Katy Perry has always been known for her zany outfits, but on the cover of her newest album, the 35-year-old pop singer looks like a clown — literally. She’s covered in a puffy blue and white checkered dress, a red ball sits on the tip of her nose and she’s wearing a facial expression that mimics how many of us feel in today’s day and age — totally over everything. But right under Perry’s clownish look is where the irony lies; the word “smile” is printed in a bold and elongated sans-serif font in the shape of, of course, a smile.
Perry released her fifth studio album, “Smile,” on August 28th. With an upbeat pop and electronic blend, Perry digs into more serious and grounded topics on this album than she focused on in her earlier music, like overcoming adversity and feeling grateful.
All of this makes sense. Much has happened since Perry’s 2017 album, “Witness.” She got back together with her boyfriend Orlando Bloom, became a judge on American Idol, got engaged to Bloom, resolved a longstanding feud with Taylor Swift and two days before the release of her album, gave birth to her daughter, Daisy Dove Bloom.
In 2010, Perry shook the pop landscape with chart-topping hits like “Teenage Dream,” “Firework,” and “Last Friday Night.”. Compared to the fluffy and vibrant images of “Baby you’re a firework” and “Glitter all over the room/ Pink flamingoes in the pool” present in earlier songs, Perry’s latest album takes on a more motivational tone, encouraging listeners to “Keep on dancing with those teary eyes.”
An Album Formed From Hardship
Written in response to her 2017 breakup with Bloom and the underwhelming reception of “Witness,” “Smile” is Perry’s arrival on dry land, where she reflects on her previous experiences while also doling out some “you can do it too!” inspiration to fans.
In her song “Resilient,” Perry notes that a silver lining can be found in every situation, as she reassuringly sings, “But do you know the hotter the fire, the purer the gold is?” And other songs, like “Not the End of the World,” sound like they were written with the sole intention of cheering up others during a dismal situation.
Aside from her message about powering through setbacks, Perry uses “Smile” as a means to reflect on the relationships in her life. One of the most powerful songs on the album includes “Only Love,” where she ponders what she would do if she only had one day left to live. In a gesture of vulnerability, she warmly sings, “Oh, I’d call my mother and tell her I’m sorry/ I never call her back.”
Criticism and Context: Music in the Time of COVID-19
Written before the coronavirus changed our world as we know it, “Smile” has garnered criticism for being a little too cheery when everything seems like it’s going to hell. No doubt, if new music is supposed to accurately reflect the times we’re living in, then Perry clearly missed the mark. The album’s present-tense, combined with uplifting lyrics like “All we’ve got are champagne problems” and “It’s no funeral we’re attending,” certainly did not age well in the time of a global pandemic.
When looking at how “Smile” fits into a larger context — music released during the time of COVID-19 — the album hits on a large question. What type of music should we expect from artists right now?
The beginning of the pandemic put most creative endeavors on hold, but now, as the sixth month of quarantine is ripped from the wall calendar and placed into an overflowing wastebasket, people (including artists) are spending less time waiting for the pandemic to be over and more time focusing on how to go back to their old lives, albeit, amid a new set of circumstances.
So, what do we want from pop icons like Perry? Vivid descriptions of their indistinguishable days under lockdown? Lyrics about how life is just about as exciting as eating a bran muffin without butter? These messages of hopelessness and loneliness baked into our music serve no significant purpose when we already have Twitter to deliver them for us.
Instead, “Smile” offers something else. It is encouragement for listeners to plow through hardship and arrive at the other side, a message that’s particularly useful during a time when the end of quarantine lies far out of sight. Not to mention, the album also adds a streak of color to break up the bland reel of everyday life.
All of this is not to say that “Smile” should win album of the year. As critics have stated about “Witness” and her other music releases, Perry’s lyrics can fall flat and, more often than not, build around clichés.
“Smile” is no exception to Perry’s typical style, and this combined with the album’s self-reflection can make it, at times, feel like we’re sitting in on a therapy session with Perry. In one of the album’s singles, titled “Smile,” lines like “Not myself, not my best/ Felt like I had failed the test,” make the song seem as if it should be the closing number to an educational kid’s musical, where the lessons learned in the past hour are summed up neatly into a happy bop.
Maybe Perry’s latest album isn’t a masterpiece. It does, however, provide listeners with a glimmer of hope and a beat they can groove to during a bleak time, even if it’s alone in their bedroom.