The first time I heard “Roar,” the lead-off single and opening track from Prism, Katy Perry’s fourth full-length record—as well as Perry’s eighth number one hit—I thought it was a solid pop song. It had a catchy melody, a huge, arena-rock-esque hook, generic lyrics, and just about everything else you would expect from the new Katy Perry single. It was neither a great song nor a terrible one, and after coming to loathe pretty much every radio hit from both 2008’s breakthrough, One of the Boys and 2010’s world-conquering juggernaut,Teenage Dream, “solid pop song” was just about a home run for Perry in my book.
Then I started paying a bit more attention.
In reality, “Roar” is the perfect encapsulation of what Prism is for its first half, not because the song an empty hook with possibly the blandest girl power message of all time—though it is—but because it’s a shameless piece of copycat songwriting that probably owes some of its number one royalties to half a dozen better songs. In his column about this album,Grantland’s Steven Hyden jokingly remarked that Perry should kick eighties pop band Survivor “a couple of shekels” for quoting the title lyric of their inspirational anthem, “Eye of the Tiger,” in the middle of the chorus. “Roar” is also the exact same song as Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” which was in turn the most generic pop single from this year’s terrificThe Blessed Unrest. And while it would be easy to write off the similarities between the two songs as little more than coincidence, a look at the song’s army of pop songwriters makes the similarities a bit more suspect.
“Roar” has five songwriters, all of whom bring a substantial amount of mainstream clout to the table, and two of whom are probably the most successful pop songwriters of the past decade. The first, Max Martin, has a penchant for writing the biggest hits—and worst songs—on big albums by the likes of Taylor Swift and Pink. The second, “Dr.” Lukasz Gottwald, has a history of “writing” songs plagued by accusations of blatant plagiarism. By all accounts, Dr. Luke is a bottom-feeding, opportunistic hack who gets away with stealing other peoples’ songs because he files defamation lawsuits the second anyone accuses him of wrongdoing. It’s hardly surprising that Bareilles shrugged off the comparisons between her song and “Roar” earlier this summer, even though the similarities between the two were enough to fuel a perfect mash-up of Nickelback proportions. No one wants to deal with a lawsuit from the richest songwriter in Hollywood, even if that songwriter is getting away with turning your modest, Top 40 hit into a global number one smash.
Dr. Luke, in my mind, is the summation of everything that’s wrong with pop music today, and he is the cancer that takes Prism from territory of “promising pop album” to “viciously painful slog” in a matter of minutes. The worst offender is “Dark Horse,” the album’s third single, and a pale attempt at emulating the dark club grooves of Justin Timberlake’s recent music—complete with Timbaland-esque spoken word bits and a rap section by Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J that challenges Jay-Z for the title of “worst feature of the year.” “She’s a beast, I call her Karma/She eat your heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer,” J groans over synth blips made to sound like children’s voices. Enough said
“Legendary Lovers” is nearly as bad, with a faux-exotic back-up track that feels like it exists solely to allow Perry the chance to dress up as Cleopatra and dance in front of pyramids for a bad music video. It’s Luke and Martin’s attempt to turn Perry into Madonna. And the groovy eighties pop of “Birthday” is a mercilessly catchy cobble-job of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” and Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over,” but the sense that we’ve heard it all before hardly matters: the song will be a huge hit and a birthday playlist staple until the end of time.
Predictably, Prism is at its best when it kicks Dr. Luke to the curb, like on the weightless ‘90s Eurodance tribute that is “Walking on Air,” or the closing sappy ballad trio of “This Moment,” “Double Rainbow,” and “By the Grace of God.” “Walking on Air” is no more original than any of the Luke contributions—the prevalent “deny it” vocal sample is an openly nostalgic look back at C+C Music Factory’s iconic “Everybody Dance Now”—but here, the imitation feels like genuine inspiration rather than sneaky theft.
Meanwhile, “Double Rainbow” and “By the Grace of God” both appear as generic, introspective ballads on the surface, but handily trump the set’s other pair of introspective ballads—“Unconditionally” and “Ghost”—because they show a refreshing lack of pretense or unnecessary pop bombast. “Unconditionally” is fine, a solid melody tarnished somewhat by an awkward rhyme scheme and a bizarre pronunciation of the title word on the chorus. “Ghost” is less fine, a cringeworthy bundle of lyrical clichés minus Perry’s usual soaring hook. Still, both songs make more sense in context than the “California Gurls” rewrite that is “This Is How We Do” or the jet-setting diva pop of “International Smile,” mainly becausePrism is justifiably a more downbeat affair than Teenage Dream. If Dream was the “falling in love” album, then Prism is the break-up record, thanks to Perry’s 2012 divorce from actor Russell Brand. And a Ke$ha-esque throwaway like “This Is How We Do,” whether or not it lives up to its extremely premature title of “song of the summer, 2014,” has absolutely no place on a break-up album.
Luckily, “Double Rainbow,” despite its title, is far from a “Firework” sequel. Co-written by singer/songwriter Sia, the song is a downtrodden look back at the beginning of a relationship after everything has gone to hell. And while the lyrics aren’t particularly stunning on the surface, Perry’s low-key delivery of “I understand you, we see eye to eye” on the chorus hits harder than anything from one of her many chart-topping hits. “By the Grace of God” is similarly devastating, chronicling the self-confessed suicidal musings that plagued Perry in the wake of her divorce. “I wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way,” Perry sings. It’s the most resilient, revealing line of her career, and it’s a sign that, maybe, without all the studio gloss or big-name songwriters, she could be a hell of a lot more than what this album shows us.
The same feeling is prevalent on “This Moment,” a prom-ready power ballad and the album’s best song. Come next spring, with graduations going off around the country and endings in the air, the song could be a huge, ubiquitous hit. But for now at least, it’s just a damn good example of what a good, generic, inspirational pop song can be. Perry’s vocal is powerful and emotive; the song’s build climactic and forceful. It’s hardly more unique than the annual American Idol coronation song, but along with the two confessional ballads that follow it, “This Moment” is an indication of the music that I think Perry actually wants to make. As the album moves forward, the highly-paid songwriters fall away and the production gets stripped back, leaving us with a much clearer portrait of who Katy Perry would be without the major label system throwing millions of dollars at her albums.
The trend leaves a frustrating dichotomy—between big pop smashes and confessional ballads—that renders Prism messy, inconsistent, and difficult to get a hold on. Had the label let Perry make a downbeat break-up album, it might have been great. As is, Dr. Luke and Max Martin turn Prism into their own personal pop songwriting dick measuring contest, pushing Perry’s actual personality into the background and stringing her up with grating hooks, horrifically awful lyrics, and enough clichés of the festering pop music scene to show anyone why the industry is rotting itself from the inside out. When the moments of clarity kick in toward the end, they force a double take, but they aren’t enough to save what is, for the majority of its runtime, an album with too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough good songs to recommend.