Smile: a review and analysis of the new album from Katy Perry
It’s no secret to anyone that Katy Perry’s career has taken somewhat of a downward turn, including Perry herself. Perry racked up hit after hit during her first three album campaigns, including a notable hot streak during Teenage Dream that established her as a hitmaker. However, during her last album Witness, Perry struggled to land another hit after its lead single “Chained to The Rhythm” and encountered the backlash (some of it warranted, most of it undeserved) that comes when society decides a female pop star’s viability is over. Following that album, Perry experienced depression, prompting her to check into the Hoffman Institute for treatment. Perry also took on a role on American Idol as a judge and mentor, rekindled her romance with Orlando Bloom and getting engaged and eventually, announcing her first pregnancy. Smile is Perry’s first album to launch without a top 10 hit, but interviews leading up to the album’s release established Perry’s nonchalance towards obtaining future hits. Despite this, Perry has promoted the album as best any pop star could under the circumstances of COVID-19, filming performances for American Idol & Good Morning America and connecting with fans during a weekly livestream on Sundays, previewing the album and answering burning questions. If nothing else, Perry can go into this album knowing she gave it the old college try and has persevered through events where others might have given up.
“Never Really Over” was first released as a standalone single back in 2019, and offers a return to the shimmering electropop Perry ruled radios with before Witness, though keeping the dancier element of that album somewhat intact. Perry struggles with an on-off relationship, finding herself incapable of entirely leaving it behind her & eventually coming to the conclusion that things between them won’t end anytime soon. Referencing Norwegian synthpop singer Dagny’s “Love You Like That”, the production mainly takes cues from the 80s inspired synthpop with a relentless chorus. Perry’s vocals are better than ever before, letting loose a soaring high note of relief after building frustration with the neverending cycle of breaking up and reuniting with her love interest. “Cry About It Later” finds a brokenhearted Perry headed off to the club to ignore the heartache of a recent breakup until she’s ready to feel it, distracting herself with alcohol and with the prospect of a new hookup. The darker synth-led new wave production alludes to Perry’s somber yet hedonistic outlook, throwing in an electric guitar solo that underscores the night-crawling persona Perry teases with a seductive and playful vocal delivery. Though some might see the chorus as repetitive, it works as a mantra that Perry is singing to herself to hold the tears back. Perry remains club-friendly with “Teary Eyes”, an earnest and direct take on the tears-on-the-dancefloor anthem as she sings about losing the joy in her life & dancing through the sadness, promising herself and listeners that they will heal in time. The production also plays it straight, taking its cues from nu-disco and house for a jubilant and uplifting dance song that sells Perry’s empowering lyricism. “Daisies” served as the album’s lead single and is an acoustic guitar-driven power-pop song that leans into adult-contemporary. Perry sings about being told her dreams were unattainable and promising to stay true to herself for as long as she lives, having achieved success based on believing in herself. It’s a catchy and simplistic song that allows Katy to offer genuine reflection and be relatable to listeners, reassuring them that they should go after their dreams.
“Resilient” is a self-assured statement that Perry knows she is strong, having recovered from a period of depression and conflict, concluding she has to go through the bad to appreciate the good in her life. She likens herself to a flower growing through the cracks in concrete, blossoming after weathering every storm. The production from StarGate is bouncy and airy with pizzicato strings, complementing Perry’s optimistic outlook. “Not The End of the World” sees Perry return to the fusion of electropop and trap Perry had significant success with on “Dark Horse” and Iggy Azalea’s “Black Widow”. This time, she addresses the underwhelming reception of her last album and brushes it off, urging herself and listeners not to lose hope and to find comfort in accepting missteps are necessary parts of life. The production is dramatic and builds on the apocalyptic motif of Perry’s lyrics as she samples Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” but flips the meaning to urge herself and listeners not to say goodbye and give up, singing with a dynamic and expressive vocal performance. “Smile”, the title track, is a celebration of Perry finally finding happiness in her life again, with Perry presenting herself as a remodeled version of herself who has found joy & name-checking fellow American Idol judge Lionel Richie. Sampling Naughty by Nature’s “Jamboree”, the production calls back to the funky disco-inflected pop Perry flaunted on Teenage Dream and Prism, giving the sonic impression that Perry has rediscovered herself. “Champagne Problems” is Perry’s ode to Orlando Bloom, celebrating all they have overcome together and anticipating married life together, suggesting they have no more worries now that they have found each other. The dance-pop production interpolates disco strings and a piano line borrowed from house music for a simmering and carefree romantic banger.
“Tucked” sees Perry fantasizing about a romantic interlude with someone she knows she shouldn’t be with, resolving to keep her attraction to herself and imagining different scenarios with her fantasy love interest. The production here is saccharine and airy, with a guitar riff reminiscent of The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” and contains influences of disco. Also issued before the album campaign as a standalone single, “Harleys in Hawaii” is a breezy change of pace for Perry as the production gives her a groovy tropical acoustic-guitar melody backed by some light trap drums to craft her imagery. Perry sings about being in love and enjoying a Hawaiian getaway with her partner, painting a picturesque scene of her and her lover laden with sexual innuendos. The chorus here is relaxed but still catchy, a diversion from her usually explosive and anthemic manner of writing choruses and Perry’s climactic high note reminds listeners of Perry’s strengths as a vocalist. Perry takes a personal turn on “Only Love” which sees her pondering her life so far, considering her relationships with her parents and declaring her intentions to change her approach to the world from now, wanting to die surrounded by love and leaving the hate in the past. Accompanied by airy synths and snaps, Perry sings soulfully and with sincerity, buoyed by her sometimes on-the-nose and sweet lyricism. On “What Makes a Woman”, Perry slows things down a bit to sing about her experiences being a woman and ponders upon what womanhood is, before concluding that no one thing makes a woman, acknowledging their diversity and strength in facing a world driven by patriarchy.
Smile isn’t a reinvention for Katy Perry so much as an attempt to move forward from the lackluster response to Witness. Perry charts her journey from the depression of stumbling in her career to acceptance with herself and finding new romance. Sonically, Perry does attempt to return to her previous sound in some areas, while turning her focus towards adult-contemporary audiences and fun pop music. Perry’s songwriting retains its wide-eyed optimism and charming colloquialisms, often finding earnest and heartfelt ways to denote her experience while staying relatable to listeners. The album also sees a return of Perry’s self-empowerment style of writing — often focused on Perry’s struggles with heartbreak, sadness and disappointment — and offering positive affirmations that things will improve, sometimes treading the same water she did on Prism. Perry’s vocal performance across the album is some of her best work in her career thus far, as she wields it like a skilled tool, manipulating it when necessary. Perry pours her life experiences into an album that hopes to pivot from the unintentional debacle of the Witness era & though Perry may not regain her superstar status, she has created a solid, light and enjoyable body of work.