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'Smile' and the collapse of Katy Perry

<p>Katy Perry's latest album "Smile" underperformed with audiences and critics — but why?</p>

Katy Perry's latest album "Smile" underperformed with audiences and critics — but why?

It has been a long day for Katy Perry. It is 4:30 in the afternoon, and she’s running late to the next virtual press conference scheduled for her media day. When she finally clicks on the appropriate link, she’s whisked into a Zoom room filled with nearly 350 college journalists, all eager to ask the living legend herself a battery of pre-screened questions.

Perry looks at the faces on her screens. To her delight, she somehow manages to recognize a few among the crowd. Had she clicked a few buttons and explored all seven pages of the Zoom room, she might have even seen my face. Recognizing me, however, would be a different story —  the only time we’ve even been in the same state would be that time in 2009 when Perry performed in Myrtle Beach at a concert I didn’t even know about.

Why is Katy Perry herself in a Zoom room with a bunch of nobodies like me, you ask? To promote her new album “Smile,” naturally. If you want to make waves in culture, the most effective thing to do is to target young people.  

Did this marketing ploy work, though? Well, I’m writing this article, and you’re presumably reading it, so I guess so. And honestly, her album could use the help. On Sunday Sept. 6, Billboard unveiled that “Smile” debuted at a disappointing fifth on their flagship album chart after an underwhelming showing in sales and streaming numbers. 

All of this makes her 2010 album “Teenage Dream” feel like a long, long time ago. That album, released almost exactly 10  years before “Smile,” was supported by an unbelievable run of five chart-topping singles, a record that Perry shares with Michael Jackson.

The stark difference between these two albums begs a simple question: 

What happened to Katy Perry?

Perry’s fall from grace is both well-documented and headache-inducingly complex. Her problems can be traced all the way back to her fervent support for Hillary Clinton, a deeply unpopular presidential candidate among the general public, and her “purposeful pop” album, “Witness,” that followed in the wake of Clinton’s loss. Roll these elements up with Perry’s much-maligned pixie cut, and you have a recipe for disaster in a music industry that punishes artists for deviating from their established brand, which for Perry, was her carefree attitude and effortless sex appeal. 

Perry's combined challenges during the “Witness” era and the Clinton candidacy left the pop star deeply depressed. It didn’t help that her struggle was widely mocked in the popular “You just have to say that you’re fine” meme format that pulled audio from one of her 2014 interviews and then overlaid the clip with fail videos. 

Eventually, Perry managed to overcome her depression, and from this triumph, “Smile” was born. Despite its uplifting message, the album was unable to escape the legacy of its predecessor. Its most successful single, “Never Really Over,” was released as a droplet nearly 15 months before the album was released.  The terrible droplet that followed, however, “Small Talk,” killed any and all momentum that “Never Really Over” might have generated. Fittingly, “Small Talk” was relegated to the Target deluxe edition of “Smile.”

After “Small Talk,” Perry was unable to get back on her feet commercially, though at least not for a lack of quality. “Harleys in Hawaii,” the trop-pop breeze that followed “Small Talk,” is a strong contender for Perry’s best song ever, and “Daisies,” the official lead single for the album, is an uplifting EDM-tinged ballad that felt appropriate during the early era of quarantine in which it was released. 

Thankfully for Perry’s mental health, she has repeatedly professed that she no longer cares about the charts. Perhaps this mentality has created a feedback loop where Katy’s underpermance makes her care less, which makes her try less, in turn causing her to underperform even more. However, there are thousands of musicians that try really really hard and flop anyway. Instead, it would seem that her continued struggles are far more complex, with both large structural barriers, like a sexist and ageist music industry that refuses to give women over the age of 35 second chances and the smaller, more contingent missteps, like bad single choices. Regardless, even if things are not looking good for Katy Perry’s career, she will always have her iconic legacy to lean on, having defined an entire generation with her bottomless barrel of hits. That’s something to be proud of. 

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