Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Same Sugarpop, Different Album: Katy Perry’s Prism Displays Disturbing Marketing Psychology!

The Good: One or two lines
The Bad: Most of the vocals are overproduced, Derivative sound, Lame rhymes, Conceptually hedges its bets.
The Basics: Katy Perry tries to reclaim her Christian Rock roots while maintaining the appearance of being a sugarpop princess who could be attainable with the awful deluxe edition of Prism.

When I reviewed the Blue October album Sway (reviewed here!), I was shocked to realize how very few new albums I had listened to and reviewed this year. Given that the end of 2013 is rapidly approaching, I figured I should make at least a passing effort to listen to some of the new works by other artists. To that end, I decided it was time to pop in the latest album by Katy Perry and with Prism, I managed to get in the Deluxe Edition right away. Unfortunately, “deluxe” or not, Prism is just plain terrible.

Potentially the biggest issue with Prism is how it is being marketed. Major publications are referring to Prism as Katy Perry’s third album. That is the type of revisionist history that Katy Perry’s production team might rely upon in order to sell the public persona of Katy Perry (“Perry” previously released a Christian rock album under her name, Katy Hudson and there exists a second, unreleased album that also precedes her breakout album as Katy Perry, One Of The Boys). The reason the production and marketing team wants Prism to be thought of as her third album is because it capitalizes on her popularity, sex appeal, and marketable image, while distancing her from the niche audience that is Christian pop/gospel music.

The problem with Prism, then, is there appears to be a clear tug of war in the content on the album between Katy’s roots and her popular image. While most of the music is synth-based pop sound, the lyrics reveal a much more conflicted view of who Katy Perry is and what kind of music she wants to have released. In fact, the album is so fractured single to single that I was shocked to discover that Perry co-wrote all of the songs on the album. The album finds itself tugging in different thematic directions with no organic evolution (in other words, this is not a concept album where the musical protagonist gets through a broken marriage). So, for example, track two is an overtly Christian anthem (despite using Eastern imagery like lotus blossoms and referencing karma, the repeated “Take me down to the river / Underneath the blood orange sun / Say my name like a scripture / Keep my heart beating like a drum” – “Legendary Lovers”) and it is followed by a track with such unambiguous sexuality it’s surprising Ke$ha didn’t have a part in its creation. Right after the church girl track, there’s the available skank that the marketing department needs to use to sell Katy Perry to the legions of teenagers, many of whom are boys who have crushes on Perry (and hey, listen to this song, it could be you! She’s available! Buy her album!). So, there is a conflict between devotion to the divine and “let’s slut it up!” [And, as an aside, it wouldn’t be “slut” if Perry’s pious alter ego weren’t affiliated with causes that were so anti-sexual liberation. The sexuality Perry presents on Prism isn’t empowered, experimental, curious, or unjudgmental; it’s just cheap.] Another weird tug-of-war on the album is a thematic conflict between songs that overtly take responsibility for the musical protagonist’s part in a failed relationship (presumably autobiographically about her failed marriage with Russell Brand) and other tracks that essentially say “it’s all your fault!” So, there’s a strange thematic conflict that does not seem to be part of normal post-marital processing, which is essentially “I accept my part in this” vs. “Blame Russell!”

With sixteen tracks clocking out at an hour, one minute and thirty-five seconds, Prism is mostly the work of Katy Perry. Perry co-wrote all of the songs and she provides the lead vocals on each and every track. Perry plays none of the instruments on the album, though she is credited as a co-producer on two of the tracks. The sheer number of collaborators in production and writing make it a legitimate question of how much of the musical vision was Perry’s and how much was Capitol Records working to churn out a hit machine like Teenage Dream.

Musically, Prism is boring. There is no growth for Perry as a musical artist between Teenage Dream and Prism. Despite her stated desire to do a very different album, songs actually sound remarkably like other works of hers. Musically, “Birthday” has the same bouncy sugarpop quality as “Last Friday Night” and the excitations in “Roar” have a broken up quality that Perry fans will recognize as familiar from “Extraterrestrial.”

Vocally, Prism doesn’t do Perry many favors, either. The engineers produce over her natural voice on almost every track. In fact, there are no shining examples of her true, unadulterated voice that stand out on Prism after listening to it eight times.

On the lyrics front, Perry may have had a great deal of help co-writing the songs, but there is insufficient evidence that any of them have genuine writing talent. On the first single, “Roar,” it is hard to take the musical protagonist seriously when, as she becomes more and more empowered, she declares that she is “dancing through the fire” (“Roar”). On your struggle to success and legitimacy, dancing is seldom the action word you’re going to want, especially if you want your obstacles to be taken seriously. One can almost hear the forthcoming “Weird Al” Yankovic parody (I’m betting it will be called “Snore”) as Perry earnestly declares, “You’re gonna hear me roar!” (“Roar”) without ever once backing it up in the song or on the album.

The bulk of Perry’s lyrics on Prism are singsongy and cliché. With lines like “Secretly, I hit the lottery / 'Cause you're brighter than all of the Northern Lights / You speak to me, even in my dreams / Wouldn't let you go for even the highest price . . . 'Cause I understand you, we see eye to eye / Like a double rainbow in the sky / And wherever you go, so will I / 'Cause a double rainbow is hard to find” (“Double Rainbow”) Perry obscures the idea that the love of which she sings is unique and interesting because all of the imagery is overly familiar.

Ultimately, the lack of growth and the thematic conflicts on the album make Prism a mess and what seems like much more of an obvious cashgrab than a legitimate musical expression. Regardless, the humability of some tunes do not justify its purchase and while this album might soar to some level of commercial success, it is impossible to believe it will be one of the defining albums of this (or any) generation.

The best track is “This Moment” (though it is, lyrically, a cheap retread of “Fireworks”), most of the rest of the album is in a horse race for worst track, though I found “Birthday”’s vile qualities worse than “Legendary Lovers’” pandering to the base.

For other works by and about Katy Perry, be sure to visit:
Why “I Kissed A Girl” Is Utterly Demeaning And Homophobic
One Of The Boys
Katy Perry Unplugged
One Of The Boys (2009 reissue)
Teenage Dream


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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