Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream': Pop's Last Great Escape

Written By Sam Murphy on 08/25/2020
Katy Perry

When Katy Perry released Teenage Dream’s lead single California Gurls in 2010, she pegged it as a response to JAY-Z and Alicia Keys’ Empire State Of Mind. The hugely successful 2009 single was an autobiographical trip through JAY’s city that laid out the highs and lows of New York City. Up there with Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York and Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, it remains one of the city’s defining soundtracks. 

“I was a little bit jealous of all the love that was given to the East Coast, and I thought for sure Tupac was rolling in his grave,” said Perry, a line that’s unbelievably not the clumsiest thing she’s said by a long shot. California Gurls was a perky, sugar-coated cut that took Perry from pop/rock newcomer to budding superstar. With a team of producers including Max Martin and Dr. Luke, it remains a top-tier pop song, housing the sort of chorus that never leaves your head regardless of your thoughts on it.

It’s hard to imagine Tupac finding much peace in California Gurls but it was a valiant aim. Her eagerness to make a West Coast anthem with lyrics like, “daisy dukes, bikinis on top,” is just one example of how Teenage Dream existed in a world of its own. It’s idealism and escapism by a popstar who was leading the genre through an uncomplicated period - one of fictional lands, alter-egos and lots of glitter.

This is not to frame Teenage Dream as undeserving of its accolades. It’s a brilliant pop record. It bursts with personality, humour and inspiration weaved together by Perry who was a clumsy but loveable artist. She was just as willing to don braces in a film clip as she was to frolick on a beach. She could flick from stirring anthems (Firework) to cheeky pop laced with sexual innuendos in a heartbeat (Peacock) and she adopted each persona masterfully. She was, in many ways, the quintessential popstar - a trend-jumper and an actress with enough humility to appear relatable.

In a year that also celebrated Jason Derulo, David Guetta, Bruno Mars and Taio Cruz, Perry was the perfect queen to lead the genre through an uncomplicated time. And she did. The album clocked a mind-blowing five number 1 singles and the album was the 44th highest selling record of the 2010s. It’s hard to argue against the fact that she was the biggest popstar of 2010. 

Last month, Perry defended her forthcoming record Smile and its concept saying it’s not, “ignorant escapism.” Interestingly, that exact phrase is one that can be handed to Teenage Dream as a concept. “You and I we’ll be young together,” she sings on the title track. Elsewhere on the song, she demands, “let’s runaway,” going on to say, “don’t ever look back.” The guitar riff is euphoric, the chorus is anthemic and the nostalgia is rich. It’s the opening statement of the album and one that serves as a thematic base for the rest of it. On California Gurls, we’re taken to this rose-coloured depiction of California, on E.T. we’re shot into space and on Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) the visions are too hazy to know where we were. Oh well.

Even when Perry comes close to approaching any dark aspects of humanity, she insists we can rise above it, shooting through the sky like a firework. Even when you feel like a plastic bag, you’ve just got to “ignite the light.” This kind of self-inspiration defined pop for years to come as David Guetta and Sia told us we’re Titanium, Kesha insisted We R Who We R and Kelly Clarkson proclaimed, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Unquestionable self-worth no matter who you are was in vogue and Perry even took it onto her next album Prism, opening the campaign with stirring ballad Roar. 

It’s a lot of fun to return to Teenage Dream. There are very few songs that don’t hit the spot. The One That Got Away bleeds nostalgia, Circle The Dream is full of juvenile angst and the saxophone on Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) still conjures a smile. When Perry is allowed to build her own world of metaphorical vagueness, she’s unparalleled. 

Teenage Dream also serves as a bookmark of the last time pop was largely left unaccountable for anything. A lot has changed since. The elephant in Teenage Dreams’ room is Dr. Luke. He’s now an alleged abuser, accused by Kesha who was ruling the charts with Perry at the time. Perry insists her experience with Luke was “a healthy one”, however, he hasn’t appeared in the credits of any of her songs since the accusations. 

That’s not the sole reason pop has become weightier but it’s difficult to look back on the escapist pop of Teenage Dream and not see it as somewhat tainted by its collaborator. Perhaps more than any of her peers, Perry has been forced to confront the changing face of pop. While pop artists like Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Ariana Grande have very naturally operated in this climate of “conscious pop”, Perry has been under the microscope.

Her fourth album Witness, attempted to make statements about political inactivity and restore power to the people but ultimately opened her up to criticism. Clunky, racist jokes about Barrack Obama and a spotlight on the cultural appropriation of her costumes are just a few reasons why Perry has been unable to maintain the stranglehold she once had on pop. It’s interesting to consider whether her Tupac comment would’ve been so easily digested now. 

Dance/Pop, in essence, is escapism. It comes with the nature and tempo of it but now even when we’re taking off from earth, we’re left with one eye on the original destination. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia draw parallels to Teenage Dream. For one, it’s Lipa’s second record and also her global breakthrough. It’s also a record dripping in love-framed escapism. As fun as it is, she brings us back down to earth with Boys Will Be Boys - a damning, if not broad, comment on engrained misogyny. Gaga’s Chromatica is also outlandishly fun but it’s not without its comments on mental health and institutional misogyny. It’s worth noting, the political and social perspectives of female popstars has been more heavily critiqued than that of males. Harry Styles’ blockbuster second record Fine Line successfully made its biggest political position, “treat people with kindness.”

Teenage Dream shouldn’t be retrospectively critiqued for not saying much at all. Despite Perry’s blunders since, her second album is one of the best pop albums of the millennium. A no-skip collection of pop music that bursts with colour, optimism and fantasy. 

Tupac can rest easy too. California Gurls continues to clock radio play globally, repping for the West Coast while Empire State Of Mind fights against it for the East Coast.