Review: Katy Perry – “PRISM”

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It’s been over 3 years since Katy Perry released her double-platinum, best-selling album, “Teenage Dream” – a record-breaking body of work that launched 5 #1 singles and put Katy on the map as one of the world’s biggest pop stars.  After taking some well-deserved time off earlier this year, Katy returned to the music scene this month with the release of her third studio album, “PRISM.”  A decidedly more mature album than the adolescent “Teenage Dream,” “PRISM” is a multifaceted look at Katy’s healing process following her very public divorce from comedian Russell Brand.  But even though she’s tackling some heavier subject matter this time around, Katy hasn’t left the big choruses and quotable hooks of “Teenage Dream” behind.

In fact, many of “PRISM’s” tracks are collaborations with “Teenage Dream” hit makers Dr. Luke and Max Martin.  But where “Teenage Dream” was a highly-stylized exploration of the loud, vivid, and often turbulent emotions that make up the teenage experience, “PRISM” is a softer, more reflective look at grown-up love lost and then found.  If “Teenage Dream” played like a rocking sold-out stadium show, “PRISM” takes place in a much more intimate venue.

Recorded in both Katy’s hometown of Santa Barbara, California and Stockholm, Sweden, “PRISM” features writing and production from a slew of experienced pop composers (Katy herself, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Cirkut, Stargate, Benny Blanco, Klas Ahlund, Greg Kurstin, Bloodshy, Sia, and Bonnie McKee), and it definitely isn’t short on Perry’s trademark radio-ready sound.  But there is a vulnerability present in many of “PRISM’s” songs that just isn’t found elsewhere in Katy’s discography.  Even when she occasionally dabbles in self-help cliches (“Roar,” “Love Me”), there is an emotional honesty in Katy’s delivery that absolutely rings true.  At least for me.

“PRISM” has received a mixed critical reception since its release, with some saying that Katy “sounds like a woman, and an artist, who’s finally found herself,” and others dismissing the album as simply too “predictable.”  Where you fall on the spectrum, I suspect, will largely depend on what you already think of Perry and her brand of pop music.  That is to say, I don’t see “PRISM” changing too many minds.  Even though it features some of Katy’s best work yet (the elegant “Unconditionally,” the bombastic “Birthday,” the surprisingly beautiful meme-dropping “Double Rainbow,” and the emotionally-charged “Ghost,” just to name a few), it is a characteristically “safe” album that gets bogged down near the end with too many ballads and mid-tempos (this is especially a problem for the Deluxe edition).  And while there isn’t an unlistenable song in the bunch, there are a couple of missteps along the way that may take a little while to grow on you (or not).  Inevitable single, “This is How We Do” features an awkward “shout-out” section during the middle-eight which just doesn’t sound authentic coming from the now 29-year-old Perry.  “This Moment” is so saccharinely sweet, you may need to take a death metal listening break just to cleanse your palate.  But the album’s problems aren’t glaring by any means, and “PRISM” ends up being a really satisfying listen overall.  Vocally, Katy has never sounded better and “PRISM” is absolutely one of the best pop albums released this year.

And now, a word on Katy Perry’s status as a songwriter.  As is customary, the Internet has been flooded with Katy Perry hate pieces since “PRISM’s” release last week (it’s a pop star rite of passage, really – it happens to everyone).  This Gawker piece that has been making the rounds claims to list “all 226 clichés uttered by Katy Perry on her new album.”  Ignoring the fact that the writer of this article clearly has a bias against Katy and that many of these so called clichés aren’t even clichés, this article and others like it have sparked an online debate: is Katy Perry truly a songwriter?  Or is she just a busty Jim Henson muppet that spouts out whatever music is put in front of her?  Let me answer that question for you very simply.

First, Katy Perry IS most definitely a songwriter.  Katy co-wrote all 16 of the songs that appear on “PRISM,” as well as all of her biggest hits (“Firework,” “Teenage Dream,” “E.T.,” “California Gurls,” “Hot N Cold,” “Last Friday Night,” “Part of Me,” I could go on).  Remember, there’s more to receiving writing credit on a song than just writing lyrics (writing the melody, for instance).  Second, not only is Katy Perry most definitely a songwriter, she’s also one of the most successful songwriters in the industry today, co-writing 8 #1 singles over the course of her relatively young career and being nominated for 9 Grammy awards.  Make no mistake, writing a hit record is not an easy task, let alone writing a #1 (and Katy has 8 of those – just making sure you didn’t forget).  If writing a hit record were easy, every musical act under the sun would be able to boast a bevy of chart-topping hits, but they can’t, because being able to write a hit record is an incredible skill.

Katy and her writing collaborators (like the immensely talented Bonnie McKee, for example) understand how to craft hit melodies and how to take clichés and familiar phrases and turn them into unforgettable hooks and catchy choruses that get stuck in your head for MONTHS or even YEARS.  You can’t just pull an enduring hit like that out of thin air, and I’d hazard to guess that the writer of the aforementioned Gawker article would be up shit creek without a paddle if he were tasked with coming up with one (as would I).  It takes years of practice as well as a considerable amount of innate talent.

You may not care for Katy Perry’s songwriting, but that doesn’t change the fact that she IS a songwriter – one who’s co-written more hit and #1 singles than most contemporary artists you can name.  And I’d like to point out that the clichés that Perry supposedly “shits out” into her music (his words, not mine) seem to resonate with the general public.  After all, that’s HOW she’s been able to rack up 8 #1 singles in 5 years!  So before you pen your next article designed to tear down someone’s hard work that you don’t even really seem to understand or have any appreciation for, please take a good, hard look at yourself and then take several hundred seats.  Take them all.  Because Katy Perry IS a songwriter, and a damn good one if you ask me.

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