By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; C01
So fine. So fresh. So fierce. For an entire summer, it refused to leave us alone, tumbling out of cars, gyms, nightclubs and shopping malls as if on a mission to melt every last popsicle. To avoid Katy Perry's "California Gurls" was to live under a rock buried beneath a pile of bigger rocks -- a summertime megahit so overplayed, it made the ice cream truck song jealous.
But summertime megahits rarely feel this good. That rubbery bass line, those taffy synthesizers -- all arranged with such expertise, Perry's insipid shout-outs to palm trees, short shorts and the Beach Boys seem like mere afterthoughts. And that chorus. So buoyant! So brainless! You're probably still singing it right now. We all are.
Now, in a curious stroke of marketing, Perry's summery new album, "Teenage Dream," arrives in the death throes of August, giving us the opportunity to hear "California Gurls" for the kerzillionth time, along with 11 other songs that would be foolish to dream of eclipsing it. And where "California Gurls" is an Everlasting Gobstopper of a tune, the rest of Perry's bubble gum loses its flavor fast.
That's because the harder the 25-year-old pop star works to cultivate her image, the more faceless she becomes. Is she a good girl gone bad? A bad girl gone worse? It's hard to tell when Perry's hard-partying lyrics remain so deeply at odds with her taut and tidy pop songs. She tries to cram the messiness of 20-something bacchanalia into neat, confectionary, three-minute song-charades. It doesn't work. Sure, the hooks are consistently grabby, but even Perry's catchiest refrains quickly start to chafe if you actually pay attention to the words.
So don't. Especially on "Peacock," a tune that comes stomping out of the same pep rally that birthed Toni Basil's "Hey Mickey" and Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl." The chorus is an earworm of the highest order, and includes a crude double-entendre where Perry propositions a lover, threatening to "peace out" if he doesn't deliver the goods. You'll be singing along as soon as you unclench your teeth.
And while innocence-crushing party fantasies are central to the persona Perry so desperately tries to espouse, they feel flimsy and irksome during "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)." Over strummy guitars and zigzagging keyboards, Perry recounts an evening of debauchery with no repercussions, her innocent transgressions (streaking, skinny-dipping) mentioned in the same breath as more serious trouble (mysterious bruises, a blackout).
But concerned parents of young Katy Perry fans, don't fret -- this woman might have more in common with you than with your kids. When it's time for Perry to reflect on her 3 a.m. follies, she stiffly sings, "That was such an epic fail." It sounds like a clueless parent's attempt to speak teenager. (And the song only gets stranger with a rally chant of "T-G-I-F," as if she were trying to raise the ghost of Steve Urkel.)
"Teenage Dream" is Perry's second album, but technically her third. In 2001, she released a self-titled gospel-rock album under her birth name, Katy Hudson. Seven years later, the preacher's daughter pulled a 180 and scored a massive summer hit with "I Kissed a Girl." Later, she confessed to having never kissed a girl in her life. The world kept spinning. Is she still a phony? Does she actually drive a Jeep? Or listen to Snoop Dogg?
Those nagging suspicions become a problem with "Teenage Dream" whenever Perry approaches anything resembling seriousness. "Do you ever feel like the plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?" she asks in the opening verse of the too-mushy "Firework." (No more "American Beauty" references, America. Thanks.) Later, Perry lashes out at a drug-addled lover during "Circle the Drain," offering cautionary advice that's impossible to take seriously from someone who had bragged of smelling "like a mini-bar" just a few songs earlier.
And that's a pity because Perry has a pliant, powerful voice that's capable of carrying the dramatic stuff. It's much stronger than the breathy coo of a Britney Spears and far more tightly controlled than the overwrought bluster of a Christina Aguilera.
Hey, remember them? The reign of Spears and Aguilera sure feels like ancient history since Perry and kindred California troublemaker Ke$ha took up permanent residence on the radio. Where Britney and Christina peddled an exaggerated sexuality to American teens, Katy and Ke$ha are upping the ante, adding an exaggerated recklessness that's quickly making those former Disney stars obsolete.
Farewell, Florida gurls.
Recommended tracks: "California Gurls," "Peacock"