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Katy Perry Grows Up and Bums Us Out on Her Shrewd, Tepid ‘Prism’

Katy Perry performs "Roar"
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: October 22, 2013
Label: Capitol

The best part of Miley: The Movement, MTV’s recent trolling-from-the-title-on-down backstage doc, is when Britney Spears shows up to lay down some hot tracks and submit to some world-class diva-on-diva undermining. Ms. Cyrus kisses the ring, but makes clear it’s a rather grandmotherly ring: “Eight-year-old me would be pissing my pants right now.” Got it. And soon came the 2013 VMAs: the bears, the twerking, the tongue, the typhoon of moral panic, now with a younger, hungrier, marginally more self-aware “strategic hot mess” at its center. Britney’s hanging in there, God bless her, but the snake generally has a longer, healthier career than the salacious lady wearing it.

Katy Perry, long past her “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” point, is readying an exit strategy. Prism, her third album as a pop provocatrix nonpareil, has its moments — of juvenile glee, and of genuine endorphin-rush excellence, though those rarely intersect — but it mostly serves to forecast the milquetoast AOR queen that she, one day very soon, will stoop to aspire to become.

“Roar,” the smash-hit single nonetheless unworthy of most of her previous smash-hit singles, is the new blueprint: a tepid grocery-store-PA whoosh married to vague lyrical uplift, more pep talk than pep rally, with a wildly unconvincing, unwisely Taylor Swift-esque I-was-the-underdog vibe that doesn’t work, even in the past tense, from someone whose last record, 2010’s Teenage Dream, spat out five No. 1 singles. (Back catalog-wise, nothing on Prism touches “Teenage Dream,” “T.G.I.F.,” or — leave me alone — “Hot N’ Cold.”) Let’s just say that being accused of ripping off Sara Bareilles is more alarming than actually ripping off Sara Bareilles.

Not that the juvenile stuff here is all that desirable. Perry has plenty of sexpot cred — her wardrobe functions are traditionally more salacious than her peers’ malfunctions — but hers is an off-kilter, grade-school goofy, beanie-propeller sort of sensuality. Quote: “So let me get you in your birthday suit / It’s time to bring out the big balloons.” Yeah. This is from “Birthday,” which swipes Prince’s clipped-guitar pop-funk, but not much else; other, less comedy-oriented boudoir jams include the Bollywood swipe “Legendary Lovers” (“I feel my lotus bloom,” oy) and sleepy bonus track “Spiritual,” which isn’t quite alive enough even to live in sin.

(BTW, I refuse to engage critically or emotionally with the likelihood that the sex songs here are more accurately sex-with-John-Mayer songs — parentheses alone can’t convey the enormous critical/emotional distance I require between me and the very idea of those two even, like, shoeing a horse together at his Montana ranch while he wears that ridiculous hat or w/e. What I really need here is the punctuation equivalent of a roaring industrial furnace, or some sort of comic-book-style atom-smashing machine.)

Listen, I love Katy Perry. I speak from a place of love. In the modern-day Max Martin/Dr. Luke ecosystem, nobody gets it right more ecstatically, or more often. (Okay, except Ke$ha, but another time, another time.) And if you love Katy Perry, you can seize on the great stuff here. “Walking on Air” is a delicious Latin freestyle/’80s-pop confection: pure Taylor Dayne in the pre-choruses, with a sweetly rad falsetto hook. “International Smile” is first-rate fizzy disco buoyed by the best vocoder solo since “Digital Love.” And mega-power ballad “Unconditionally” swerves into Florence + the Machine’s wind-swept-mountainous-vista lane without crashing and burning: As a first wedding dance, it beats the hell out of “Ur So Gay.”

You can even come to love the songs people who hate Katy Perry are going to hate: namely, “This Is How We Do,” a knuckleheaded, bottle-service party jam, sung-rapped lifeless-party-queen style (thankfully more Dev than the Weeknd), wherein our hostess admits to “Suckin’ real bad at Mariah Carey-oke,” among other PG-13 ill behavior. But “T.G.I.F.” made all that sound both funnier and sadder, and much of the rest of Prism can’t manage even that spark. “Y’all know what it is,” crows a clearly-uncertain-as-to-what-it-is Juicy J at the onset of trapped-out-the-blando fantasia “Dark Horse,” confused perhaps by the fact that the title seems to refer to an actual horse with dark fur that has nefarious magical powers and is also Katy Perry. (He rhymes “armor” with “coma”; it’s fine.) “Love Me” and “This Moment” are sadly self-explanatory; “Double Rainbow” is unfortunately not a reference to this.

“I’m not that innocent,” she concludes, echoing Britney herself (albeit far more innocently) on sleepy bonus track “It Takes Two,” seemingly a heartfelt apology to Perry’s ex-husband for, oh, I don’t know, maybe commissioning Empire Strikes Back-style carbonite statues of him and setting them aflame onstage at the Grammys. But that was at least memorable. I applaud the maturity here, the personal and artistic growth, the realization that one cannot shoot fireworks from one’s big balloons into cultural perpetuity. This is a pivot, this record, and a shrewd one, but “shrewd” and “boring” are not mutually exclusive.