On Katy Perry’s third album, “Prism,” the pop idol sings about partying and self-empowerment over heavily compressed, club-ready dance beats. Cool – what else is new?
Well as it turns out, quite a bit. When Perry released “Teenage Dream” in 2010, she carved her niche as the cotton candy-sweet pop girl. In “Prism,” Perry takes her saccharine aesthetic to artful new heights. If “Teenage Dream” was cotton candy, “Prism” is a trippy kaleidoscope of starbursts, pop rocks, and “nyan cat” gifs.
“Prism” opens with the track “Roar,” the album’s stadium sized lead single. The track suggests a pretty standard pop album to come. However, as “Prism” progresses, Perry incorporates a surprisingly sophisticated array of influences into her bubblegum pop sound. The track “Birthday” features Prince-inspired funk guitar strumming over a slinky disco groove, culminating in what could be the slickest throwback-pop tune of the year since the Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers collaboration, “Get Lucky.” In fact, the French electronic duo’s influence pops up in several places on ‘Prism.” On “International Smile,” Perry bows out to make room for a vocoder solo that could have been plucked straight from Daft Punk’s “Digital Love.” “Prism” is filled with sly moves like these, where Perry aims to stretch beyond the banal confines of modern radio pop. Even when you want to turn your nose up at Katy Perry, it’s difficult when her production, instrumentation, and energy are so damn colorful.
Still, “Prism” is a pop album. Like any 21st century pop album, it sticks heavily to a tried and true formula. You’ve got club bangers offset by sappy love ballads. You’ve got layers of vocal tracks that are compressed as all hell. You’ve got a hip-hop feature (Juicy J), vocal pyrotechnics, and a dose of trashy-girl attitude, all neatly tied together in a package that will surely reach out to the lowest common denominator.
But then again, Perry twists this formula in a subtle but powerful way. While most pop albums feel exploitative in the way they pander to all demographics, Perry delivers with a voice that is all too earnest for the pop world. Take the track “This Is How We Do.” On it, Perry covers standard party-music fare: designer handbags, luxury cars and hangovers, among other things. Perry’s Barbie-doll vocal delivery possesses a hint of satire and bite, as she sings amidst a backdrop of pure electronic ear candy. Strangely enough, the tune doesn’t feel like an insult to the listener’s intelligence, but rather a celebration of life and the bizarre ways in which people try to make the most of it.
“Prism” is a manufactured pop album, and as a manufactured pop album it probably won’t stand the test of time. But that’s okay. By adding depth and vitality to a style of music that’s inherently meant to be digested and then thrown away, Perry has come out with something that’s awe-inspiring in its own right: bubblegum pop perfection.
Howard is a member of the class of 2017.