Here is the definitive list of the ten (okay, eleven) best Katy Perry songs out there - and yes, I listened to them all to make sure. Argue if you dare.
11. Unconditionally (Prism)
This list ended up being eleven songs long because I forgot about one of them and I felt like I needed to include at least one other song from Prism. So I'll just paste what I said about this song in my Best of 2013 list: "I'm not sure why this works for me; whether I'm grading Katy Perry's new music on a curve, or I'm charmed by its Alanis-like manhandling of lyrical meter, or Perry and Dr. Luke once again hit that sweet spot where my love of pop overlaps just enough to outweigh my distaste for ballads, or I'm still reacting to some lingering voodoo from the Teenage Dream campaign. My guess is it's probably a little bit of each."
10. Not Like the Movies (Teenage Dream)
What a charming, troubling, gypsy-like piece of work this song is. At the end of an album of full-volume pop bombast, a deceptively simple piano ballad (see Britney Spears, 2004). A song that managed to both herald the beginning of and presage the subsequent dissolution of a public marriage. A song whose message starts promising (I've been expecting a fairy tale perfect romance: might this not be the wise thing?) only to collapse midway through (NOPE FAIRY TALES ONLY FA LA LA LA LA). A song that ends an album that's maybe never "ma-Toore", as my grandmother would say, but mostly emotionally put-together, on a note so juvenile it's jarring: for we do want our pop star Peter Pans to grow up a little bit.
9. I Kissed A Girl (One of the Boys)
Aw man. I hate putting this on here. No one should have done what they done on this thing. It's beneath everyone. Cathy Dennis - you wrote "Toxic!" Max Martin - you brought us Britney! Dr. Luke - well, you turned out not to have a bottom low enough, but we didn't know this at the time! Shameless. And not shameless in the sexy, edgy way, shameless like devoid of the shame you ought to honestly be feeling about what you're doing. But for what it is, it's divine. I remember being won over by the ramped-up angst of the music and this singer about such a blatant non-crisis. It's like a porno. That's what it is. "I Kissed a Girl" is the bad porno acting of pop music.
8. Who Am I Living For (Teenage Dream)
Perry's spiritual battle between her secular fame-and-fortune life and the evangelical faith she largely abandoned to achieve it comes up a number of times in her music. It's not uninteresting, because it's clearly deeply felt and genuine, as opposed to Madonna's kitschy Catholic sinner shtick. It's most dramatically, and I think best, presented on this early-session Tricky Stewart cut from Teenage Dream, one of the few that remain to hint at the direction the album was originally going before Perry decided to just do a pop leviathan thing. While it leans toward the melodramatic and self-important ("don't let the greatness get you down"), it's a powerful look at very real and compelling inner struggles of the famous. (I like the raw scratch of how she spits the word "flames" on the second verse.)
7. Roar (Prism)
Blah blah Sara Bareilles blah blah...at this point I have to just give her points for brazenness. A single that's exactly like another person's single but doesn't sound like it is one thing, lifting the pianos and premise entirely is another. And the time frame - it took almost a year after "TiK ToK" for "California Gurls" to appear, but this was just months; for her next lead single she's just gonna rip off - who, Becky G? - after a week or so. But goddammit if she doesn't plagiarize WELL. Sure, the bridge sucks, but "you're gonna hear me rooooaaaaar!"?? Come on. We never stood a chance.
6. The One That Got Away - Acoustic Version (Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection)
After Perry tied the famed Michael Jackson record with the layup fifth #1 of "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)", it was clear the game was over, that one nation couldn't possibly send a sixth Katy Perry single to #1 and maintain its fragile dignity (snort). But golly how they tried, as stars did in that brief period after Rihanna rode the Britney bump to a #1 with "S&M" (remember, "E.T." benefited from a hot Kanye remix, and "Last Friday Night" had its unnecessary and embarrassing Missy Elliott remix). This one had an unremarkable rework with B.o.B. (I know. Who?) which everyone's forgotten, but it also brought this nice studio recording of the stripped down version Perry performed during her Teenage Dream tour in the middle so the dancers and musicians could have a break (she does work very hard). And it's good, in the spirit of Robyn's acoustic pop alternate takes. It's a really great earworm of a song anyway, but come on. It's called "The One That Got Away." You couldn't have written its eventual streak-ending #3 peak better if you tried. It may as well have been planned. Would that surprise anyone?
5. Hot N Cold (One of the Boys)
"Hot N Cold" is Pop Songwriting 101. No, it's Remedial Pop Songwriting 1A. Premise (you change your mind!). And, example, example, example, example, example, example, example, example, punch line. Next verse! It's the kind of thing Diane Warren would write if Diane Warren were fun. More importantly, it's the kind of song my mom and grandma danced to at my conservative brother's wedding. And she says "you PMS like a bitch - I should know."
4. Wide Awake (Katy Perry: Part of Me)
I'm going to copy what I've said in the past about this as well because, you know, Katy Perry. "The thing that makes Katy Perry so endearingly popular is that fans feel like they know her because she's so real and so open - for a pop star, which admittedly isn't saying much - even as she creates brilliant, impersonal and therefore universal pop. "Wide Awake" is about her split from Russell Brand, but it's not exclusive to Perry's experience - Perry wants the feelings in her music to relate to everyone even when they may (or may not...she never tells) be based on her experiences. ...entirely over-earnest and undeniably moving. The thing is, we don't mind how blatantly Perry manipulates our emotions, because unlike some hitmakers, the manipulation isn't cynical or condescending - it's done with love and a wink, letting the audience feel like they have a choice in allowing themselves to be manipulated." (July 5, 2012)
3. Firework (Teenage Dream)
This wasn't always in my upper register of Katy Perry records, because it was so cannily of-the-moment with the empowerment shit and because it appears to have been written specifically to be un-singable by Katy Perry, which seems like a pretty big design flaw. But it benefits from being divorced from context. It's a visceral experience, really, from the ascending strings on the pre-chorus to the thudding beat on the chorus to the "boom, boom, boom" of the bridge. And it lives on in very literal live performance (it will almost certainly close the Super Bowl set) where she brings FIREWORKS INDOORS PEOPLE. Katy Perry is magical though, and she's not subtle. She means fireworks. Out of her tits. It's the thing Katy Perry can do that no one else can.
2. Teenage Dream (Teenage Dream)
While "California Gurls" announced the approach of a newly optimized Pop Star for the books, using a gimmicky premise and lifting unapologetically from a barely year-old Ke$ha hit, "Teenage Dream" was really the moment it was clear Perry would be bringing something major on her sophomore album, the queen making her grand, if unexpected, entrance into a bewildered palace. It's just the kind of Perfect Pop Record every artist dreams of (and Bonnie McKee has tried in vain to replicate ever since), with just the right amount of fairy tale, sex, naive preteen romanticism, lyrical detail, and oh yes there's a massive chorus, did I mention the massive chorus? Remember those? (Also, the only thing Glee ever got right.)
1. UR So Gay (One of the Boys)
Yeah, you read it right. Katy Perry's uproariously brutal anti-hipster takedown is the greatest thing she's done, the one moment she truly achieves brilliance as a musician and a songwriter. Because really, how else would you describe obnoxious hipster boys other than gay guys without the commitment to actually sucking on a dick now and then? Revel in the hilarious detail of her descriptive observations: "You bitch and moan about L.A. wishing you were in the rain reading Hemingway" ... "You're so 'indie rock' it's almost an art/...secretly you're so amused that nobody understands you". Couple that with an ironic horn section, dismissive whistles, and a withering descending synth as she sings "You walk around like you're oh so debonair/You pull 'em down and there's really nothing there." It stands up perfectly seven years later and can sit alongside the best of Lily Allen or even old "Fuck Me Pumps" Amy Winehouse's acerbic sneers. I would kill for a whole album of this Katy Perry. As she says on the song, I say to her: "I wish you would just be...real with me."
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