By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Updated September 01, 2010 at 04:56 PM EDT

Image Credit: Ari MichelsonNo matter how they try to spin it, Katy Perry and her label are surely feeling a certain letdown this morning. After dominating airwaves for much of the summer, Perry was only able to move 192,000 copies of her sophomore album in its first week on sale. That’s enough to make Teenage Dream the country’s biggest album in this sleepy late-August frame. It’s much better than her previous album managed in its first week, and it’s obviously worlds away from an all-out, retire-in-shame flop. But it’s also nowhere near the kind of first-week numbers that other radio staples like Drake (447,000) and Usher (329,000), let alone Eminem (741,000), have put up in recent months. Perry’s “California Gurls” is widely considered a front-runner for this year’s Song of the Summer, with her own “Teenage Dream” single not far behind. How come those major hits didn’t translate into equally strong album sales?

The simple answer is that Perry is overexposed. By now, just about every member of the buying public has heard “California Gurls” enough times to commit it to memory. If you’ve grown tired of that song or you never liked it in the first place, of course you’re not going to buy Katy Perry’s album. But even if you love “California Gurls” with all your melted-popsicle heart, chances are you already bought it as an MP3 weeks or months ago. You probably went along and grabbed “Teenage Dream,” too. This week alone, that second single sold 259,000 digital copies. When Teenage Dream the album came out last Tuesday, you had to ask yourself, did you really need to own the whole thing? For 192,000 fans, the answer was yes. Still, it’s easy to see how that purchase might not make sense for everyone else.

Yet dismissing Perry as overexposed risks redundancy. Songs like “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream” are engineered for maximum exposure. That’s the whole point. Perry led an elite team of songwriters, producers, and assorted studio wizards whose job it was to make sure that hearing these songs once or twice wasn’t enough for most people. Radio programmers couldn’t resist putting these songs on the air over and over again. Kids walking down the street couldn’t help humming them for weeks on end. These songs were perfectly designed advertisements for themselves — and that’s where their pitch ended. In a sense, “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream” worked exactly as intended. They were too effective for the album’s own good.

This puts Perry in the dreaded “singles artist” category. Compare her first-week sales to those of Rihanna (181,000 last December) or Ke$ha (152,000 in January). This isn’t a category that most singers want to be placed in. They’re legitimate pop stars, with big hits and lots of fans — but not the kind of unconditional fans who will drop double-digit cash for an album out of loyalty. Is it sheer coincidence that so many (though not all) of these “singles artists” happen to be young women? Probably not. Some level of unacknowledged sexism may make consumers more likely to view the work of twenty-something female pop singers as disposable product instead of serious art.

That said, the “singles artist” label doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Rihanna, for example, spun off several more hits from Rated R and ended up going platinum. With the right follow-up singles, Perry might be able to accomplish the same in time. Today, Teenage Dream is looking like a commercial disappointment, but the long game is just beginning.

Why do you think Katy Perry’s album didn’t sell more copies? Do you think there’s another smash hit lurking within that track list? Sound off in the comments section.

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