Katy Perry’s Pop Report Card: We Grade Her 3 Albums, Ahead Of Her Super Bowl Performance

Jonathan Riggs | January 26, 2015 5:18 am

Even if Taylor Swift doesn’t sneak backstage to “Bad Blood” up the iconic whipped-cream-cannon bikini, Katy Perry’s Super Bowl Halftime Show will, undoubtedly, be Sunday’s sinfully sweet highlight.

So large does Perry’s shadow loom over pop culture, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that she’s only been famous since 2008, when her debut album, like countless pubescent boys’ voices after seeing her in the flesh, dropped. (Apologies to the 200 floor-length denim-skirted fans who bought the 2001 Katy Hudson Christian album and aren’t reading this anyway because the Internet is the devil’s playground.)

Whether you’re One of the Boys, a Teenage Dream or fresh out of Prism, let’s grade each of Katy Perry’s three studio albums to see how the world’s biggest TLC fan scores in Idolator’s Pop Report Card.

ONE OF THE BOYS (2008)

katy perry one of the boys

Bursting out of the gate — and multiple bustiers — Katy Perry may have played the innocent pop naif on her first date with the charts, but anyone actually paying attention could immediately tell that she was in on every joke. We were skeptical at first, but after charming her way into the public’s consciousness with “I Kissed A Girl,” a driving, glammy anthem about quasi-lesbian flirtation, she crushed all our resistance. Although she earned staying power with the hits “Waking Up In Vegas” and the too-sexy-for-Elmo “Hot N Cold,” the real and largely ignored story of One Of The Boys unfolds in several songs that Perry penned herself.

It’s one thing for a Stefani-voiced pop star to giggle about how “naughty” she is; it’s quite another to open your mainstream debut with the lyrics, “I saw a spider / I didn’t scream / ’cause I can belch the alphabet / just double-dog dare me.” The Greta Gremlin glamour isn’t an act: it’s who Perry really is and it’s exciting to see all the rough edges, clever songwriting and twisted sense of humor on display on deep cuts like “One Of The Boys,” “Mannequin,” “If You Can Afford Me” and the best remember-me-as-a-rebel song Avril Lavigne never recorded, “Fingerprints.”

She’s not always successful, though, and should be thankful every day that time has largely forgotten the set’s hype single “Ur So Gay.” (Although it is fun to imagine someone appropriately classy, say Susan Boyle, performing it during Perry’s future Kennedy Center Honors induction. “…penis!”) Still, even when One Of The Boys gets too brash or bratty,Perry obviously cares so deeply that her musical missteps — namely her limitations as a singer — only underscore how rare the best thing about her sound is: its large, beating heart. B

TEENAGE DREAM (2010)

After breathlessly seducing us before prank-phone-calling our grandma and vanishing into the night, Perry twirled back into our lives and onto the charts with one of the most remarkable albums of this century so far. Teenage Dream is the ultimate pop text as well as the key to what we talk about when we talk about Katy Perry: without losing any of the youthful exuberance and fearlessness of her first set, she grows up and delivers an album of impeccably crafted sugar rushes that evoke the truest and most universal of adult feelings.

It’s hard to think of another album that offers so much for so many with such generosity. Self-aware enough to cut the sweetness before it gets cloying — hello, middle-finger-waving gummy bears of “California Gurls” — yet earnest enough to belt out the downright bizarre lyrics of “Firework” with such conviction that they become genuinely moving, Perry is at the peak of her powers here. It’s no wonder she tied Michael Jackson’s record of five #1 singles from one album, although in a just world, the did-she-just-say-that dirty joke “Peacock” would’ve been the sixth.

However, the best song of the album, Perry’s career and — according to this Katycat at least — of the modern era is the title track. Even as it invokes all the ephemeral rushes of pop music and life — the thrill of youth, of first love, of a future full of opportunity and adventures — the music and lyrics both speed forward as if they know better and that this “Teenage Dream,” no matter our age, might be all we (yes, even you, Darren Criss) ever get.

Although the addition of jams “Wide Awake” and shoulda-been-the-American Sniper-theme “Part of Me” on Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection was tasty, there really wasn’t a need. The album had already succeeded because it showcased real growth and an innate understanding of what Perry’s strengths were, without losing her quirkiness. By replacing the sneering of One Of The Boys with so much affection for both the music and those who will hear it, Katy Perry’s charisma is finally on full display on Teenage Dream: a kind, awkward and witty weirdo who woke up in the body and wardrobe of a Wild West saloon girl and wants nothing more than for us to come along. Kathy Beth Terry, we are youA+

PRISM (2013)

Katy Perry Prism

After her Queen-Frostine-from-Candyland realness satisfied the world’s sweet tooth, Katy Perry was smart enough to add a little sour to the mix with Prism. Aiming for harder edges and a more grown-up aesthetic, she mostly succeeds. Unfortunately, it’s at the expense of the songs, which span the distance from heart-wrenching emotional (“By The Grace Of God”) to joyous (“Walking On Air”) to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (“International Smile,” “Choose Your Battles,” “Ghost”).

Following the album’s kick-off with the less-than-rousing chart-topper “Roar,” (you’re welcome, Sara Bareilles), Prism is all over the place. Nowhere is this clearer than on a string of is-this-really-your-best-work cuts like the kinda cute “Birthday” (SPOILER ALERT: “big balloons” = Katy’s Perrys) and the kinda dumb “This Is How We Do.” While there are some strong deep cuts, like the one-two punch of “This Moment” and “Double Rainbow,” Prism just doesn’t come together.

Taken on their own, the LP’s better singles sound as if they came off a darker and more interesting album with room and range for the big ballad “Unconditionally” and the weird-and-witchy “Dark Horse.” And here, pop fans, is the Perry Paradox we’re left with: “Dark Horse” reinvented the singer’s sound and at last provided her with the opportunity to chart a new and bold direction…yet the music video looks like an outtake from Teenage (Fever)Dream.

Evolving as an artist and as a person is never easy, but the question, for Katy and listeners alike, seems to be, what exactly is the sound and theme of Prism? Perhaps that’s to be expected after such an iconic, unified set like Teenage Dream, but it’s disappointing to have to listen and look so hard to hear the heart behind the songs this time around. Of course, growing up is hard and life is painful, even for pop stars. But when it comes to music, healing is rarely ever as interesting as hurting, and, at least for this jaded bitch, Prism gets way too self-help-y at the expense of raw human emotion.

After all, Katy Perry started out her career chronicling, with a wicked sense of humor, the good and the bad. After ascending to pop goddessdom, here’s hoping that where she chooses to go next bridges the best of where she’s been while leaving plenty of room to become something even better. B-

What’s your favorite Katy Perry album? Let us know below, Katycats!