Thursday, April 12, 2012

Not Nearly As Clever As It Is Derivative, One Of The Boys By Katy Perry.

The Good: Some catchy tunes, The songs ARE Katy Perry's musical vision
The Bad: Short, Banal, Musically and vocally derivative, Repetitive, Message is buried pretty effectively
The Basics: A disturbingly blase pop-rock album, One Of The Boys sounds like works by other, better, musical artists and foreshadows a short career for Katy Perry.

As one who listens to a lot of music, I am very cautious about what I buy, getting most of my music out from the library first and then - when I know I like an album - purchasing it. In fact, last year, my music collection only grew by a whopping three compact discs (well, five, because two were two-disc sets, but you get the picture). It takes a lot these days to get me to invest in music and I listen and truly hear the albums before I buy, which sets me apart from a lot of listeners and reviewers who either buy everything a certain artist puts out, buys within a genre or is easily hooked on a well-produced beat and melody. Not me.

As such, I've come to (I hope) recognize a real flash-in-the-pan musical artist and Katy Perry certainly qualifies. Last year, I wrote an article decrying the subversive messages within Perry's hit "I Kissed A Girl" (see the link at the bottom), so when considering her album One Of The Boys, which I have finally managed to get in, I'll pretty much neglect the hit that made her. However, the critique of that single song remains remarkably true throughout an evaluation of the rest of the album. Katy Perry on One Of The Boys is not some new rebel who stands to corrupt young people and send them running from the loving embrace of family and authority; she is a wannabe Christian rock star who released a pop message that sounds catchy, but virtually every song upholds very traditional, middle class, heterosexual (and homophobic, despite Perry's backtracking), Christian values. Outside a song that uses suicide as a metaphor for the death of a relationship and the way Perry delivers her startlingly reactionary message, One Of The Boys is arguably one of the least objectionable ways parents can go about keeping their teens interested in all of the traditional, girlish things if keeping them in such a mold is what they truly want. I keep my focus on the teens because beyond that demographic, I cannot figure who would want such a blandly derivative pop-rock album, nor who else might be swindled by the flash as opposed to the substance of Perry's message on One Of The Boys.

With a dozen tracks, clocking out at 43:52, One Of The Boys is astonishingly very much the musical vision of Katy Perry. Perry provides all of the lead vocals, though many times they are so overproduced that a human voice is hardly recognizable. She wrote three of the songs and co-wrote the remaining nine, so the statements on the album are at least peripherally what she wants them to be. She even plays the whistle on "UR So Gay" and the piano on "I'm Still Breathing." She is credited as a co-producer on a single song, but that's all. Even so, she exhibits a remarkable amount of control over the message and delivery of her album (which, it is worth noting, is not her debut).

The problems with One Of The Boys, though, start with the song titles and work their way down through all levels of the song. The opening track, One Of The Boys, is actually about how the musical protagonist does not want to be considered one of the boys anymore, just as "I Kissed A Girl" sounds fun and titillating, but if one listens to the substance of the song, they quickly realize that it's promoting the idea that "it's just a phase" or an "experiment." Even "Waking Up In Vegas" promotes the idea that there are consequences to dumb underage drinking experiments. In other words, outside a single listen to the sound of the album, listeners will find that One Of The Boys promotes a very droll message of social orthodoxy.

As for the sound of the album, here is where a seasoned ear can gladly go on about how little value there is in One Of The Boys, if for no other reason than it is almost entirely derivative. Have you ever heard of Maria Mena? She is generally regarded as a one-hit wonder for her song "You're The Only One" and her debut was actually quite promising. Perry's songs "Thinking Of You" and "Mannequin" are so derivative of Mena's works that her tunes actually sound like she lifted whole musical phrases from them! Perry does not have an original sounding song on the album, which is probably why I spent a year thinking that "Waking Up In Vegas" was a Kelly Clarkson song. The reason behind this is that Katy Perry seems to be a vocal chameleon, much the way Jim Carrey is an acting chameleon. Perry has a decent vocal range, but when it comes to singing her songs, she puts them out with emotional emphasis and even singing patterns that sound familiar because they are virtually identical to already-established artists, from the more obscure Maria Mena to mainstream artists like Avril Lavigne.

Part of the problem with One Of The Boys, though, comes from the fact that the songs are musically derivative or overproduced as well. This album is very much the typical pop-rock album and one suspects part of its success comes from it being the only player in a dying niche (listening to a Top 40 station is like listening to some weird hybrid of Country and Hip-Hop these days). But Perry's producers - who create the music more often than not on a mixing board than with live performers - have created pop-rock which is the most obvious form of it. Virtually every song tries to have a hook and capture the listener with a catchy beat, throbbing bassline and the use of repetition. Listening to "I Kissed A Girl," it is easy to pick out the percussive emphasis that made "Rock 'N Roll" (Part 1) so famous. While most of the songs do not sound directly like other songs (save those two which sound frighteningly like Maria Mena's works), the album has a very generic, plastic, mass-produced pop-rock sound to it that makes it hold up poorly over multiple listens.

As for the lyrics, here the album is tragically unimpressive. The tracks generally do trend toward the surprisingly conservative by making the listener think that they are listening to something deviant or rebellious through the use of guitars or inflammatory titles like "I Kissed A Girl," but listening to the lyrics, One Of The Boys upholds traditional values of femininity, subservience to the male norms, consequences for reckless behaviors, and use of "gay" as a pejorative. In fact, I thought that "If You Can Afford Me" sounded strangely whorish of Perry with its lines "If you want me you're gonna have to break the bank, tonight. / Cause some don't have the patience, some call me high-maintenance / But you pay the bill, cause, that's the deal. / If you wanna ride, just name your price don't play cheap, with your heart / Don't make a bet if you can't write the check, for me, for me. / Cause I can be bought, but you'll pay the cost / If you can afford me" until I considered that what the song is actually doing is reinforcing the idea that the man in the relationship should be the provider and take care of the woman without any sense of economic equality in the relationship. I mean, to reject the notion that there's something deeper going on in the song is just to accept that Perry is singing about getting sex for money and that seems unlikely from a young woman who is upholding other, more obvious, traditional values.

This is not to say the album is not without any treats. Perry manages to actually create a memorable storysong with the album's title track. When she sings "So over the summer / Something changed / I started reading 17 / And shaving my legs / And I study / Lolita religiously / And I walked / Right into school / And caught you / Staring at me" (One Of The Boys) she does so clearly and she creates an empathetic musical protagonist who is fun and brassy. She opens the album well and it is very easy to listen to the album because generally she does articulate well.

It is also easy to listen to One Of The Boys because the lyrics are repeated so very many times that one would have to be pretty braindead after listening to the album once to not be able to pick out at least half of the album titles simply because they are the most repeated lines on the work. In addition to a high sense of repetition, One Of The Boys features songs that have generally predictable rhyme schemes. On some of her better songs, she guts the emotional intensity of the lines through rhymes which are depressingly obvious, like "I can't stop, don't care if I lose / Baby you are the weapon I choose / These wounds are self inflicted / I'm going down *in flames* for you / Baby you are the weapon I choose / These wounds are self inflicted / One more thing I'm addicted too" (“Self Inflicted”).

Instead of being fresh and different, One Of The Boys sounds like pop-rock music we've heard before, because we have heard this before. A lot. It makes it very easy to pass this one by, regardless of how catchy it initially seems.

The best song is "I'm Still Breathing," the low point is "UR So Gay."

For other works by and about Katy Perry, be sure to visit:
Why “I Kissed A Girl” Is Utterly Demeaning And Homophobic
Katy Perry Unplugged
Teenage Dream


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized list of all the albums and singles I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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