Updated at 11:39 a.m. ET on September 2, 2020.
“I am a walking cartoon most days,” Katy Perry told Billboard in 2010, and anyone who lived through the reign of Teenage Dream—Perry’s smash album that turned 10 years old on August 24—knows what she meant. Everywhere you looked or clicked back then, there was Perry, wrapped in candy-cane stripes, firing whipped cream from her breasts, wearing a toothpaste-blue wig, and grinning like an emoji. She titled one world tour “Hello Katy,” a nod to the Japanese cat character on gel pens worldwide. She made her voice-acting debut, in 2011, by playing Smurfette.
Perry’s music was cartoonish too: simple, silly, with lyrics stringing together caricature-like images of high-school parties, seductive aliens, and girls in Daisy Dukes with bikinis on top. Kids loved the stuff, and adults, bopping along at karaoke or Starbucks, enjoyed it too. (Maybe that’s because, like with so much classic Disney and Looney Tunes animation, the cuteness barely disguised a ton of raunch.) Teenage Dream generated five No. 1 singles in the United States—a feat previously accomplished only by Michael Jackson’s Bad—and it went platinum eight times.*
Perry wasn’t alone in achieving domination through colorful looks and stomping songs. Teenage Dream arrived amid a wave of female pop singers selling their own costumed fictions: Lady Gaga, a walking Gaudí cathedral, roared EDM operas. Beyoncé shimmied in the guise of her alter ego, Sasha Fierce. Nicki Minaj flipped through personalities while wearing anime silhouettes and fuchsia patterns. Kesha, glitter-strewn and studded, babbled her battle cries. Taylor Swift trundled around in horse-drawn carriages. Each singer achieved impressive things, though arguably none of their albums so purely epitomized pop—in commercial, aesthetic, or sociological terms—like Perry’s Teenage Dream did.
A decade later, that early-2010s fantasy has ended, and Perry and her peers have seemed to switch gears. Rihanna has put her music career on pause while building a fashion and makeup empire. Beyoncé has turned her focus to richly textured visual albums that don’t necessarily spawn monster singles. Gaga, after a long detour away from dance floors, has returned to sounds and looks comparable to those of her early days, but she cannot bank on mass listenership for doing so. Swift keeps reinventing herself with greater seriousness, and little about her latest best seller, Folklore, scans as pop. Perry’s latest album, Smile, came out Friday. Regarding her new music’s likelihood of world domination, Perry told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, “My expectations are very managed right now.”
For the younger class of today’s stars, Teenage Dream seems like a faint influence. The Billboard Hot 100 is largely the terrain of raunchy rap, political rap, and emo rap, with a smattering of country drinking songs thrown in. Ultra-hummable singers such as Halsey and Billie Eilish are still on the radio, but they cut their catchiness with a sad, sleepy edge. A light disco resurgence may be brewing—BTS just strutted to No. 1 on the American charts while capitalizing on it—but that doesn’t change the overall mood of the moment. Almost nothing creates the sucrose high of Teenage Dream; almost nothing sounds as if Smurfette might sing it.
The recent state of commercial music has led to much commentary arguing that pop is dying, dead, or dormant. That’s a funny concept to consider—isn’t popular music, definitionally, whatever’s popular? In one sense, yes. But pop also refers to a compositional tradition, one with go-to chords, structures, and tropes. This type of pop prizes easily enjoyed melodies and sentiments; it moves but does not challenge the hips and the feet. It is omnivorous, and will spangle itself with elements of rock, rap, country, or whatever else it wants without losing its essential pop-ness. The early-2010s strain of it seemed like the height of irresistibility, and yet it’s mostly faded away. There are many reasons for that, but they can all be reduced to what Perry’s journey over the past decade has shown: Life and listening have become too complex for 2-D.
Pop has seemed to die and be reborn many times. When the 21st century arrived, the music industry was near the historical peak of its profitability—in part because of slick sing-alongs catering to teenagers and written by grown-up Swedes. But over the first few years of the 2000s, CD sales crashed thanks to the internet, boy bands such as ’NSync began to splinter, and Britney Spears’s long-running confrontation with the paparazzi reached an ugly culmination. Around the same time, women such as Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Ashlee Simpson, and Avril Lavigne began scoring hits inspired by mosh pits but more appropriate for malls. Gwen Stefani moved from rock-band frontwoman to dance-floor diva during this period as well. Such performers, though often assisted by the same producers and songwriters who helped mold Spears, flaunted unruly personalities to a reality-TV-guzzling public hungry for a kind of curated grit.
Katy Perry capped off this rock-pop boomlet. The California-born Katheryn Hudson had kicked around the music industry for years, first as a Christian singer—her parents were traveling evangelists—and then as an Alanis Morissette–worshipping songwriter. She finally hit on a winning combo of sounds for One of the Boys, her delicious 2008 major-label debut, whose spiky rhythms, crunching guitars, sneering vocals, and juvenile gender politics earned her a spot on the Warped Tour, a punk institution. But the gooey, sassy hooks of “I Kissed a Girl,” “Waking Up in Vegas,” and “Hot n Cold” really made her a household name. Some of those songs benefited from the touch of Max Martin and Dr. Luke, songwriters-slash-producers of 2000s pop legend. (In 2014, Kesha filed a lawsuit accusing Dr. Luke, her producer and manager, of rape and abuse; he denied her claims and eventually prevailed in a years-long, very-public court battle over Kesha’s record contract.)
By late 2009, when Perry set out to record her follow-up to One of the Boys, the musical landscape had shifted again thanks to the arrival of Lady Gaga, a former cabaret singer with mystique-infused visuals and an electro-dance sound. What made Gaga different was not only her thundering Euro-club beats, but also her persona, or lack thereof. Gaga’s work overflowed with camp fun while keeping the singer’s true nature hidden under outrageous headpieces. By forgoing any attempts at banal relatability, Gaga seemed deep. In this way, she updated the glam antics of Prince, Madonna, and David Bowie for the YouTube era. Many of her peers took note, including Perry. Teenage Dream was lighter and happier than anything Gaga did, but it was electronic and fanciful in a manner that Perry’s previous work had not been. The cartoon Perry was born.
The conceit of Teenage Dream’s title track—“you make me feel like I’m living a teenage dream”—really boils down pop’s appeal to its essence: indulging a preposterous rush while also reveling in its preposterousness. “It is Perry’s self-consciousness—her awareness of herself as a complete package—that makes her interesting,” went one line in an NPR rave about the album. Even skeptical reviewers gave credit to standout singles such as “California Gurls” and “Firework” for being effective earworms. Perry had laid out her intended sound by sending a mixtape of the Cardigans and ABBA to Dr. Luke, who was part of a production team that pushed for perfection. “People on the management side and label side were pretty much telling me that we were done, before we had ‘Teenage Dream’ or ‘California Gurls,’” Luke told Billboard in 2010. “And I said, ‘No, we’re not done.’”
Such efforts ensured Teenage Dream’s incredible staying power on the charts through early 2012. The album’s deluxe reissue that year then generated a sixth No. 1 single, “Part of Me,” which also provided the title of a self-produced documentary that Perry released around the same time. Much of the footage showcases the stagecraft behind her 2011–12 world tour, a pageant of dancing gingerbread men and poofy pink clouds that would presage her hallucinatory 2015 Super Bowl halftime show. Perry comes off as charming and willful, and the film currently sits as the 11th-highest-grossing documentary in U.S. box-office history.
Yet the movie is best remembered today not for the way it shored up Perry’s shiny image, but for the way it complicated it. Over the course of the tour, Perry’s marriage to the comedian Russell Brand dissolved, and the cameras captured her sobbing just before getting on stage in São Paulo. It’s a wrenching, now-legendary scene. But elsewhere in the film, the viewer can’t help but experience cognitive dissonance as the singer’s personal dramas are synced up to concert footage of grin-inducing costumes and schoolyard sing-alongs. By hitching Teenage Dream’s whimsy to real-life struggle, the movie seemed to subvert exactly what had made the album successful: the feeling that Perry’s music was made to escape, not amplify, one’s problems.
Perry released her next album in 2013, a year that now seems pivotal in mainstream music’s trajectory. That’s the year Gaga pushed her meta-superficial shtick until it broke on the bombastic Artpop, which earned mixed reviews and soft sales. It’s also the year Lorde, a New Zealand teenager whose confessional lyrics and glum sonic sensibility would be copied for the rest of the decade, released her debut. Then in December, Beyoncé surprise-dropped a self-titled album whose opening track, “Pretty Hurts,” convincingly critiqued the way society asks women to construct beauty-pageant versions of themselves. Later on the album, Beyoncé sang in shockingly explicit detail about her marriage to Jay-Z. Tropes of drunken hookups, simmering jealousy, and near-breakups were reinvigorated as specific and biographical, thanks in part to Beyoncé’s fluency with rap’s and R&B’s storytelling methods. She ended up seeming more glamorous than ever for the appearance of honesty.
The title of Perry’s album, Prism, not-so-subtly advertised her trying, too, to show more dimension. But the songs’ greeting-card empowerment messages, hokey spirituality, and awkward genre hopping made it seem as if Perry had simply changed costumes rather than had a true breakthrough. Still, both the cliché-parade of “Roar” and the trap-appropriating “Dark Horse” hit No. 1., and Prism’s track list includes a few examples of expert, big-budget songcraft. The album would turn out to be Perry’s last outing with a key collaborator, Dr. Luke. While she has maintained that she’s had only positive experiences with the producer, Perry hasn’t recorded a song with him since Kesha filed her 2014 lawsuit.
The Kesha-versus-Luke chapter added to a brewing sense that the carefree pop of the early 2010s was built on dark realities: Perry and Gaga have both described their most profitable years as personally torturous. Broader social and political developments—Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, and the election of Donald Trump—also proved impossible to ignore for even the most frivolous-seeming entertainers. “When I first came out, we were living in a different mindset in the world,” Perry said in a recent Rolling Stone interview. “We were flying high off of, like, life. We weren’t struggling like we are. There wasn’t so much of a divide. All of the inequality was kind of underneath the mat. It was unspoken. It wasn’t facing us. And now it’s really facing us. I just feel like I can’t just put an escapist record out: Like, let’s go to Disneyland in our mind for 45 minutes.”
If that point of view sounds blinkered by privilege—who wasn’t struggling before, Katy?—Perry probably wouldn’t disagree. Her 2017 album, Witness, arrived with a blitz of publicity about how the star had become politically awakened and had decided to strip back her Katy Perry character to show more of the real Katheryn Hudson. A multiday live-stream in which fans watched her sleep, wake up, have fun, and go to therapy certainly conveyed that she didn’t want to seem like a posterized picture anymore. Yet neither Witness’s attempts at light sloganeering (the anti-apathy “Chained to the Rhythm”) nor its sillier side (the charmingly odd “Swish Swish”) connected with the public. It’s hard to say whether the problem was more temperamental or technological: By 2017, streaming had fully upended the radio-centric monoculture that stars like Perry once thrived in.
Her new album, Smile, is an explicit reaction to the commercial and critical disappointment of the Witness phase. Over jaunty arrangements, song after song talks about perking up after, per Smile’s title track, an “ego check.” There are also clear nods to her personal life. “Never Really Over” ruminates on a dead-then-revived relationship much like the one she has had with Orlando Bloom. “What Makes a Woman,” Perry has said, is a letter to her daughter, who was born on Wednesday. But she’s still mostly communicating in generic terms—lyrics depict flowers growing through pavement and frowns turned around—and with interchangeable songs. The explosive optimism of Teenage Dream has been replaced by ambivalence and resolve, yet the musical mode hasn’t really changed to match.
This leaves Perry tending to longtime fans but unlikely to mint many new ones. That’s because pure pop, the kind that thrives on doing simplicity really well, is largely a niche art form now. The delightful Carly Rae Jepsen will still sell out venues despite not having had a true hit in years. Today’s most acclaimed indie acts include the likes of 100 Gecs and Sophie, who create parodic, deadpan pastiches of pop clichés. Fixtures such as Lady Gaga do still have enough heft to ripple the charts (and thank God—her sense of spectacle saved the VMAs on Sunday). But her recent No. 1 single, “Rain on Me,” benefited from Ariana Grande, whose ongoing success comes from smartly channeling R&B. The current status of Dr. Luke, who has retreated from the public eye but still works with lesser-known talents and while using pseudonyms, seems telling too. He can’t land a hit with Kim Petras, a dance diva in the Katy Perry lineage. But he can land a hit with a rapper: He’s behind Doja Cat’s recent smash “Say So.”
Streaming, now the dominant form of music consumption, does not reward bright and insistent sing-alongs that demand attention but offer little depth. It instead works well for vibey background music, like the kind made by Post Malone, who’s maybe the most cartoonish figure of the present zeitgeist. It also works well for hip-hop with an obsession-worthy interplay of slangy lyrics, syncopated rhythms, and complex personas, all of which are presented in a context that feels like it has something to do with real life. Last week’s No. 1 song in the country, “WAP,” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, radiates some of the fantastical thrill of the 2010 charts. But it delivers that thrill as part of a lewd verbal onslaught by women whom the public has come to know on an alarmingly personal level. The video for “WAP” is bright and pink, yes, but also immersive. It’s not a cartoon—it’s virtual reality.
* This article previously misstated that Ed Sheeran, Adele, and Katy Perry were the only English-language singers to go platinum at least eight times in the 2010s.