Nothing comes naturally for Katy Perry. Blessed with a cheerleader’s body, the face of a second-chair clarinetist and a drama club queen’s lust for the spotlight, Perry parlayed all these qualities into success via her 2008 pop debut One of the Boys, an album that worked overtime to titillate. Working hard is Katy Perry’s stock in trade: whether she’s cavorting in the Californian sun or heaving her cleavage, she always lets you see her sweat, an effect that undercuts her status as a curvy Teenage Dream, the ideal she puts forth on her 2010 sophomore set. All this labor produces fetching magazine covers -- sometimes accompanied by good copy within -- and grabbing videos but it undoes her records, since we always hear her fighting to be frivolous. And all Perry wants to do is have fun: all she wants is to frolic in the spotlight, and she’ll follow the path of others to get there, raising eyebrows a’la Alanis, strutting like Gwen Stefani and relying on Britney’s hitmaker Max Martin for her hooks. There’s no question Perry is smart enough to know every rule in pop but she’s not inspired enough to ignore them, almost seeming nervous to break away from the de rigeur lite club beats that easily transition from day to night or the chilly, stainless-steel ballads designed to lose none of their luster on repeat plays. Perry acknowledges some shifting trends -- she salutes fellow attention-whore Ke$ha on “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” replicates Ryan Tedder’s glassy robotic alienation on “E.T.” but tellingly avoids ripping off Lady Gaga, who is just too meta for the blunt Katy -- but these are merely accents to her old One of the Boys palette. And, once again, the music feels familiar, so Perry distinguishes herself through desperate vulgarity, wooing a suitor with “you make me feel like I’m losing my virginity,” extolling the virtues of blackouts and an accidental ménage a trois, melting popsicles, pleading for a boy to show her his “Peacock” (chanting “cock cock cock” just in case we at home didn’t get the single entendre). All this stylized provocation is exhausting, and not just because there’s so much of it (none of it actually arousing). It’s tiring because, at her heart, Perry is old-fashioned and is invested in none of her aggressive teasing. Not for nothing did she give her best post-One of the Boys song, “I Do Not Hook Up,” to Kelly Clarkson; its pro-abstinence rally flies in the face of the masturbatory daydream she’s constructed. It's ironic that her best song finds her lurking behind the scenes, because Perry's greatest talent is to be a willing cog in the pop machine, delivering sleek singles like “Teenage Dream” and “Hummingbird Heartbeat” with efficiency. Isolated on the radio, the way “Hot N Cold” was in 2009, these singles will wind up obscuring the overheated and undercooked nature of Teenage Dream as a whole. Then again, the album itself is almost incidental to the self-styled fantasy that Katy Perry sells with this entire project.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo