Katy Perry
Credit: Christine Hahn

The zeitgeist is a slippery thing to cling to; no one knows that better than a pop star. Katy Perry has spent some 12 years now in the public eye, nearly all of them at or near the top of her rarefied field: 45 million albums sold, nine No. 1 singles — five from 2010’s Teenage Dream alone — on the Hot 100. She’s been the reigning queen of whipped cream and wiggery, the girl next door and the girl who kissed a girl, a happy mascot for painfully earnest Olympic anthems one moment and winking odes to lost weekends the next.

But Smile, her fifth studio album, finds her in a place she hasn’t been since her self-titled debut as a young Christian-rock hopeful from Santa Barbara named Katy Hudson: releasing a record without a top 10 hit. Its lead single, “Never Really Over,” a sunny, Casio-stippled ode to reconnecting with an ex, peaked at No. 15 (though it did better overseas, and topped the Dance Club chart Stateside). Two follow-ups failed to launch, and a third one, “Daisies,” stalled at No. 40 — an odd outcome considering that the song, with its high-altitude chorus and spiraling synths, cleaves so closely to Perry’s proven formula. Had pop’s fickle fandom simply reached its capacity for Katy?

If not, they’ll discover an artist largely the same as she ever was: “Cry About It Later” and “Teary Eyes” each make an airy case for sweating out heartache on the dance floor; plucky midtempo ballads “Resilient” and “Not the End of the World” offer turn-that-frown-upside-down bromides for the mildly depressed; the sinuous disco-funk throwback “Champagne Problems” revels in the joyful entitlement of domestic bliss. Lovestruck “Harleys in Hawaii” swoons over heart-shaped highways and island vibes, while strummy, winsome closer “What Makes a Woman” could be a B side from peak-era Shania Twain.

Perry has said that the songs on Smile emerged from one of the darkest periods in her life — which accounts, maybe, for the sense that she is sometimes less singer here than life coach. There’s always been a kind of conscious corniness to Perry’s presentation, a dad-joke sincerity that she readily embraces; she’s the eternal incurable optimist, the Hang In There kitten on an inspirational poster — and perhaps the only millennial who can deliver a line like “I know there’s gotta be rain/If I want the rainbows” straight-faced in 2020.

If that cheerleader-with-a-cherry-on-top affect has given free rein to haters, it’s also suited her; an artist knowingly playing to her strengths. She may not have the outsize voice of Ariana Grande or the chameleonic instincts of Lady Gaga; she rarely generates radical culture-shifting moments as Rihanna and Beyoncé regularly do. But she’s always held fast to her own goofball MO: a blithe, candy-colored conduit for the shifting whims of ace songwriting teams and Swedish studio wizards.

So if Smile is more of the solidly executed same, who to blame for its tepid landing? The strange vagaries of modern fame may have been captured best by Perry’s erstwhile frenemy Taylor Swift in the recent documentary Miss Americana: “We do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35,” she says in a frank voice-over near the end of the film. “Everyone’s a shiny new toy for, like, two years. The female artists that I know of have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists; they have to, or else you’re out of a job.” Perry, who turns 36 in October, will hardly be filing for unemployment anytime soon. But even at its sweetest, Smile still feels like the too-familiar work of a star committed to remaining pleasantly, fundamentally unchanged — and that may be the only mortal sin pop music can’t forgive. B– 

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