2020 was a milestone year for Katy Perry. Teenage Dream, her magnum opus, turned 10, just days before she released her fifth album Smile.
The pair exist as a bookend of sorts. In between them, pop music has been shifted and upended, bringing a new crop of stars and leaving some behind along the way. When Teenage Dream was released Perry was a triumphant poster girl for escapist pop music. On Smile, she was clambering for a hit, attempting to keep up with a genre that may have outrun her.
The pop music zeitgeist shifts constantly and quickly. As the wheel turns, artists come and go. It’s the nature of the genre. It is, however, uncommon for a megastar to be dethroned so quickly and publicly. Perry wasn’t a one-hit wonder or a fad. She was, for a moment, the popstar.
She became the second artist ever, after Michael Jackson, to land five US number one records from one album with Teenage Dream. When she released the deluxe, she claimed one more. The album was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys after topping charts globally.
By decade’s end, she was named the eighth highest-selling artist of the decade by Billboard, buoyed mostly by her performance in the early 2010s. The second half of the decade was spent in a popularity spiral. Perry’s fall from the top reveals far more than just fading star power. It sheds light on the changing nature of the genre and industry she plays in. A genre that has redefined its stars as it’s increasingly infiltrated by new sounds and technologies on top of politics and activism.
Last year, Perry’s label reportedly held a focus group in an attempt to figure out why she’s “no longer one of the most notable female pop artists.” The answer is perhaps not as simple as they would have liked.
On Top Of The Prism
Online, on pop subreddits and investigative Twitter threads, Perry’s fourth album Witness wears the blame for her downfall, even her press circuit for her most recent album Smile centred around its predecessor’s failures. But Witness didn’t appear out of nowhere — the roots of its failures can be found earlier in her career.
Following up an album as big as Teenage Dream is not simple task. Perry’s followup, Prism, arrived three years after it, once the dust had well and truly settled. “I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar,” she sang on the album’s lead-single ‘Roar’, taking the inspirational pop of ‘Firework’ and maximising it. A US number one was awarded immediately and she added to it with the trap-inspired ‘Dark Horse’.
Prism was the sixth best-selling album in the world while the accompanying Prismatic tour was the second highest-grossing tour in North America in 2014 and the 25th highest-grossing tour of all time. Perry’s reign continued, but the Teenage Dream hype was visibly fading. The album failed to launch another top 20 single and suddenly Perry was running into criticism over tone-deaf gaffes: The video for ‘This Is How We Do’, which featured her wearing braids, led to her being accused of cultural appropriation. At the American Music Awards, she performed ‘Unconditionally’ dressed as a Geisha, once again drawing ire.
Behaviour that once went unnoticed was rightfully being called into question, and that caught Perry unaware.
It’s not like Perry was the first to do any of this. Gwen Stefani’s portrayal of Harajuku Girls and Frida Kahlo among many other things comes immediately to mind. At the time, however, she went largely uncriticised in the mainstream media.
And it’s not like Perry hadn’t flirted with cultural sketchy territory before — although previously, she’d largely gotten away with it. When Perry released ‘I Kissed A Girl’ as her debut single, it became her first number one record, marking her arrival. When Rita Ora sang about kissing girls on 2018 single ‘Girls’, the song was quickly labelled problematic and tone-deaf. Fellow popstar Hayley Kiyoko was scathing, saying it “[fuelled] the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women.”
The culture had shifted markedly — behaviour that once went unnoticed was rightfully being called into question, and that caught Perry unaware.
Artist. Activist. Conscious.
Coming off the back of a successful tour and a mild standalone hit in ‘Rise’, Perry entered a new era with the fresh single ‘Chained To The Rhythm’. Witness was launched four years after Prism — a lifetime in pop music. But Perry had been doing some changing — she was now woke.
Perry had spent a considerable amount of time on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton, she was even in the room when Donald Trump was declared the victor. ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ was written with Max Martin and Sia just one week after. “Aren’t you lonely, up there in utopia,” she sang, further telling her listeners to “put your rose-coloured glasses on and party on.” Her Twitter bio read, “Artist. Activist. Conscious.”
Prior to this, Perry was a symbol of escapism. Her videos were set in fictional lands or speeding cars. Her music was a fantastical escape from reality or an uplifting power-punch. Now, however, she was accusing the collective of being “happily numb”. On Twitter, Perry labelled it “purposeful pop” — and critics immediately began loading cannons with Perry’s historical tone-deaf missteps, which rather contradicted her message of wokeness.
Having existed in a world of playful, escapist pop for her entire career, Perry now had a magnifying glass applied to her political and social positions.
“Purposeful pop” is a hard brand for anyone to sustain. Having existed in a world of playful, escapist pop for her entire career, Perry now had a magnifying glass applied to her political and social positions. It’s difficult to truly take offence at the message of ‘Teenage Dream’ or ‘Dark Horse’, for example. It is easy, however, to feel some way about sweeping messages of activism — on both sides. Conservative fans feel attacked, progressive onlookers feel it opens you up to greater scope for criticism.
“Basically, corporations are like, ‘don’t have an opinion’, and I’m like, ‘so if I was vocalising for the other side, you’d still get letters, you know that right’,” she told The Guardian in 2017 about brands dropping their endorsements because of her political involvement. Despite this, she nabbed brand endorsements with Covergirl and Myer, while also landing a role on family-friendly program American Idol.
It wasn’t her politics that affected those brand endorsements as much as her antics. Her Myer ad drew criticism from animal rights foundations after she said to her dog Nugget, “let’s go chase some koalas,” forcing Myer to amend the ad. And that’s a low-ranker on the list of Witness-era blunders.
The lead-up to the album was wrought with problematic behaviour. In April 2017, on Instagram Live, she addressed her new haircut with a joke name-checking Barack Obama. “Someone says, ‘I miss your old black hair,’” she said, following it up with, “Oh, really? Do you miss Barack Obama as well? Oh, OK. Times change.”
Around the same time, a story from 2013 resurfaced of her calling Chicago artist Mano the N-word in a Paris club. Perry didn’t address it, and it fuelled a narrative of racism. In May, she posted her Met Gala look on the front of the New York Times, failing to recognise a picture of a man on fire above her.
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Perry’s Instagram suddenly was a total display of wokeness. She posted a picture of a Black Lives Matter t-shirt captioning it, “When your holiday shopping is woke af.” Quotes by famous thinkers like Einstein, Socrates, and Plato peppered her feed.
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As the critics got louder and the blunders continued, she finally attempted to address her failures ahead of the album dropping, live streaming herself in a Big Brother-style house. For 72-hours, she spoke to therapists, engaged in deep and meaningful with friends and cried on a step. “I have lots of white privilege,” she admitted to Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson while expressing regret for past cultural appropriation.
By the time the album dropped her Twitter bio read, “I know nothing.”
Witness To A Pop Emergency
“I wanted to experiment and fly away from the nest,” Perry told EW. In the past, she’d worked consistently with Martin and Dr Luke, but Martin had fewer credits on this album than those before it while Dr Luke was absent, facing accusations of abuse and assault by Kesha. Instead, Witness pulled together a wide-ranging list of contributors including British house producer Duke Dumont, Australian electronic producer Hayden James, and alternative pop duo Purity Ring.
Witness was labelled experimental but it was hardly her Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz era. It had its fair share of big pop moments. Sia co-wrote ‘Hey Hey Hey’ which also featured Max Martin on production, Martin appeared again for the triumphant ‘Roulette’, and Cyrus collaborator Mike Will Made-It teamed with ‘Levitating’ co-writer Sarah Hudson for ‘Tsunami’. For every obscure collaborator, there was a superstar to counteract it. But mainstream pop was changing, and Perry was simply out of step.
When Teenage Dream was having its moment of glory, pop was at its most theatrical and bold. Gaga was abstract and ambitious, Nicki Minaj was bringing saccharine pop to rap and Rihanna was trading in wide-screen EDM. By 2017, things had changed dramatically. The dial had turned further towards R&B and hip-hop. Calvin Harris flicked from EDM to Frank Ocean-featuring funk, Drake was streamed in huge numbers, Kendrick Lamar topped the charts, and Khalid was beginning his ascent.
Meanwhile, the pop artists who had occupied the charts with Perry back in the early part of the decade were looking for something else. Gaga went country on Joanne, Cyrus rattled with the blues-inspired Younger Now, and Taylor Swift looked for an edgier sound with reputation. None of these were the artists’ most popular works but they were hardly enough to derail a career. In fact, last year, when Perry released Smile, both Gaga and Swift had number one records on the Billboard Hot 100.
The experimentalism wasn’t reflected in Witness’ single choices. ‘Swish Swish’ packed a punchy British house beat and ‘Bon Appetit’ cleverly satisfied radio’s desire for hip-hop with a sound that skated a thin line between Perry’s pop of old and rap. Her music wasn’t a hard turn away from what was happening on radio. She wasn’t ahead of the curve but she was at least on it. It was her antics that exacerbated her shortcomings.
When Perry’s behaviour wasn’t problematic, it was clumsy. She often looked consumed by the circus that was unfolding around her. In the ‘Bon Apettit’ video, she literally cooked herself and on Saturday Night Live, she held random pieces of fruit up to featured artist Migos. On the same show, she recruited internet sensation ‘The Backpack Kid’ for a performance of ‘Swish Swish’. She looked to memes for further inspiration in the music video colliding ‘The Backpack Kid’ with vlogger Christine Sydelko and internet fodder like Doug The Pug. She even threw in a snippet of Bag Raiders’ ‘Shooting Stars’ for the hell of it.
Perry confirmed ‘Swish Swish’ was a reply to Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ but while Swift’s music video was a high-octane blockbuster, Perry’s video looked like a comedy pilot that was never commissioned. In the past, Perry had taken on comedy convincingly. She played endearing characters in her videos from the dorky teen in ‘Last Friday Night (TGIF)’ to the reckless bride in ‘Hot N Cold’. Here, however, camp theatrics had been confused for slapstick comedy. In ‘TGIF’, she glows up; in ‘Swish Swish’, she’s smacked in the face with a basketball.
Speaking of Swift, Perry had been desperately trying to reignite their old feud all throughout her promotional campaign. Perry spoke at length about their bad blood on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke segment (“she started it, now it’s time for her to finish it”) and then again on the Thrive Global podcast (“I love her, and I want the best for her… I just really truly want to come together in a place of love and forgiveness”), clearly trying to goad Swift into responding. Instead, Swift released her entire discography on Spotify the day Witness was released — perhaps one of the iciest displays of revenge in pop history. In the end, Swift’s discography outperformed Witness.
It’s unfair to place all the blame on Perry. More likely than not, there were hundreds of boardroom conversations about how to save one of the labels’ biggest stars. They were throwing shit at the wall to see what would stick — and none of it did.
The Fix? More Katy!
There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief when the Witness era ended. Perry had lost her pop throne in a matter of months and it had been painful to watch. “I put so much validity in the reaction of the public, and the public didn’t react in the way I had expected to…which broke my heart,” she told Vogue Australia. Meanwhile, her label put the lack of success down to the long period in between albums.
“I talk about how engagement is so important and I don’t believe you can have big cycles between projects,” Capital Record head Steve Barnett told Variety.
He’s right, pop eras were getting shorter and shorter, aligning with rap’s rapid release strategy but it’s hard to chalk up the failure to an issue of exposure. Still, they progressed forward by giving people more Perry. She collaborated with Zedd on ‘365’, achieving mild success, and then collaborated with Daddy Yankee and Snow on ‘Con Calma’, cashing in on a booming Latin music market.
The antics didn’t totally come to a halt. On the season premiere of American Idol she kissed a 19-year-old contestant that had never been kissed before. “I wanted my first kiss to be special,” he told the New York Times.
Still, 2018 finally brought a win for her. ‘Never Really Over’, produced by Zedd, was a shimmering, euphoric song. One that let Perry’s vocals fly and her personality shine through. It was a reminder of what made Perry so appealing in the first place — straight-forward, hooky music that put the wind in your sails. It was her best performing single since ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ peaking at 15 in the US but it wasn’t enough to put her back on top.
She continued to sporadically drop, attempting to find something that stuck. None of it offended like Witness seemed to. The think-pieces dwindled, coverage began to dry up. Proceeding singles ‘Small Talk’ and ‘Harleys In Hawaii’ peaked outside the top 30 in Australia and the top 50 in the US.
Cheek To Cheek
Her fifth album Smile, which dropped in August 2020, didn’t bring the escapades that Witness did. This was a scaled-back Perry, without high-scale stunts. She’d done away with the comedy — although she did appear on the cover dressed as a clown. You could read it as a nod to her disastrous previous era, but Perry described it as “satire”.
“It’s not me going, ‘Hey, smile!’ or ‘Shoving happiness down your throat!’ or ‘You gotta stay positive! You gotta stay optimistic!’ It’s melancholy,” she told Zane Lowe. The album was a celebration of Perry getting her “smile back”.
Smile is a delectable collection of pop songs. They’re empowering and overwhelmingly positive. She parties through the pain on ‘Cry About It Later’ and celebrates a golden period for her relationship on ‘Champagne Problems’. Single ‘Daisies’ took it back to the inspiring pop of ‘Roar’ and ‘Firework’ declaring, “They tell me that I’m crazy, but I’ll never let ’em change me”. Once again, we were allowed to put our “rose coloured glasses on and party on.”
These songs, while perfectly fine, lacked the sting or charisma that she used to bring to the table.
Stylistically, it suited the pop mode of 2020, sitting with the likes of Dua Lipa and Gaga as a euphoric dance record. But these songs, while perfectly fine, lacked the sting or charisma that she used to bring to the table. She could once tackle a pointy lyric like “I wanna see your peacock” and get away with, even make it funny. Smile felt sanded down. A safe move as to not sink the career any further.
Big developments in her personal life like an engagement and pregnancy perhaps took away the need to make something splashy. This was an album for the fans. “It’s a bit of a win when the fans get an album and I get a baby”, she told Rolling Stone. Never one to pass up a promo opportunity, Daisy Dove Bloom shares a name with Smile’s first single.
Smile is her poorest performing album to date — the first not to debut at number one in the US since her debut One Of The Boys. It signals the start of an era where Perry has stopped chasing the ever-rolling pop wheel and become comfortable in her own lane. It’s a smart move, one that will preserve her legacy rather than do further damage.
It’s Never Really Over
Ever since Prism, Perry has been catching up rather than leading the pack. Pop, like fashion, is cyclical. Most trends find their way back in vogue. It’s taken almost a decade for dance-pop to return to the mainstream and the absence has made it difficult for Perry to find her footing.
Almost every major popstar this millennium has had a moment where their music wasn’t on-trend. Public opinion turned against Swift during reputation, the reaction to Mariah Carey’s early ‘00s output was lukewarm, and even Beyonce’s 4 failed to keep up at radio.
At that point, you have two choices as a popstar — hunt for relevancy or make what comes naturally to you. Perry chose the former and came unstuck. She inserted vague wokeness into her songs as cancel culture infiltrated pop, tacked on rap features as hip-hop became the dominant commercial genre, and worked with producers who may have been able to find her credibility.
She inserted vague wokeness into her songs as cancel culture infiltrated pop, tacked on rap features as hip-hop became the dominant commercial genre, and worked with producers who may have been able to find her credibility.
Her authenticity was questioned and the internet poked holes in her character. If you’re visibly chasing the charts and the music isn’t resonating, audiences dig deeper to find the source of the inauthenticity. Instead of removing herself from the race altogether and making exactly what she wants to make, she’s competing with new popstars who are organically meeting the moment. They’re not changing themselves for the mainstream because they are the mainstream. For now, at least.
This is not to say Perry doesn’t have a purpose in pop anymore. ‘Never Really Over’ is proof of just how glorious her output can be when she sticks to her guns. It was, perhaps unintentionally, the start of the dance-pop revival and it encapsulates everything that’s great about Perry: sweeping, escapist pop music with a subtle injection of self-empowerment and silliness, in equal measure.
Smile’s failure might suggest that Perry now represents an escapist time in pop music far gone but the success of Lipa’s Future Nostalgia proves there’s still an appetite for it when it feels right. Perry could take her eye off what’s popular and focus on exactly what she wants to make. In the case of Carly Rae Jepsen, for example, dwindling success in the mainstream liberated her, allowing her to explore and triumph with a sound far removed from the charts.
It was always going to be hard for Perry to come back down to earth after captaining a journey to another world for so long. If she’s ready to take flight again, we’ll gladly hop aboard, regardless of how many people are joining.
Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter.