In Retrospectives, we’ll be checking in with some of the hit albums of yesteryear and seeing how they hold up today. For our second album, we’ll be looking at American artist Katy Perry’s record-breaking second album, Teenage Dream.
If there’s a star that dominated the pop world of 2009-2012 other than Lady Gaga, it would have to be Katy Perry, who existed as somewhat of a counterpoint to her peer. Whereas Lady Gaga seemed to be driving conversation and was the name on everybody’s lips, Perry was the one with the better chart performance. Her second album, Teenage Dream features five number-one hits, the first to do so since Michael Jackson’s Bad, released back in 1987. All five of these singles, alongside The One That Got Away (which peaked at number three) and the two singles from the expanded rerelease – Part of Me and Wide Awake have been certified multi-platinum, making for a total of eight multi-platinum hits from the era. Perry might not have been in our conversations as much as Gaga, but she was definitely in our ears.
Upon release, Teenage Dream was met with lukewarm critical response, but opinion gradually changed alongside a rebirth of poptimism, and the album is now retroactively regarded as one of the best pop albums of the 2010s – and rightfully so. Teenage Dream is pure pop perfection from start to finish – a joy to listen to, and, perhaps key in its dominance, a joy to sing along to. The stories, the emotions, these are all immensely relatable songs which allowed Perry to cultivate the image of the all-American pop star in contrast to Gaga’s more envelope-pushing antics. Teenage Dream felt classic when it came out, and it still feels classic now. Those opening chords of Teenage Dream (the song) immediately welcome us into Perry’s candy-coloured world, all rose-tinted and nostalgic. This might be another strength of the album – while the production on Teenage Dream is decidedly modern, the topics evoke such a strong sense of nostalgia that it’s easy to fall in love with them – the partying of Last Friday Night, the lost love of The One That Got Away, the hazy sentimentality of Teenage Dream, these all come together to create an experience that, in many ways, feels like coming home.
Perry’s choice of singles for the era was immaculate – kicking things off with the bombastic California Gurls with back-up from Snoop Dogg, she then shifted into the comparatively low-key yet still explosive title track. It was a genius pairing made even more so by the music videos they released alongside. California Gurls was bright and colourful, finding a comfortable home among the maximalist pop that was so popular among youth at the time, while the dreamy, sun-washed visuals of Teenage Dream helped draw out its sentimentality and make Perry infinitely more relatable to slightly older audiences. I remember a number of think pieces from the time which regarded Perry as the pop star of the people in contrast to Gaga’s more provocative image. That Perry managed this while having giant whipped cream cannons strapped to her breasts is perhaps commendable in itself as well.
I have yet to touch on what would eventually become the biggest single from the album – the titanic Firework, which, while somewhat overplayed, still manages to capture the hearts of listeners worldwide. Even in 2020, a decade after its release, seeing Perry sing this triumphant smash hit to celebrate the inauguration of Joe Biden, and even more importantly, the end of the Trump era (at least for now…) was genuinely moving. Its message of self-love makes it immensely marketable, and while some of its lyrics feel a little forced (although I’d never have the nerve to ask Perry to change the now-iconic and infinitely meme-able do you ever feel like a plastic bag) the sentiment still manages to feel genuine – a rather narrow line to walk.
The album’s later singles, E.T., Last Friday Night and The One That Got Away were also equally impressive smashes, each offering a different flavour of candy-coated pop. Critically regarded as one of her best songs, E.T. is a dramatic, futuristic love song featuring a very cool music video, while Last Friday Night, being possibly the most forgettable of the singles, surged to the top of the charts on the back of what might be the most 2010 music video ever, featuring cameos from Darren Criss of Glee fame and Rebecca Black (think Friday). That The One That Got Away is the sole single from the original release to not reach the number one spot feels like some kind of cosmic joke, but it is probably the song that I felt most interested in when listening to the album.
In light of these massive singles, it can be easy to forget about the album tracks, which, aside from the decent but nothing special Who Am I Living For?, manage to maintain the high quality set by the singles. The pop world is littered with stories of fans clamouring for the release of one specific album track to get the single treatment, but aside from Taylor Swift’s Lover track Cruel Summer, I can’t remember it’s been as intense as with Perry’s Hummingbird Heartbeat, the penultimate track on Teenage Dream. An effervescent pop track full of excited keyboard blasts and energetic percussion, Hummingbird is a final jolt of electricity before the album comes to a beautiful close with ballad Not Like The Movies. It would’ve been nice to have seen the visuals Perry could’ve dreamed up for the track, but I have to say – if it had to come at the expense of any of the actual singles, I’m happy with it remaining a hidden gem.
Teenage Dream set incredibly high commercial standards for Perry, ones that she never quite managed to replicate – but then again, nobody has. What she accomplished here was truly impressive – watch any video showing Perry’s American chart history and watch how beautifully and consistently each successive single rises into the top just as the previous one begins to fall. Teenage Dream was a Perry at her most catchy, her most pop, her most… Perry. With the streaming era now seeming to suggest that album eras will be shorter-lived than before, it’s unlikely we’ll see anybody match Perry’s feat in the future, but I’m excited to see them try. Hats off to you, Katy Perry.