The big news in the pop music world was how yet another of Katy Perry’s mediocre-yet-catchy songs from her ‘Teenage Dream’ 2010 record has bought its way to the top of the pop charts. For some this is a sign that Perry is some ‘queen of pop’, in the same way they bought the way for Lady Gaga to sell a million records in her first week to demonstrate … something. Some are excited about it:
Dream’s singles success could prompt a reassessment of Perry’s musical chops, says Joe Levy, chief content officer at Maxim.
“This just proves she’s a master pop hitmaker, (getting the) credit she deserves but doesn’t always get due to the wonderful things she wears,” says Levy, referring to Perry’s dazzling costume changes, from candy-coated siren to a dorked-out teen.
“Perry doesn’t just make great songs, she makes songs that become events the way Madonna used to,” says Levy. As for trying to break Jackson’s record and notching a sixth No. 1, “you figure, you’ve got to go for it.”
Problem is,– ‘Johnny Bravos’ like Gaga and especially Perry simply sing songs with little real control … and sure as heck no ‘musical chops’! Pop music has never been the fertile ground of innovation and creativity, but looking back at someone like Michael Jackson provides a startling contrast.
Quincy Jones – already a legend in jazz and popular music on both sides of the sound board – helped craft the sound and modernized both big band and early Motown sounds into 80’s pop in a way that makes it a classic that plays well today as back then (well, there are a few that haven’t aged well, but …). Yet Michael completely wrote several of the songs, and was in total creative control of what was going on.
This was before the era of labels having ‘songwriting camps’ for albums, and spending millions making sure there post-deregulation control translates into huge sales (if not profits). That is the world Katy Perry is succeeding in – her music is crafted by committee, air-time is bought and mandated, retail presence is bought, and success is nearly ensured.
Of course, it is not a sure thing – look at Lady Gaga … her album bought a 1.1 million copy first week – then tanked. Now you barely hear about it, and no amount of label money seems likely to get her close to the success the less-funded Teenage Dream has enjoyed.
The reason for that is simple – Teenage Dream might me mediocre, but there are a half-dozen very catchy songs there. Born This Way is just plain awful.
Also, what sells singles is not the same as what sells albums. When people hear about Michael Jackson – they assume it is Thriller … but it is Bad. That uneven and rather average follow-up to Thriller had a few good songs (Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, I Just Can’t Stop Loving You and perhaps even the over-wrought Man in the Mirror), but charted 5 #1 songs! Thriller managed only 2 #1 songs (Billie Jean and Beat It). The difference – you didn’t just buy Thriller singles – you simply HAD to have the whole album. It is to the pop world what Kind of Blue was to jazz – something everyone had in their house.
I suggest you watch the entirety of both videos … as a reminder that pop music and greatness are not mutually exclusive – and also how long we have sunk in terms of corporate pop.