On Katy Perry’s latest, long-teased album Smile, Perry remains resolutely pop. While her peers and successors are increasingly genre-hopping and dropping surprise records and EPs, Perry’s Smile feels like a charming remnant from a prior era. In the first place, the very first song from this album (although not the “official” first single, somehow), “Never Really Over,” was released over a year ago. Several singles have since trickled down to her audience. The idea of anticipating an album for over a year feels so relatively foreign now that Smile might have undue expectations put onto it. But, just like the classic album rollout that accompanied it, this album is pretty much as classic pop as it gets. Your mileage may vary.
That’s not to say Smile isn’t a genial experience and a swift one at that. With the strict adherence to three-minute pop song length, the 12 tracks of Smile’s standard edition fly by. Sticking to its titular theme, there are no real ballads on the album. The tempo stays up, and the mood stays positive throughout. Additionally, every song is thoroughly of Katy Perry. Her singular commitment to bombastic, often cheesy choruses and lyrics feels charming. She isn’t trying to make pop music something grandiose, but just keep it what it is: something that can make you smile.
The album begins on a strong note, with “Never Really Over,” which simultaneously sets us up for something more exciting than we get with Smile. The drum roll beat and the semi-staccato rhythm of the pre-chorus add exciting, diverse elements to the song, with the latter highlighting more of what Perry can do with her voice.
“Cry About it Later” and “Teary Eyes” both feel strategically engineered to be played at a specific time of night in a dark dancehall. Unfortunately, this is the wrong year for that, and these songs, with their emphasis on techno-club vibes, tamper down some of what is the most fun to hear in a Katy Perry song. These both feel like small holdovers from Perry’s Witness era, with its cold, whispery vocals and industrial beats. When Perry lets her voice soar, as in “Never Really Over,” “Resilient,” “Smile,” and more, she delivers what makes her special: big choruses, big feelings, big voice.
A lot of Smile features little couples or triads of songs that feel thematically linked. Overall, the album is part of a surprising (and relevant) trend in pop music: albums about finding your smile and finding yourself again after a difficult, dark period. Unfortunately, due to Perry’s straightforward song subjects, these sentiments can often feel pat or cliché-ridden. “Daisies,” for instance, is a halfway-appealing song. While it’s a “don’t give up on your dreams, take it from me” pop song, the production turns it into something more basic. Lyrics like “when did we all stop believing in magic?” are sweet, very Perry lyrics, and the acoustic touches in the first part of the chorus lend a grounded sentiment to the song. However, the rest of the song develops into a clubby pop song, making the message feel much less unique. Perry’s repetition, and eventual semi-screeching of “daisies” also lends a touch too much cheese to the track.
However, its sister song, “Resilient,” combines Perry’s lung-heavy vocals with mellow electronic beats that carry an appealing tension. “It’s Not the End of the World” is another song you may find yourself reluctantly enjoying. The production is interesting, combining light hip-hop rhythms and a quite unself-conscious interpolation of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Here, Perry uses the melody to tell us, “Na na na/ what a time/ Na na na/ to be alive/ don’t say goodbye.” This repurposing of a classic song for Perry’s earnest message feels like an appropriate representation of Perry’s pop ethos: take what worked before, and make it even more direct.
“Smile,” complete with its self-aware and kind of cute reference to Perry’s American Idol co-worker Lionel Richie, will get you moving without you even noticing. Even as I listened to the song and felt skeptical about it, I realized I was dancing in my chair. Of course, Perry’s sentiments like “every day, Groundhog Day/ going through the motions felt so fake” manage to feel appropriately 2020.
“Champagne Problems” begins the final leg of Smile. At this point, you may start to feel a sort of blanket similarity between these tracks that is not quite appealing. However, “Champagne Problems” in particular feels most likely to be one of the growers on the album. The more you listen to it, the more you are seduced by the celebration of making it through the tough stuff overtop the sparkling, up-tempo beats.
“Tucked” and “Harleys in Hawaii” are the requisite sexy time songs for Smile, and are both reasonably fun. However, “Tucked,” while about the fun practice of keeping private fantasies, is somehow one of the more forgettable songs on the album. Besides that, lines like “Don’t need permission to do what I do to you [in my fantasy]” are not exactly the wisest choice. “Harleys in Hawaii,” however, is probably one of the best songs on the album because it fully commits to being entirely literal. Perry had a fabulous day riding Harleys in Hawaii, and she wanted to write a song about it! Wouldn’t we all? The bouncing rhythm of the music combined with silly rhyme choices like “hula-hula” and “jeweler-jeweler” and the sound effect of a revving engine to coincide with “I’m revving up your engine” makes the song un-self-consciously fun.
After that, Smile closes out quickly with the positive church-pop “Only Love” and the sweet, if dated “What Makes a Woman.” “Only Love” is thoroughly inoffensive and earnest, with Perry considering what she would do if she had limited time left – another relatable sentiment in this dark year.
“What Makes a Woman,” while well-intentioned and coming from an honest place, can’t help but feel a bit out of touch. There have been countless songs in pop history about “women: you just can’t understand them!” Perry continues that trend here with her chorus that states, “Could spend your whole life, but you couldn’t describe what makes a woman/ she’s always been a perfect mystery [and] that’s what makes a woman to me.” The short song, at just over two minutes, ends abruptly after Perry’s trite “is it the way we keep/the whole world turning/in a pair of heels? / yeah, that’s what makes a woman.” This song feels very applicable to Perry’s experience as a woman, but generally-speaking feels of a different era. Especially when compared to more incisive songs from this year dealing with similar themes, such as Dua Lipa’s “Boys Will Be Boys,” and even Lady Gaga’s “Free Woman,” this song feels starkly traditional.
Of course, that brings us back to the beginning with Smile, where we are reminded of just how classic Katy Perry is in her approach and her sound. That is fine, but the major problem it creates when listening to Smile is that you can’t help but compare her songs here to recent pop successes of this year. When Perry turns her pain into pop, you are reminded of Lady Gaga’s Chromatica; when you consider how long we’ve sat with some of these singles, you think about the sudden arrival and splash of Taylor Swift’s folklore; and when Perry tries to craft fun songs that celebrate womanhood and sexuality, you again think of Lipa’s Future Nostalgia.
Those comparisons are not something Perry can control, but the final moments of Smile remind us who this album is really for: Katy Perry herself. She tells herself, “There it is, Katheryn,” supposedly finding her smile. It’s a thoroughly Perry moment—meaning very earnest, un-cynical, and ultimately unnecessary—but it brings us back to what this journey is for her. Katy Perry loves pop music and how it can make you feel; when it’s good, it can make you smile even in the toughest situations. Perry’s Smile is a message sent from her slightly outdated pop world, but at its best, it can indeed make you smile and make you dance despite your most cynical inclinations.