There are many “whoa-oh”s on Teenage Dream. They serve as a catchy shorthand for the excitement that comes with the youthful indiscretions that concern the best moments of Katy Perry’s sophomore effort; they’re veritable “LOL”s and “OMG”s in Perry’s Teenage fantasies.
For instance, on “Last Night (T.G.I.F.),” a jangle pop morning-after number that ought to be the album’s third single, they follow the singer’s admission that “I think we broke the law/ Always say we’re gonna stop.” Coupled with her new media references—referring to her evening as an “epic fail” and shrugging off the potentially revealing pictures that have “ended up online”—it’s clear that Perry means for the song to provide a soundtrack for the wild antics of today’s teenagers. This is a relief; mainstream pop doesn’t need another forced nostalgia trip, and it’s to the twenty-six-year-old’s credit that she’s able to capture that timeless teenage sense of invincibility without pandering to a younger crowd.
Despite her worrisome claim that a “warrant’s out for my arrest” (must have been one hell of a party), the song works precisely because of this relatable lack of responsibility and focus on silly fun—whoops, hollers, and saxophone breakdowns included. “Last Night” ends with the sound of raucous applause, and instead of sounding arrogant or self-congratulatory, it’s simply fitting; it sounds like her friends from last night are there in the studio with her, laughing at those pictures on Facebook and eager to “do it all again” next weekend.
Teenage Dream works best when it sticks to the stuff of, well, teenage dreams, beachside hookups, penis jokes, popped cherries, and all. The washed-out 35mm video for the titular second single perfectly matches the hazy, hopeful, sun-drenched vibe of the song. The video for lead single and summer smash “California Gurls” equally suits its corresponding song; while Snoop Dogg dons a suit with a cupcake print, Perry assures the listener that she’ll “melt your Popsicle.” It’s a sugary-sweet, nudge-nudge-wink-wink affair, but hey, the song’s not trying for anything deeper.
“Firework,” on which Perry urges the listener to “make ’em go ‘oh, oh, oh!’” and puts an impressively intense vocal performance, does indeed try for a deeper emotion. But thanks to a Coldplay-esque string section and a euphoric chorus that receives gloriously harmonic treatment towards the song’s climactic finale, Perry’s sincerity remains believable. More “ay”s and “oh”s follow on “Peacock,” where she encourages her man to “let me see what you’re hiding underneath.” Atop a beat awfully reminiscent of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”, the song is about as subtle as a swift kick to the groin.
Amateurish stabs of a radio-friendly electric guitar signal to the listener that the fun’s over, and with “Circle The Drain,” Teenage Dream takes a nightmarishly ill-advised turn for the serious and ham-fisted. Cutesy half-rhymes sound endearing on fun-loving tracks like “Peacock,” but lyrics like “You fall asleep during foreplay/ ‘Cause the pills you take are more your forte” are just as cringe-inducing as you might imagine. One minute, Perry wants to see her dude’s dick; before he knows it, however, she’s criticizing him because he’d “rather get wasted” than have “been the greatest.” Coming from the young lady who was just bragging about her wild night that led to a warrant out for her arrest, such attempts at moral castigation ring false and hypocritical.
The album never regains the momentum of its joyous opening third. “The One That Got Away” name-drops Radiohead and Johnny Cash, but the piano line sounds as though it were written and performed by a fourth grader. (Note to Ms. Perry: “whoa-oh”s don’t work quite as well when you’re lamenting a tragically lost love.) “E.T.” is another lustful track, but rather than touch upon the uncertain tenderness that made E.T. so lovable at the movies, Perry is content with shooting out more platitudes: “Every move is magic,” “Boy, you’re my lucky star,” “Feels like I am floating / Leaves my body glowing,” et cetera. Her “extraterrestrial” lover here is either “the devil” or “an angel,” or both, or something. “Who Am I Living For,” meanwhile, cribs both Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” and Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” while matching the earnest loving of neither. As for don’t-need-a-man ballad “Pearl,” well, I can’t take seriously any song that includes lyrics as ridiculous as “This love’s too strong like mice and men” or as misinformed as “She could be a Joan of Arc.” Does Perry realize that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for speaking her mind? Or did she just need something to rhyme with the line “So he keeps her in the dark”?
By the time Perry returns to the giddy teenage excitement of “Hummingbird Heartbeat,” one can’t help but be sick of her gauche extended metaphors. “I’ve flown a million miles just to find a magic seed” is the least sexy birds-and-bees reference I’ve heard in some time, and on a song that contains other gems like “Let’s pollinate to create a family tree,” that’s saying something. Closer “Not Like The Movies” is inoffensive, but Sarah Bareilles has already done it better. Were these final songs supposed to represent the inevitable comedown from the erotic highs of the typical teenage romance? If so, I wish they were as clever and inventive as the album’s bubbly dance numbers instead of simply weepy and—worse—boring.
On an album that started off on such a wonderfully dreamlike note, the onslaught of tired cliches and forgettable melodies that constitutes its second half leaves the listener anxious to wake up from this Dream. Stick to the fun stuff, Katy—nobody travels to the Golden Coast to have a bad time.