Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream Six Years On: The Difference Between Critical and Commercial Success

August 24, 2016 By Aaron

A look back at Teenage Dream, six years later.


2010. It was a simpler time; pop music was experiencing an unprecedented revival after almost a decade of indie and R&B dominating the airwaves, “Bad Romance”, “Rude Boy” and “TikTok” were still enjoying radio play, and there were even still some lucky souls who’d never heard of Taylor Swift. But undoubtedly one of the most important pop moments of 2010 was the release of Katy Perry’s second major label studio album – Teenage Dream – which celebrates its sixth birthday today. The record went on to amass seven Grammy nominations, produce six hit singles (not to mention two more after it was re-released in 2012), shift more than 6 million copies worldwide and catapult Perry into pop superstardom.

However, despite being a commercial smash hit, critically, the album was something of a disaster. Reviewers labeled the production “Frankenstein-like”, derided Katy’s vocals as “robotic”, called out her “bad-girl debauchery”, stated the record lacked “any elegance or nuance” and one particularly vicious commentator commended Katy for finding “even more ways to lower the bar.” Ouch.

But why? Why do we, pop music fans, disagree with the critics so often and so emphatically? Is it just that the public are more discerning than the old, out-of-touch white men sitting in Rolling Stone’s offices, or will we consume absolutely anything provided that you cover it with enough whipped cream? And what does this mean for pop music in 2016 and, more specifically, for Katy Perry’s forthcoming album?

It should be said that, objectively, Teenage Dream houses some absolutely brilliant pop songs. The title track is as wistful and catchy as they come, marrying teen *** appeal and nostalgia; “Firework” capitalised on the then-current trend of empowerment anthems brilliantly; ode to Russell Brand “E.T.” was as captivating as it was feverishly weird; even deep cuts like “Peacock”, with its juvenile but oddly endearing double entendre, and “Not Like the Movies”, a surprisingly touching if not sickly sweet ballad, worked well as stand alone tracks.

Perhaps the issue with the case of Teenage Dream v. Critical Opinion is that as a collection of songs, there’s no doubting the album’s success. Expertly crafted with the assistance of pop goliaths like Max Martin, Dr Luke and Stargate, Perry needn’t have stopped at her sixth cut as the record could have spawned another handful of chart and radio friendly hits without necessitating a ‘Complete Confection’ re-release. What is more doubtful, however, is whether the album actually worked as a whole.

Although the heavy hand of the now-disgraced Dr Luke is present through the record, making a degree of sonic cohesion inevitable, there’s no real thread that unites the tracks of Teenage Dream. When listened to as a collection of hits, it’s a thoroughly above average affair, but when listened to as an actual album… What’s the point? Sure, it enjoys Katy Perry’s signature blend of saccharine eighth-grade rhetoric and sexual innuendo but there’s no thematic thread to stitch the album together.

When compared to the outstanding efforts of other 2009/10 pop releases – think Robyn’s Body Talk, Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster or Kylie Minogue’s Aphrodite – it’s little wonder that Perry’s attempt didn’t stand out critically. Where Robyn simultaneously explored movement and heartache, Gaga looked into *** and fear, and Kylie unified an album through the sheer force of love, Perry’s collection of admittedly very good songs falls somewhat short of what excellent pop could have been at the beginning of the decade.

Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream sold remarkably well because it produced outstanding singles that peaked interest in the record as a whole, but there’s no doubt that the album could have been so much more than it was.

So what does this mean for pop music six years later, and specifically for Perry’s forthcoming fourth studio album?

The trend of lacing a dozen songs together and hoping that four of them work for radio is over. The public may have bought Teenage Dream against the recommendation of the critics, but the success of concept records like Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Frank Ocean’s blond prove that listeners are after something more cohesive than Perry has previously managed. Even brilliant mainstream pop releases like Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman or Britney Spears’ forthcoming Glory sound like albums, as opposed to collections of singles, and despite neither of them producing a massive hit single, both albums are career highlights for Grande and Spears respectively.

Let’s call a spade a spade – what we’re talking about is not something that Katy Perry’s ever been particularly good at. On Teenage Dream she appeared to barely try and although the concept of Prism was described as “letting the light in” (okay) it was structured remarkably similarly to its predecessor. If Perry wants to better her pop counterparts, especially with Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera set to drop new records before the year is out, she needs to think more about her upcoming record as a whole than she does about the songs that’ll inevitably top the charts.

Simply put, if we can learn anything from Teenage Dream, it’s that Katy Perry needs to stop writing singles and write an album.

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