Peering into the 'Prism'

Peering into the 'Prism'

Peering into the 'Prism'

Katy Perry’s latest album, ‘Prism’, attempts a portrayal of rites of passage with serious emotionality, which is also signalling a transition from her previous recordings, notes Ben Ratliff.

In the video for Roar, the first single from Katy Perry’s new record Prism, Perry plays a young woman going native in the jungle after a plane crash, learning to live with wild animals. I got the eye of the tiger, she sings, borrowing a line from Survivor, Louder than a lion. In her performance of  Roar at the recent MTV Vidaseo Music Awards, she played a boxer in a ring; that setup made sense of the song’s I am the champion line, borrowed from Queen.

Amazingly, none of that matters. What really matters is the promotion for the song on Good Morning America, which started nearly a month after its release and continued for six more weeks up to Capitol’s release of Prism. It encouraged high schools around the United States to send in films of their students performing a version of Roar. Many of those films involved cheerleaders. The song hit its target.

The stars of Roar are the rhythm-chant of the tom-toms, which naturally translates to a drum line ensemble, and the short, yelled ‘hey!’of a spirit squad. Both come with a cavernous echo — basically, the sound of a high-school gym. The song, with its processional tempo, space for collective dancing and signalling, and careful buildups of drama and pressure, seems perfectly designed for pep rallies: even better if the home team is the Tigers or the Lions.

It’s a self-empowerment anthem, good for inducing physical activity. And yet by the standards of Perry and her team, it’s slight and derivative.

Perry, who just turned 29, has begun her post-bubble-gum longevity plan. She’s feeling the necessity, perhaps, of making songs for motivation and solace, that aren’t in a completely parallel world to student ambition, résumé building, job searches, family planning, divorce and stress avoidance — the normal round of commitments and disappointments.

Unsteady operation

Firework, her show-them-what-you’re-worth hit of 2010, was just the beginning; her brief career in the early oughts as Katy Hudson, young singer of inspirational Christian pop, seems relevant to this current shift. And so while keeping a partial grip on the cartooned, airbrushed party world of her past hits, she’s started to tailor her work for American rites of passage: the spirit rally, the birthday, the wedding dance, and the psycho-spiritual crisis. So far, it’s an unsteady operation. Prism is so full of cliché that it almost radiates insecurity, the opposite of the intended message.

She’s still using the same producing team for many of her songs that she has since 2008: Dr Luke, Max Martin and Cirkut. (Bonnie McKee, the songwriting collaborator who helped her with three hits from her last record, Teenage Dream, from 2010, is back again for a third of Prism.) But where her records used to sound crammed tight into a small space, stylishly and sometimes brilliantly limited by audio tricks and burlesque jokes, now they’re starting to intimate openness: echo, big drums, stadium choruses, eternity, making it count, living by the truth. Her voice, broader and stronger now, can carry this move; it’s as if another room had opened within it.

Perry has described Prism as ‘more vulnerable and raw and stripped-down’ than Teenage Dream. That earlier record was arch behind its enormous smile, very aware of its own fake funk and synthetic bubbliness; it became a container for No 1 singles — five, as many as on Michael Jackson’s Bad.

There has, up to this point, been something appealing about Perry’s determined interest in Day-Glo teenage-girl aesthetics, a stance so good-natured and almost academic that she can resemble a librarian reading silly stories to children about people who go to parties and forget to go home, or grown women who turn into teenagers.

This has been Perry’s value: she’s a professional with a firm sense of boundaries. She’s not a demagogue or the leader of a social movement. She’s not Lady Gaga, creating cabaret-theatre hyperbole. She’s not Miley Cyrus, enacting transgression and waiting for the echo. This is not her own life.

She’s not a witness or a medium. She just works here. But on the cover of Prism, she stands in a sunflower field with little makeup, the morning sunlight blanching the image, like something from your Instagram feed. And yes, in the album’s lyrics there is a line of healthy vulnerability: opening oneself to hope or faith or love, discovering one’s own wisdom and using it, and even, in By the Grace of God, learning to fight back suicidal drives with self-acceptance.

Unconditionally is the wedding-song contender, a straightforward power ballad declaring love as heroic action and asking for it in return.

‘I don’t negotiate with insecurities,’ she declares on Love Me:

‘No more second-guessing
No, there’s no more questioning
I’ll be the one defining who I’m gonna be.’

Let’s break that down. This thought, representative of the themes that bind Prism together, comes from the singer and one of the authors of Roar, a work of art that could be seen as full of second-guessing. It refers to at least three famous songs by other people in its chorus, and seems to adapt the melody of the Lumineers’s Ho Hey for its verse, as well as its deep-echo ‘hey!’ It’s also backward logic. Perry was already defining who she was going to be, and doing it better than almost anyone in Top 40 pop.

Towards glory

‘Stripped-down’ is a crazy description for Prism — a good interview decoy, a good term to use when you’re telling your audience that you’re making progress. The record is, if anything, more grandiose and researched than her earlier work. If Perry is acting out healthy vulnerability, she’s showing the less healthy side too. She seems lonelier and looking for validation, more ready to follow the status quo.

A fair amount of Prism leans toward sounds that won Grammy Awards last year and some that will probably win them this year — parade drums, optimistic anthems sung in raggedy unison, and careful retreads from ’70s and ’80s dance music. It’s fine to frame the musical quotations in the album as post pop-art collage. But that collage seems to be the last five volumes of Now That’s What I Call Music!, not the presumed supercollider of a pop savant’s imagination.

The more Perry and her crew gesture toward an ideal of the vulnerable and stripped-down, the more she alludes to the truth and the inner light, the more nonsense gets into her songs — grandiosity, borrowing an off-the-rack kind of rectitude and resolve that she might not need in the long run. The real kind was already there.

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