There have been countless great pop songs about “California Gurls,” some of them by actual California girls. But Katy Perry’s Number One smash is one of the girliest and most Californian. It sets the tone for Teenage Dream, Perry’s album about Cali girls: their hopes, their dreams, their desire to hit the skate park in high heels. Throughout Dream, she chases an all-American teen-pop sound that’s older than the Hollywood Hills. One of her best songs, “The One That Got Away,” sets the scene: “Summer after high school, when we first met/We’d make out in your Mustang to Radiohead.” From there, she just piles on the sun-drenched drama.
Perry loves to cite vintage movie stars like Jane Russell and Liz Taylor as her biggest influences, and you can hear that all over her music. Even when she’s throwing down with Snoop, she vamps like she gets all her fashion tips from 62-year-old gay bartenders in Palm Springs. It just adds to the mystery that her uncle was the director Frank Perry, who made classic Hollywood movies about psycho ladies having drag-queen tantrums like Mommie Dearest and Diary of a Mad Housewife. When Katy Perry is flipping out in a ballad such as “Not Like the Movies,” sobbing on the floor over her tragic love life, she’s in a proud tradition of suburban girls who like their emotional meltdowns Hollywood-size.
Teenage Dream is the kind of pool-party-pop gem that Gwen Stefani used to crank out on the regular, full of SoCal ambience and disco beats. It’s miles ahead of Perry’s breakthrough disc, One of the Boys, with her clever songwriting boosted by top-dollar pros: Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Tricky Stewart, Stargate. In the 2010 style, her vocals are processed staccato blips with lots of oh-oh-way-oh chants. The tracks go heavy on Eighties beats, light on melody, taking a long dip into the Daft Punk filter-disco house sound.
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Major themes include: how awesome it is having sex with Russell Brand (“Hummingbird Heartbeat”), how it sucks having sex with guys who aren’t Russell Brand (“Pearl”), how true love rules (“Teenage Dream”), even though it’s not like the movies (“Not Like the Movies”). Perry likes her songs chatty; in the kegger romp “Last Friday Night,” she chirps, “Think I need a ginger ale/That was such an epic fail.” Stargate’s “Hollaback Girl” sequel “Peacock” bites a drum hook from Toni Basil’s “Mickey” as Perry demands some action, chanting, “I wanna see your peacock-cock-cock” — subtle!
Her Christian back story only comes up once, in “Who Am I Living For,” where Perry riffs on the biblical story of Esther, the Jewish orphan who married the Persian king and uncovered a plot to exterminate the Jews. It’s dark and compelling, especially since she sings it like Rihanna. “Circle the Drain” — which Perry presumably wrote about her ex, “Billionaire” singer Travie McCoy — is even darker, a kiss-off to a rocker hooked on pills. But she’s more at home with the mall romance of “The One That Got Away,” where she and the guy get matching tattoos on her 18th birthday. When Perry sings, “I was June, and you were Johnny Cash,” it’s understood that she’s thinking of the scrubbed-up Hollywood version of June and Johnny, from Walk the Line. But that’s just part of what makes her such a true California gurl.