Katy Perry used to be the biggest name in pop music. She's one of only two artists to have five number one songs from one album. That album is Teenage Dream (release date 2010) and that other artist who achieved five number ones was Michael Jackson. Perry wasn't just successful. She was mega-successful. But it didn't last long.
Her follow-up to Teenage Dream, Prism had two massive hits Roar and Dark Horse but by Katy Perry mega-successful standards the other singles Unconditionally, Birthday, and This Is How We Do were flops. Teenage Dream sold 3 million copies in the United States while Prism only sold 1.7 million. That's quite a drop even when you factor in the increasing use of streaming rather than buying of music in the three years between their respective release dates. Here's an overview of some of Perry's hits and misses:
- Teenage Dream was massive. A reissue of Teenage Dream called Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection produced the US and UK #1 hit Part of Me. The follow-up Wide Awake peaked at #2 in the US and at #9 in the UK.
- The trouble for Perry started with her album Prism released in 2013. The lead single Roar was a #1 hit in several countries including the US and the UK.
- It was with the follow-up Unconditionally that things started to go wrong. The song peaked at #14 in the US and #25 in the UK.
- Perry made a comeback with the fan-favorite Dark Horse, which reached #1 in the US and #4 in the UK.
- But the good times didn't last for long. Birthday peaked at #17 in the US and #22 in the UK while This Is How We Do reached #24 in the US and #33 in the UK.
- In July 2016, Perry released a single called Rise for NBC's Olympic coverage. It was her first single in two years. Yet this song also struggled, reaching #11 in the US and #25 in the UK.
- The lead single from her fourth album Chained to the Rhythm fared a little better debuting at #4 in the US and #5 in the UK. While not bad, Chained is the first Perry lead single that didn't reach the #1 spot. And it didn't last long in the Billboard Hot 100's top 10. Two weeks after debuting at #4 the song had fallen out of the top 10. It also peaked at #7 on the pop radio play chart.
- The follow-up Bon Appetit failed to reach the top 10 on the iTunes chart on its release date and then quickly plummeted in sales. It picked at #59 in the US and #37 in the UK.
- Her album Witness got very respectable opening week sales of 180,000 album-equivalent units. Her second-week sales plummeted by 89%, the second-biggest second-week sales drop in history. It received a Metacritic score of 52, nine points lower than Prism's score.
Katy Perry and her label Capitol Records must be sweating bullets at this point. Perry is one of Capitol's biggest money-makers. So what happened? Why did Perry go from being massively successful to struggling in the span of a few years?
One problem Perry has had is a lack of critical respect. Her four albums have Metacritic scores of 47 (One of the Boys), 52 (Teenage Dream), 61 (Prism), 52 (Witness), and 58 (Smile) out of 100. Metacritic is an averaging of review scores from major music publications. Many pop stars receive Metacritic scores from the low 60's to the high 70's. Perry is underperforming most of her pop music contemporaries in terms of critical acclaim. In addition to her poorly received albums, she's also known for having many off-key live performances. And she's known for cartoony costumes, concerts, and music videos.
Critical respect matters even if many people claim they dismiss the opinions of critics. If you're a singer and give one poor vocal performance after another many people won't respect you. Her use of cartoony costumes and imagery practically screams "don't take me seriously." Her fan base is growing up but she really hasn't musically and image-wise. Tweens and younger teens getting into pop music have newer and younger artists to look up to. Many of the people who became Perry fans in 2010 are in their late teens or twenties and may feel embarrassed that they ever liked her.
Early Katy Perry ballads like I'm Still Breathing had more lyrical depth than later ballads like Unconditionally
In hindsight, it may have been a big mistake for Katy Perry to not mature more on her third album. While she did have some deeper songs, it was far from the dark album she had promised. Prism had its share of bubble-gum pop and Perry continued using cartoony visuals. She wasn't growing up while her fans were and once she hit her 30's, she was getting a little old for a new generation of young listeners. Add to that, she has turned people off with some controversial behavior, such as making jokes about Britney Spears' mental breakdown and inappropriate sexual behavior, including touching Shawn Mendes on the butt when he was doing a red carpet interview. In her music, image, and personality, she's not acting her age.
Accusations that her longtime collaborator Dr. Luke raped and abused singer Kesha have also sullied Katy Perry due to her close working relationship with him. Perry remained silent when Kesha sued the hitmaking producer in 2014 making shocking allegations. Perry's silence led many people to believe she was sticking by Luke because she needed him for hits. That's an unfair accusation, but it would have been wise for Perry to issue a carefully worded PR statement regarding the controversy in 2014 instead of ignoring it altogether.
Katy Perry's early sound was mainly pop rock
When Katy Perry released Wide Awake in 2012, I thought it was a sign of a maturing artist. She'd always had some deeper music. Lesser known songs like I'm Still Breathing, Playing House, and Brick by Brick prove she's capable of writing deep and introspective songs. This is not to say I think Perry is a great songwriter. She's been accused of relying way too much on cliches, idioms, and euphemisms in her songwriting. But she's still written some pretty good songs and could have improved over time if she'd continued down a singer-songwriter path.
Instead, Perry abandoned her emo image and pop-rock/pop-punk sound and sold out to Dr. Luke and Max Martin for hits. When singers get involved with Luke and Martin, they work with their teams of songwriters and ghostwriters. It's hard to know how much say Perry has had over the creation of her music. The song Teenage Dream was largely the work of songwriter Bonnie McKee who had hoped to release it herself. Perry's early unreleased music and first album are radically different from the kinds of music she went on to do when she hooked up with what author John Seabrook called the song machine and hit factory. Members of the pop-rock/pop-punk band Paramore discussed their decision to avoid using the song machine:
"I couldn’t imagine putting something on an album that says ‘life’s great, everything’s cool, party with me...I can’t imagine getting up there and playing a Max Martin song. At that point we might as well just stop."
It's possible that after selling out to hitmakers for #1 hits that Perry's heart is no longer in what she does. Her attempts at thoughtful introspection on Prism and on songs like Rise written in her late 20's were far inferior to some of the stuff she was doing in her early 20's. In 2010, Perry released a hugely successful album but it was also the point at which she stopped trying to be a real artist. It may have been a mistake to not pivot back to her roots on her third album, and prove herself. A dark or melancholic pop album had the potential to do well in 2013/2014 as Pure Heroine by Lorde proved.
Time will tell if Katy Perry can bounce back and have more big hits. Other artists who aren't respected like Pitbull and Flo Rida still seem to bounce back and get a hit from time to time. So maybe she will too. Some may point to Beyonce and Rihanna who have also had their struggles and bounced back. But they have the benefit of urban fanbases who tend to be more loyal to artists than fickle pop music fans. And they're respected. It's hard to tell right now whether Perry's days of major stardom are really over after just a few big albums or not. But it doesn't look good.
How Katy Perry compares to her pop contemporaries on Metacritic
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Do you agree? Let me know what you think.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 22, 2020:
Very informative and interesting article about Katy Perry.
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on January 28, 2018:
I don't know if she can ever bounce back, because in order to do so you do need a critical mass of followers from your original heydays. She may have lost her original fans. But I wish her good luck. She still has glamour and was invited to perform in a recently held Super Bowl, wasn't she?
Rachael Lefler from Illinois on May 02, 2017:
Both "Dark Horse" and "Roar" failed to make Katy Perry seem deep, introspective, edgy, and powerful like those songs make it seem like she was trying to be. I think her candyland aesthetic didn't match her new music trying to be more serious, and failing with ridiculous music videos. Lyrics saying "I'm so badass" while everyone sees her as cupcake-tits is an incongruent message, an inconsistent image. Lady Gaga has stayed famous longer, in contrast, because Art Pop didn't give us anything unexpected of what we expect from the Gaga brand. Musicians these days aren't the people who write and compose, they're models representing a particular image that conveys a particular set of ideas you're always supposed to associate with that person. We saw Katy and thought, fun, pink, parties, rainbows, kittens, glitter, alcohol, magic. Not whatever the hell she was trying to pretend to be in "Dark Horse" and "Roar". We knew she was not the things she was trying to sell herself as.