- Katy Perry released her sixth studio album, “Smile,” on Friday.
- We listened straight through the 12-song tracklist and wrote down our first impressions of each one.
- Overall, we were underwhelmed by the formulaic production and the cheap lyrics, which mostly hinge on Perry celebrating her resilience and growth.
- The album’s dominant motif gets very boring – and we don’t fully understand why a rich and famous pop star would insist on painting herself as an underdog.
- The best tracks on the album are “Never Really Over” and “Only Love,” but half of the songs on the album were ruled as skips.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Katy Perry released her sixth studio album, “Smile,” on Friday.
Overall, we were underwhelmed by the formulaic production and the cheap lyrics, which mostly hinge on Perry celebrating her resilience and growth.
Making “Never Really Over” the intro track was also a mistake, since it’s one of Perry’s best songs ever and makes the rest of the album disappointing in comparison.
Here is what we thought of each song on “Smile” upon first listen. (Skip to the end to see the only songs worth listening to and the album’s final score.)
“Never Really Over” is one of Perry’s best songs to date, though it never got the respect it deserves.
Ahlgrim: I have always loved “Never Really Over” and I truly believe it was disrespected upon release (more than one whole year ago!).
This song soundtracked some of my favourite party moments of last summer, jumping up and down and trying to keep up with the breathlessly fun post-chorus: “Just-because-it’s-over-doesn’t-mean-it’s-really-over-and-if-I-think-it-over-maybe-you’ll-be-comin’-over-again.”
In fact, it’s surreal to realise how long this album rollout has taken – and disappointing to revisit the whimsical electricity of its first single knowing Perry chose to move away from its sound and aesthetics.
I might as well say this right now: The clown thing does not work for me. The visual motif of “Smile” already makes me feel like this album will disappoint me. I much preferred the weird heart-gardening of “Never Really Over.”
Larocca: “Never Really Over” is one of the best songs, if not the best, that we have gotten from Perry since her confectionary masterpiece “Teenage Dream” crash-landed into our collective psyche in August 2010.
This was a mainstay on my Spotify-curated “On Repeat” playlist after it was released in May 2019 and I have a sneaking suspicion it will end up on there again thanks to this very post. I’m still not tired of it or its incredible one-breath scream that is the post-chorus.
This song is perfect and I’d even go so far as to claim it as my favourite song in Perry’s entire catalogue – and yes, I did listen to the entirety of “Teenage Dream” in preparation for this review. I stand by it.
The only downside I can say about this song is that it makes it near-impossible for me to want to continue on with the rest of this tracklist instead of hitting replay again and again.
This could prove fatal if nothing else on the album lives up to this sky-high start.
“Cry About It Later” is neither good nor bad.
Ahlgrim: I actually like “Cry About It Later” more than I thought I would, considering it comes directly after my beloved “Never Really Over.”
The song does try a little too hard to be anthemic, but I don’t see myself pressing “next” if it were to come on shuffle at a party.
I also, however, don’t see myself voluntarily turning it on. It’s a true middle-of-the-road pop song.
Larocca: The isolation of Perry’s voice, followed by a beat drop at the start of the song is a trick as old as EDM, so the phrase “derivative” is already circling in my mind – which is a real drop from its preceding track.
While I do find myself snapping along, it’s not lost on me that I’m supposed to want to be crying in a club somewhere – but being hit over the head with the perspicuousness of “I’ll cry about it later / Tonight I’m having fun” doesn’t elicit any sort of emotional response.
A true crying-in-the-club anthem revels in its devastation without being overtly explicit about it; the weight of the lyrics are meant to cause a pulsing ache in your chest as the production swells to a climax, which may even be a literal scream a la Lorde’s “Supercut.”
Unfortunately for Perry, I’m not only going to forget what I wanted to cry about later, but I’m also going to forget I listened to this song.
“Teary Eyes” is a decent “crying on the dancefloor” anthem.
Ahlgrim: It seems wild to have two songs in a row that lean so hard into the popular “crying on the dancefloor” cliché. The sequencing on this album is already chaotic.
To be fair, “Teary Eyes” is better than its predecessor. I could definitely see this becoming a big hit for the club circuit, or finding a home on many playlists designed to shake off the bad vibes.
It feels like a less ridiculous, neon-lit ancestor of “Firework.”
Larocca: Is this a Calvin Harris song? It starts like one.
Upon first look at the tracklist, I appreciated the conciseness of 12 tracks, but now at just track three, I can see where she should have done even more pruning. Put simply, Perry didn’t need to include two club-crying bangers, let alone place them back-to-back.
I prefer the production on this to “Cry About It Later,” but the lyrics leave just as much to be desired. Stop telling me to sob, and actually make me do it!
“Daisies” is underwhelming.
Ahlgrim: “Daisies” does literally nothing for me. It doesn’t put me in a better mood. It doesn’t get my head bobbing. And that’s all I’m really asking from a Katy Perry single; the bar isn’t very high.
I just find it incredible how boring this song is, considering how brightly Perry tried to spotlight its release. Even the music video puts me to sleep.
Larocca: I like the softness displayed here, and also this line: “Why did we put all our hopes in a box in the attic?”
But I do find myself wondering what Perry could possibly mean when she asks “Why can’t it be me?” as if she isn’t a highly sought-after celebrity with an entire fandom that will support anything she puts out (no matter how lacklustre).
But undeserved underdog syndrome aside, I did compulsively shout the last verse of “Daisies” along with Perry, so she got me there.
“Resilient” just rehashes the strange concept of Perry as an underdog.
Ahlgrim: I definitely don’t hate this song, but how many versions of this same message does Perry need in her catalogue?
So far, every song on this album (save for “Never Really Over”) has painted Perry as an underdog who triumphs against the odds (and that’s not to mention the numerous resilience-themed songs of yore, like “Firework” and “Roar”).
“Resilient” is also the second song in a row that recycles flower imagery (“Look at me now / I’m in full bloom”). Repetition is a cornerstone of pop music, but this is a bit heavy-handed.
Is this entire era inspired by her fiancé’s last name?
Larocca: “Resilient” is about how Perry won’t let her haters keep her down and how she’s going to keep rising from the ashes, or, in this case, the cracks of concrete on the footpath.
This song is, in a word, exhausting. There will always be an inherent tone-deafness to a wildly successful pop star – who,Forbes estimates, earned a whopping $US38.5 million in the past year alone – thinking she’s the little guy needing to still prove herself.
I don’t want to tell Perry that her feelings are invalid, but maybe she simply shouldn’t broadcast her woe-is-me attitude in a subpar pop song for her legions of fans to pretend to like when she has, as she would call them herself, champagne problems (read: rich white people problems).
“Not the End of the World” is supremely tone-deaf.
But this is 2020 and we tend to expect more innovation from our pop stars.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a pulsing, maximalist pop banger. But “Not the End of the World” is more formulaic than fun and more radio-thirsty than compelling.
There’s nothing truly unique about this song – except for maybe the interpolation of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” which makes an impact that’s more confusing than anything else.
Larocca: Speaking of tone-deaf in 2020. Perry is genuinely preaching for her fans to “just enjoy the ride” and “take a frown, turn it all the way around” because it’s “not the end of the world.” Look around! Yes, it is!
Listen, I understand this song was probably made pre-pandemic, but that still doesn’t excuse the decision to release it. The US went into lockdown over five months ago. Multiple artists delayed their projects, changed the titles of them, or even released completely-done-in-quarantine albums.
Perry and her team had time to listen to her own tracklist and think, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t put this one out?”
“Smile” sounds like it belongs in a Target commercial (and it is).
Ahlgrim: I have already heard this song – the album’s titular track – in a commercial for Target. I have nothing against Target specifically, but that’s just embarrassing.
Larocca: This is literally a Target commercial. No, really, I heard it set to a back-to-school ad for the retailer while waiting for a YouTube video to start yesterday.
That’s not a diss toward Target – but it does put “Smile” on the same level as any Creative Commons tune that college students bake into their freshman multimedia projects or the favourite song of a toddler.
We did not converse while reviewing this song and our descriptions were written completely independent of each other.
“Champagne Problems” isn’t relatable or interesting.
Ahlgrim: I’m genuinely glad that Perry is in a healthy place, both mentally and in her relationship.
But to celebrate this progress by boasting, “Baby all we got / Are champagne problems now” – in this economy?
Larocca: “Champagne Problems” comes off as an attempt to recapture the magic that radiates throughout the entirety of “Teenage Dream,” and while there are certainly glimpses of a more self-assured, mature version of it here, it ultimately fails at bringing Perry up to speed on the current state of pop.
Had this been released a decade ago, it would have been heralded as yet another highlight from Perry’s then-infallible discography. Now? Not so much.
Some people will love “Tucked.” Others will hate it.
Ahlgrim: “Tucked” is one of the more appealing songs I’ve heard so far. I like the beachy production, and it’s the first song since “Never Really Over” that has addressed a more interesting, relatable realm of Perry’s inner life.
Especially given the current pandemic – and, as Pitchfork dubbed, the “summer of quarantine sex jams” – I really respect writing a whole song about having horny daydreams.
Larocca: Has Perry heard a song from the last five years? I’m genuinely asking. I’m getting a strong sense that she never progressed past listening to her own hey-day and thought this was still what people were into.
I am left wishing that Perry had chosen better collaborators – like Zedd, who helped create the masterpiece that is “Never Really Over.” It’s a shame his presence isn’t anywhere else to be found on this tracklist.
“Harleys in Hawaii” is vibey, if not particularly memorable.
Ahlgrim: I remember liking “Harleys in Hawaii” when it came out last year, but I don’t remember listening to it very often.
It would fit comfortably on a beach-themed playlist, designed to waft gently in the background while you chat with your friends.
Larocca: Charlie Puth has both a writing and a producing credit on “Harleys in Hawaii” and I can feel his input here.
“Harleys in Hawaii” is chill and vibey, and right when I worry it’s getting too repetitive, some unique textural flourishes enter the soundscape, bringing intrigue with them.
“Only Love” has the most intimate, authentic songwriting on the album.
Ahlgrim: The gospel-tinged production on “Only Love” doesn’t encourage much more than a slight head bob, but its tender lyrics crystallize into something worth hearing.
Perry, a very new mum, describes the amends she’d make if her time on Earth was limited: “I’d call my mother and tell her I’m sorry / I never call her back,” she sings on the chorus. “I’d pour my heart and soul out into a letter / And send it to my dad.”
This is a difficult and rare thing to admit for anyone, let alone in a song that will be heard by millions of people, but Perry navigates that chasm with grace and humility.
“Only Love” finally offers something authentic to latch onto – and makes it clear that “Smile,” despite presenting itself as a personal rebirth, almost entirely lacks emotion that feels real or true.
Larocca: I’m caught off guard by the opening line that feels a little too heavily influenced by “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.” That’s an incredibly high standard she’s setting for “Only Love” right off the bat.
That earnest appreciation for measuring life in love stays throughout the song as Perry sings about wanting to “leave this world with the hate behind me / And take the love instead.”
It’s sweet, sentimental, and one of the brightest spots on this otherwise underwhelming collection of songs. I don’t know why Perry thought this could possibly live up to one of the greatest songs in the history of musical theatre, though.
“What Makes A Woman” tries to be empowering, but it doesn’t really work.
Ahlgrim: It’s a worthwhile ambition to write a song about female complexity, but I just don’t think this one really sticks the landing.
For example, the second verse is pure chaos. “I feel most beautiful / Doing what the f— I want,” is a great sentiment, but it’s immediately preceded by “Is it the way I cut my hair / And put no makeup on?” – which kind of sounds like ammo for the concept that femininity and caring about beauty makes you less of a feminist.
Then, seconds later, she introduces this confusing couplet with zero explanation: “I need tissues for my issues / And Band-Aids for my heart.”
I understand that Perry’s goal is to capture the contradiction and duality of womanhood (at least, I think it is), but that gets muddied by her spaghetti-against-the-wall execution.
Larocca: Perry’s vocals have a warmth and depth on “What Makes a Woman,” which are perfectly paired with an absolutely gorgeous guitar riff.
The lyrics, however, are vomit-inducing. As a woman myself, the last thing I need in my life is Katy Perry telling me that my womanness is built from having soft skin, not wearing makeup, and being a “perfect mystery.”
She completely defeats the purpose of refusing to describe what makes a woman by describing false notions of femininity and begging the question “Is it the way we keep / The whole world turning / In a pair of heels?”
Yeah, Katy, there’s definitely nothing that says “I’m A Woman” more than desecrating the nerves in my feet just to pander to the male gaze.
Final Grade: 4.6/10
Ahlgrim: Speaking as a big fan of confectionary pop music (and one of the biggest fans of Perry’s 2010 opus “Teenage Dream”), bright spots on “Smile” are incredibly few and far between.
Most of these songs aren’t evenbad. “Not The End of the World” is bad. The title track is really bad. But “Never Really Over” is a gem, and “Only Love” touched my heart.
Overall, however, Perry’s cheap songwriting and the heavy-handed “underdog” motif just made me want to roll my eyes for nearly 40 straight minutes.
On “Daisies,” she sings, “They said I’m going nowhere, tried to count me out.” On “Resilient,” much of the same: “They tried to poison the water / But I was a little stronger.”
Perry never explains who “they” is. It’s one thing to reflect on periods of isolation or depression, but it’s another entirely to believe that you’ve been sabotaged. Did Perry forget that “Teenage Dream” tied an all-time record with five (five!) No. 1 singles? Or that “Prism” made her the first artist in history to have three diamond-certified songs?
Perry has enjoyed one of the most successful pop careers in history, and one album that flopped does not an underdog make.
Upbeat music that makes you want to dance through trauma or pain can be very powerful; instead, “Smile” tries to sound relatable and comes up sounding empty.
Ultimately, I would rather listen to “Never Really Over” 12 times in a row than listen to the rest of this tracklist.
Larocca: While this is where I should be sharing my own thoughts on “Smile,” one of my colleagues said it best to me on Slack when she was awaiting my review: “The album fully sounds like she hasn’t grown as an artist at all since 2012” and “I could hear this all in my middle-school gym and that’s bad.”
Those comments, of course, don’t refer to the absolute triumph of “Never Really Over,” which, as I predicted, eclipsed everything else that came after it. Considering though that it was released in May 2019 and sounds unlike any of the other tracks, it has the essence of a standalone single more than the opening act on “Smile.”
Not only is it disappointing to see such a lack of growth on Perry’s part, but it’s even more frustrating that she’s made it a point to spit in the face of anyone who points that out before running away while covering her ears, screaming “la la la I can’t hear you!”
There’s an overarching theme on “Smile” that says, “You’re just a hater, and I’m resilient! Sticks and stones, baby!” But maybe if Perry listened to what critics had to say about her work, she’d turn around and make music that surprises, resonates, and demands respect.
I’m not cynical enough to believe that Perry doesn’t care about the quality of her work and is putting out blasé albums as a sort of money grab – the existence of “Never Really Over” dissuades me from that notion.
But that just makes this second-rate body of work all the more dispiriting.
Worth listening to:
“Never Really Over”
“Harleys in Hawaii”
“Cry About It Later”
“Not the End of the World”
“What Makes a Woman”
*Final album score based on songs per category (1 point for “Worth listening to,” .5 for “Background music,” .5 for “Split decision,” 0 for “Press skip”).
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