters all over the world. The album flirts outrageously, with lyrics that unabashedly draw listeners in with their quirkily fun innuendos and easy hooks. I remember fond memories in particular, of singing “California Gurls” and “Peacock” with my fellow classmates. Exchanging knowing looks with each innuendo enthusiastically belted out were made even more irrepressible, given that we’re in an all boys’ school.
Other than its risqué content however, “Teenage Dream” demonstrated Katy’s versatility as a singer and also her talent for interweaving songs of darker themes in between her more cheerful and upbeat songs. From the frank and stern admonishment of an ex in “Circle the Drain” to the anthemic feel-good “Firework” and of course the poignancy of “The One that Got Away”, Katy captured a multi-faceted view and feel of what the teenage experience is like and it continues to resonate deeply with me even after all these years.
I strongly believe that this album was one of the earliest examples of great pop music that I was exposed to, a sentiment that should be shared by many of my fellow millennials and perhaps it was also a formative pillar of my generation’s music tastes as well.
Special thanks goes to the single “Last Friday (T.G.IF)” and Kathy Beth Terry, Katy’s alter-ego for the single’s promotion, for gifting me with an early expectation of what clubbing would be like, and for the really awesome Kenny G Sax solo that defined my expectation of what a Sax solo should aspire towards. Check the video out below for a fun blast to the past!
As the follow up to “Teenage Dream”, “Prism” attempts to shake off Katy’s party girl image. This obvious change can be seen in the stark difference between its stripped-down and mature cover art as compared to previous album art. “Prism” marks a great shift in tone and thrusts forth a Katy that’s more contemplative and nuanced than before. The album shies away from the frou-frou and demands to be taken more seriously, perhaps indicative of Katy’s own desire to distance herself from being perceived as a frivolous pop star especially as she dealt with the fallout of her divorce in 2010.
Although the album does still continue Katy’s trademark double entendres and salacious verses in songs such as “Birthday”, the general mood and feel of the album doesn’t quite focus on that aspect. Instead, with songs like “Ghost”, “Love Me” and “By the Grace of God”, Katy demonstrates a degree of self-reflection that far surpasses her previous albums, spotlighting her triumph over her personal adversities.
The soaring anthems of “Roar” and “Unconditionally” clearly showed how empowered she felt at that point in time by her music and victory over her own personal adversities. Holistically, “Prism” comes off as a deliberated and carefully crafted declaration by Katy of who she was emotionally, along with her desire for empowerment and love.
In my opinion, “Unconditionally” neatly encapsulates the emotional state for Katy; check out its music video below:
The latest of Katy’s albums, “Witness” was released just last year to much anticipation and fanfare, driven by Katy’s own promises of an era of “purposeful pop”, signalling her departure from self-confessionals, emotional vulnerability and her intent of engaging with the wider world. While the album was still laudable in the charts, it was not on par with Katy’s previous records, coming in below expectations for a Katy Perry album. Critical reception was also mixed, with both critics and fans panning the aesthetic direction that was chosen for some of the album’s promotional material such as the “Bon Apetit” music video and single art, which were criticised as disturbing parallels to cannibalism.
“Witness” differs strongly from her previous album; a significant number of tracks adopt an electronic and synth tone as compared to before. The promise of “purposeful pop” is not fulfilled to its fullest potential; on a whole the album doesn’t really adhere to this vision, with songs such as “Miss You More” and “Save as Draft” musing on her own failed relationship, rather than the “woke” pop that the album was hyped up to be. Notably as well, the diss track single “Swish Swish” was acclaimed for the Nicki Minaj verses, instead of Katy herself and was also panned for lacking lyrical fierceness.
The very inclusion of a diss track to satisfy a personal vendetta in an album promoted as “purposeful pop” does lead one to conclude that the marketing direction chosen for “Witness” was miscalculated rather than the album itself being terribly subpar.
Of the songs that did adhere to being “purposeful pop”, “Chained to The Rhythm” and “Hey Hey Hey” stood out for me with their music videos that encouraged a more cerebral engagement with the songs and their meanings, through their respective references to the French Revolution and an anachronistic dystopian future. See them below:
The album’s cover art did immediately lead me to feel it was derivative of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” days. Other than her androgynous look, however, the resemblance seems to be purely aesthetic or coincidental otherwise. Regardless, it would be great to see her tackle glam-rock and other Bowie classics in the future; a Katy Perry Space Oddity cover would be legendary. Tonally and acoustically, the album brings across a dystopian and post-future vibe as Katy sings about disillusion and disenchantment on a personal and societal level.
Considering the album as a whole, it does present a new Katy Perry in terms of her musical innovation and is a considerable effort in elevating her music into post-modern pop, even if it cannot entirely live up to being “purposeful pop”.
As she fittingly implores for a witness in the album’s titular track, it is important to remember that we are not being asked to witness merely another pop star trying to be “woke”, but an artist who has grown in maturity and willingness to learn and engage the wider world around her, who is asking for an audience to her own existence.
Come bear witness to Katy herself in the flesh and decide for yourself what “purposeful pop” means to you. Katy’s Witness: The Tour comes to Singapore on 8th April 2018, and ticket prices start at $128, and are available here!
Cover photo courtesy of Kevin Mazur, Getty.