The lives of many female pop stars must be something of a balancing act in many respects. On one hand, the fierce competition for sales, chart positions and prime promo slots means they have to make themselves unforgettable, something very often achieved by the subtraction of various items of clothing or the addition of some other kind of shock value. On the other, they have to bear in mind that many of their fans are young girls, impressionable young women at risk of believing that flaunting one’s sexuality is the path to validation.
So often, the shock factor wins out. Whether it’s Rihanna’s persistent instagramming of her more salacious exploits or Miley Cyrus rubbing her crotch with a foam finger before grinding all up on Robin Thicke dressed as Beetlejuice, the resulting outrage helps garner column inches, which makes increases their status as celebrities.
Arguably, Katy Perry’s first single – 2008’s “I Kissed A Girl” – traded on the same idea; the Christian girl from California who sang gospel music because she wasn’t allowed to listen to pop, rebelling against her strict upbringing by experimenting with her sexuality. Her second album, Teenage Dream, continued the theme, with whipped cream dispensers strapped to her chest, brightly coloured wigs on her head and singing songs like “Peacock” (sample lyric “I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock, your peacock, cock”).
Yet despite the overt sexualisation, there was always something quite charming about Perry, something innately likeable about her. Plus, she made good pop songs – “Teenage Dream”, “Firework” and “Wide Awake” are just a few examples of the perfectly crafted gems found on her second album.
The first sign of Perry’s return this year was a short video of her burning a blue wig while her new single “Roar” played in the background. While a change of image between records is a tried and tested method of self promotion, Perry’s return after the collapse of her marriage to Russell Brand seemed to show a more grown-up, understated version of the star, something that’s reflected throughout Prism.
Half of the tunes are the huge pop numbers you’d expect to hear from Perry; “This is How We Do” is undeniably one of the biggest pop songs of the year, carrying on the idea of a hedonistic lifestyle free from consequences that she sang bout on “T.G.I.F”, while “Walking on Air” is a fairly standard club banger. Lead single “Roar” is, of course, wonderful – a fantastically constructed pop song with an empowering message behind it of the “Born This Way” ilk (‘cept Lady Gaga never took a selfie with monkey in any of her videos). “Dark Horse”, a collaboration with Juicy J, is one of the sexier songs on the album, pairing Perry’s sultry vocals with more of a hip-hop beat, although it does feature the line “She eats your heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer”, which couldn’t be any less arousing.
For a huge pop record, it’s amazingly, admirably honest. Her experience of divorce is present across several of the songs, including “Ghost”, which opens with the line “You sent a text/It’s like the wind changed your mind”, reflecting that Brand actually ended their marriage via SMS. “By The Grace of God” goes even further, dealing with her struggles to “keep her head above water” after the break-up, seemingly hinting at suicidal feelings. It’s tough subject matter for an international pop star, and surprisingly frank for anyone in the public eye, but it’s one of the things that distances Perry from many other pop stars, and the delicacy with which it’s handled is remarkably refreshing.
It wouldn’t be a pop record without a couple of clangers, and Prism is no exception, “Birthday” and “International Smile” providing two fairly forgettable moments. They’re the exception though, with the majority of the album proving that Katy Perry fully deserves her place as one of the biggest pop stars of her time. Prism shows a more mature side to the singer, an ability to really connect with her experiences whilst still producing absolute pop smashes. It’s a combination that suits her very, very well.