That Katy Perry's latest album "Prism" debuted at No. 1 on the charts should be a surprise to no one. But why it's there is a little more difficult to untangle. Critical response to the venture, the follow up to her massively successful second album "Teenage Dream," ranged from lukewarm to unimpressed, or worse.
But even before the reviews were in, its first single "Roar" hinted that the three years Perry spent working on the album hadn't truly paid off. The song, seemingly written with a high school volleyball game warm up in mind, is everywhere, sure. But despite its ubiquity, "Roar" pales in comparison to the catchiness of the hit-single-after-single that "Teenage Dream" delivered. Furthermore her VMA performance of the "Roar" – a boxing match charade that spared no visual metaphors for the song's "Rocky"-esque themes – was overshadowed by Miley Cyrus's twerk-pocalypse. As for the rest of the album, Perry promised darker, rawer "a prism" to her soul. Sonically, it's as overproduced as ever.
Yet Perry has the magical essence known as "bankability." Mediocre music is no obstacle to chart success. The overwhelming generality of the album's lyrics so annoyed Gawker's Rich Juzwiak that he tallied 226 "Prism" clichés in total. But they haven't seemed to bother the 286,000 people who have bought her album this week. How does she do it?
A good old fashioned media blitz is an obvious first step. And the one Perry currently has underway is eclipsing the fall female competition. Weird brillo pad headgear aside, Lady Gaga has failed to gain much traction in her ramp up for next month's "ArtPOP" (though that's not to say she won't eventually hit her media cycle stride). And while Cyrus certainly gained a stunning amount of buzz for her "Bangerz" release, it came at the price of polarization. You either love what she's doing or you or you hate it, and the haters are throwing non-trivial accusations of over-sexualized youth, racism and mental illness.
No, Perry does it by shooting straight down the middle. She initially burst on the scene with a fallen angel origin story to keep up with the narratives fashioned by her pop star rivals. A former Christian singer, raised in a household so sheltered that even the "devil" in deviled eggs was forbidden, she was reborn as a tease of the Betty Boop lineage. Her breakthrough hit, the tantalizing "I Kissed a Girl," had one-hit-wonder written all over it. (Between that and its album-mate "Ur So Gay," proto-Perry was a little tone deaf when it came to appropriating LGBT themes). But she was able to parlay her moment into a persona that was more camp than edgy. Her playful good-girl-gone-bad-but-still-good-at-heart trajectory has now culminated with her taming the skeezy, perpetual womanizer bad boy John Mayer, on whose album she appears to sing a sappy ballad called "Who You Love."
As The Atlantic's Spencer Karnhaber points out, Perry, wisely, is not afraid to break out of that perception to broaden her appeal. She – whose past incarnations featured an array of materials shooting out of her breasts – recently told NPR she wished other pop stars would dress less scantily. The irony was not lost on the blogosphere, but one could imagine a less tuned-in NPR listener – not to mention her gray-haired host Scott Simon – being receptive to her concerns.
This desire to be taken as a more grown-up, contemplative Perry is reflected on her album as well – particularly its third act, which takes a break from the party tunes to meditate on more serious themes. Even her stage outfits – while still kitschy – appear to be getting a little tamer.
However Perry isn't abandoning the pop star playbook. Look no further than her SNL appearance to see Perry struggle to show off "Walking On Air," a track from the new album, with uneasy choreography, a wind machine and awkward gossamer stage props. But how a song is performed is becoming as important as the song itself, and not just on music videos. As NPR's Marc Hirsh puts it: "[W]hether on-stage flash reflects well on her or not, Perry has to do it anyway, because much as elaborate music videos were once all but required in order to survive in the pop marketplace of the MTV era, it's just how it's done."
(For what it's worth, Rihanna – friend of Perry's and a presumably even worse dancer – admirably shuns choreography on her current tour.)
Just as she has lived up to performative expectations, Perry has been willing to adhere to the rules when it comes to her personal life as well. She hasn't been shy rehashing in glossy magazines the details her romances and heartaches. Her tales of her marriage and divorce to crass comedian Russell Brand, and her current relationship with Mayer have maintained her presence in the tabloids. And these revelations don't just keep the media wheel spinning. They add speculation and interest to otherwise horribly generic songs. "Legendary Lovers" or "Love Me" could be about any romance or heartbreak, respectively. But with Perry's tongue-wagging we can speculate that they're inspired by Mayer and Brand, giving them a suggestion of intimacy that doesn't actually exist.
As carefully manufactured as this public persona is, the final piece of the Perry puzzle is her genuine likability. For all the disgust – or at least indifference – her music inspires, on a personal level Perry seems like a fun girl to be around. Just check out this recently surfaced 2008 video of Perry and "Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson – the two are "just friends," she has assured us – babbling a drunken Karaoke rendition of Boyz II Men. Or a recent radio spot in which she was delighted that "Ja'mie" of the cult comedy "Summer Heights High" had called in. Wouldn't you want hang out with this woman?
When asked about Cyrus's escapades in an upcoming interview with Entertainment Weekly, Perry comes off as sincere and understanding: "She's just living her life…. The thing is, people come to me and ask me, out of default, what I think about all these girls, but at the end of it all, I shouldn't be considered the behavior police, because I'm not always going to be on my best behavior!"
Unlike greater pop icons who want to challenge you, inspire you, or push you, Katy Perry just wants to be your friend and show you a good time – in the broadest, more derivatively way possible. Katy Perry isn't going to confront a comedian who mocked her – a la Kanye West – and then show up on his couch to deliver a fascinating rant on the media's treatment of race and class. She is not going to rebuke a ridiculous question about her blossoming sexuality – a la Cyrus – with a deservedly ridiculous response.
Rather she is going to give you just what you were expecting, and you'll buy it anyway, because you like knowing what you'll get.