Katy Perry is no stranger to the pop world. This year marks Perry’s reintroduction to pop after her three-year departure and the beginning of a new era, as she recently became a mother to daughter Daisy Bloom. In her seventh album Smile, Perry proves that she can still turn out entertaining songs, but finds herself missing some of the ingenuity and whimsy of her earlier hits.
In the past, Perry received heavy criticism for claims of cultural appropriation both in her old works, including the music video for her song “Dark Horse,” and in several hits from her previous album, Witness, which was generally met with mixed reviews. The patented clown aesthetic of Smile seems to poke fun at these past mistakes, with Perry telling herself to brush off old criticisms and smile, to move forward with her career and hope for a more carefree future.
Following the rise of electropop in recent months, Perry’s latest album fully capitalizes on this trend, relying on a more finely edited and electronic sound than on her previous albums. Instead of highlighting her own vocal prowess, which she’s already proved herself to be capable of on her other albums, Perry relies on complex studio editing to hold the album together.
As a result, the songs have an extremely similar sound to one another, not particularly pushing the boundaries of Perry’s creative artistry as her imaginative lyrics and music videos have sought to do in the past. Each song seems written to maximize its chart-topping potential, losing the sense of genuine excitement and emotion that listeners have seen from her in the past and leaving the overall album with a wholly pedestrian sound.
Arguably the album’s best performing track, “Cry About It Later,” perfectly exemplifies this phenomenon, with much of its chorus being an exceptionally catchy repetition of the title. Elsewhere, the lyrics emphasize partying away all one’s worries and finding someone new — a confusing message to release during a pandemic. Still, the sentiment of not caring what others have to say and just letting it all go seems to come from a place of truth, even if the message is somewhat superficial. While pop music isn’t required to be especially deep, this song feels especially saccharine in the context of current realities, reminiscent of a pre-pandemic world.
The album’s titular track and subsequent music video further cement Perry’s overall clown theme. However, the absence of meaningful yet descriptive lyrics to match the video fail to live up to the quality of her past albums’ title tracks and videos, causing “Smile” to fall short in comparison. Both of these songs, while catchy and boppable, aren’t anything revolutionary and fail to stand out both among other recent releases and Perry’s old standby hits.
While Perry’s latest record is certainly something to dance to, it fails to provide any substantial reasons for its existence besides topping the pop charts — another thing that the album is failing to do. Absent are Perry’s unique and imaginative hits or her lyrical pop ballads; rather, the album feels like a lasting push to stay relevant after past controversy.
On some levels, Smile does what it’s supposed to. It’s a catchy pop record that sticks in your head, urging you to listen to it on repeat, but that doesn’t feel like enough from an artist as well-known as Perry. It reads as lackluster, even if there are a few less nauseating hits. Furthermore, Smile’s message of simply “brushing off the haters” is nothing new in pop music and Perry’s take on it isn’t particularly notable, even if her songs are pretty danceable.
In short, another Katy Perry record just doesn’t seem to be something the world needs right now. Her take on catchy, heavily commercialized, thoughtless pop party tunes fails to entrance audiences in the same way that her previous work was known for.
And yet, while it’s not particularly notable, maybe this record is exactly what Perry wants in her new era: more mature, carefree and upbeat chart-toppers free of controversy. And what artist wouldn’t want that?