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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Katy Perry's Teenage Dream (Capitol)

Written off as frothy confection, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream proved to be pop perfection

Katy Perry's Teenage Dream (Capitol)
Graphic: Patrick Gomez

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By the time Katy Perry released Teenage Dream in August 2010, the album had already given us the summer of “California Gurls” and the title track was well on its way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Expectations were exceedingly high—and critics were quick to say they were not met. The A.V. Club’s own review described most of the album as “ho-hum ballads and lackluster radio fodder,” which was kind compared to the Chicago Tribune’s take: “With music as rigidly formulaic as this, no wonder the teens in her songs want to party until they blank out.” But the album also made teens listening to her songs want to party—and apparently other age groups as well, as Teenage Dream would go on to become one of the most successful releases ever.

Though Teenage Dream is technically her third studio album, in many ways it was the debut of the Katy Perry so familiar today. It was the culmination of a transformation that began when Christian-rock singer Katy Hudson released an self-titled album in 2001 and kicked into high gear with the release of 2008’s pop-rock One Of The Boys. While there was a seven-year gap between albums, her transition from Christian messages to decidedly secular (and cringe-worthy) lyrics like “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf” and “You’re so gay, and you don’t even like boys” actually began shortly after the release of Katy Hudson. “I’ve been working on my record since I was 18 years old,” Perry (no longer Hudson, due to the popularity of actor Kate Hudson) told Prefix a few months before releasing “I Kissed A Girl,” which would become her first No. 1 hit. “I’ve gone through two record labels and written between sixty-five and seventy songs, and now it’s ready to come out. It’s been a long trip. I’ve had lots of money, lost lots of money, but the record’s here and it’s the right one.”

One Of The Boys earned Perry two Grammy nominations, a spot on Warped Tour, and two additional top-10 singles (“Hot N Cold” and “Waking Up In Vegas”). But she was just getting started. A year after releasing Boys, Perry headed back into the studio to begin work on what would become Teenage Dream. She reunited with Boys producers (and pop-music kingpins) Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Greg Wells, and Benny Blanco, and rounded out her team with the masterminds behind recent hits for Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kesha, and Kelly Clarkson. While working on the album, Perry told Rolling Stone that she would “definitely keep it pop” in order to not “alienate” her fanbase—though fans of her rock influences may disagree with the success of her latter goal.

Perry sent producers a mixtape of ABBA and The Cardigans songs as an example of the vibe she was looking to evoke on Teenage Dream, which was recorded over a six-month period. “When I went on tour, as much as I love all the in-between songs, I felt I was missing some of the stuff that made people bounce up and down. I really love that feeling when people are all jumping in unison,” she told HitFix in April 2010. Just a month later, she released “California Gurls,” which debuted at the top of the U.S. Billboard Digital Songs chart and at No. 2 on the Hot 100. Positioned as a West Coast answer to JAY-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State Of Mind,” the song featured a verse by Snoop Dogg and Perry’s signature cheeky wordplay, but traded Boys’ grungy guitar for an infectiously catchy disco-pop vibe. It was so infectious, in fact, that many said co-producer Dr. Luke had also used it on Kesha’s “Tik Tok.” (Years later, Perry would be deposed as part of Dr. Luke’s defamation suit against Kesha following the “Tik Tok” singer’s sexual assault allegations against him.)

Comparisons to Kesha aside, “California Gurls” was buoyant summer fun, a retro mood that continued two months later with the release of Teenage Dream’s title track. In many ways, “Teenage Dream” is a quintessential midtempo pop song, but sprinkled with unexpected chords and syncopated vocals. The song had a relatively slower rise to the top of the charts, debuting at No. 20, but reached the apex of the Hot 100 in an impressive six weeks.

After providing a party track and a love song, Perry shifted gears to a well that she’d return to often in the years to come: the empowerment anthem. As one critic put it, “Firework” was a “a straight up self-empowerment anthem wrapped in a Coldplay-on-poppers club banger.” The song became her third consecutive chart-topper, with a fourth coming down the pipeline in her Kanye West collaboration, the dubstep-infused “E.T.,” followed by a fifth with her debauched dance-pop celebration “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” Perry released her sixth-and-final Teenage Dream single 17 months after “California Gurls”: pop ballad “The One That Got Away,” which reached No. 3 on the chart. (It should be noted that Perry released 1980s-rock inspired “Hummingbird Heartbeat” as a single in Australia almost another year later.)

Simply based on descriptions, Perry’s six (or seven) Teenage Dream singles run the gamut—but the magic of the album is that it remains cohesive, and all but two of the 12 tracks were released as at least promotional singles. Even when taking into account the innuendo-laden cheer song “Peacock” and ballad “The One That Got Away,” the heightened emotions of teen love, lust, and self-discovery remain a constant throughout. Perry credited a lot of her own hummingbird heartbeat during the creation of the album to comedian and actor Russell Brand, who became her fiancé a few months into her Teenage Dream recording sessions. Brand would continue to influence Perry’s music after their 14-month marriage ended in December 2011: Perry released Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection in March 2012. The deluxe reissue featured remixes and three brand-new songs, including break-up track “Part Of Me,” which many assumed was about Brand but was actually written years before their split, and power ballad “Wide Awake,” which Perry has said was inspired by “major life changes”—including her divorce.

In total, the singles off the original album spent a record-breaking 69 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10. Teenage Dream is tied with Michael Jackson’s Bad for the most No. 1 singles off one album (a record Perry bests if you include “Part Of Me”). But beyond the impressive statistics—which also include spending more than 200 weeks on the Billboard Hot 200 and being certified eight times platinum in the U.S.—Teenage Dream solidified Perry’s fanbase and allowed her to graduate to stadium tours, million-dollar endorsement deals, and, eventually, American Idol judge. She’s sold millions of copies of two subsequent albums, Prism and Witness, and Smile is due later this week. But ask any casual fan for their favorite Katy Perry song and they’ll probably conjure up an image of her Candy Land costumes and offer a now-decade-old song from Teenage Dream. Perry may never eclipse the success of her 2010 album—but as her album cover predicted, Perry is doing just fine among the clouds.

A.V. Club Editor in Chief...but really just a She-Ra, Schitt’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, Survivor, Big Brother, Top Chef, The Good Place superfan.

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