In 2017, Katy Perry crashed and burned. Her album Witness, a confusing and vague attempt at more socially conscious lyricism, was a critical and commercial failure compared to her past hits. “My career was on this trajectory where it was going up, up, up, up, up, and then I had, like, the smallest shift,” Perry said in an interview. “The record didn’t get me high anymore. The validation didn’t get me high. So I just crashed.”
You’d think that an artist now six albums into her career, after hitting such a spectacularly disorienting wall, might take such a crash as an opportunity to actually take risks. For the past decade, Perry has cultivated a pop persona that has felt hollow to a point, an unabashed commitment to the sort of crowd-pleasing party music that would eventually elevate her to Super Bowl half-time status. Her music and presence have emphasized an earnest but largely anonymous playfulness above all, whether delivering cheeky innuendo on “California Girls” or the cheerleader girl power of “Roar.” But while Perry has positioned Smile in the press as a sort of response to the depression and feelings of inadequacies she felt post-Witness, it’s just as drearily empty and devoid of Perry’s personality.
The thread binding much of Smile together is that it’s an album of resilience, of smiling through the tears, of dancing the pain away. But none of those assurances are delivered with much force, marred by clichéd writing and sleepy production. “Just keep on dancing with those teary eyes,” Perry sings on the chorus of the muted EDM song “Teary Eyes,” her clipped voice almost robotic. “I am resilient, a full flower moment, won’t let the concrete hold me back,” she sings on “Resilient,” which backs Perry with the delicate sounds of plucked MIDI violin. The punchy, Ariana Grande-wannabe track “Not the End of the World,” which includes sinister, fantasy images of dragons and fortune-teller, sounds like it could have been a banger in the making, but Perry sounds ill-suited to its flow, talk-singing its awkward verses.
The best of these songs, “Never Really Over,” is over a year old. A bright, synth-pop album opener that sounds like a Haim hit as filtered through Zedd production, the song feels like a peek into what could have been a much better album. “Tucked,” a catchy, disco song hiding among the album’s jumbled intentions, should have absolutely been a single. But most of Smile feels at odds with what Perry’s peers are making in 2020, a step backward for an artist who, despite her candied approach to music, should at least have a point of view at this point.
It’s not like Katy Perry has had it easy. In the last decade, the playbook for chart-topping stardom has shifted, as artists like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande, to name a few, proved that listeners wanted personal perspectives and intimacy (fine-tuned through a professional writers room, of course) more than a throwaway club song that says absolutely nothing at all. All the while, Perry has faltered, attempting to replicate a flavor of popular music that simply doesn’t resonate anymore, at least beyond birth control commercial soundtracks.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on Perry, an artist who has never positioned herself as a deep singer-songwriter or a pop futurist, it’s because Smile really sounds like a white flag surrender. Rather than look inward in an attempt to make something personal, or at the very least a fuck-you experiment in the fact of an industry that dragged Witness across the coals, she has regurgitated formulas already proven to fail her.