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On Katy Perry’s "Teenage Dream"

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Katy Perry

This thing is the number one song on iTunes, number three on Billboard, and number one in the overpriced Korean grocery market in my neighborhood. Katy Perry, who sings, is on the cover of Rolling Stone, wearing what I guess is a bra and looking like a bustier version of the 1960s. She makes headlines in my world for wacky hair pieces she wore or didn’t wear, for off-hand comments she made on Twitter, for banal (and for that matter all the more unusual) developments in her love life with the actor Russell Brand.

Other people care about Katy Perry right now, or at least the concept of Katy Perry, the promise of a Pop Star We Can All Get Behind. In that way, “Teenage Dream” is not unlike the last pregnant woman in the movie Children Of Men. She is, maybe, if things work out, our common cause. The World Cup is over! We’re now counting on Katy Perry, heart-shaped face of the music industry, to deliver us something to enjoy alongside people who are vastly different from ourselves.

“Teenage Dream,” like most pop numbers, is built to be immediately pleasurable. It is a focused dose of proven tropes and themes and sounds, mutated just enough so that, with any luck, the general public is not bored or distracted by the recognition of those tropes. With any luck, the recognition is pleasurable, too: The deployment of a specific sound or rhythm carries a kind of comfort for the listener. If it starts this way, or if it has this beat, the song will probably win me over. People hear the opening guitar riff of “Teenage Dream,” connected it with Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” and the double recognition — they liked that guitar riff, and they liked that they liked that guitar riff — goes a long way for just two bars of music. Perry hasn’t even started singing.

I worry I am among the population of people who suffer from a kind of pop music anhedonia — an inability to experience the intended pleasure of perfect, precise pop songs like “Teenage Dream.” One might argue it’s my job to at least try. So this is my thought-by-thought attempt to understand and overcome all inhibitions, to see how many steps removed from the sound itself it takes me to find something to like about the most popular song in America. In order:

1. Not feeling this. Didn’t like the Kelly Clarkson song that started this way either.

2. My friends all like this, and probably liked the Kelly Clarkson song. Whatever, it’s an intro. I can imagine the possibility of other people liking such a thing as a held-back beat/guitar downstroke opening. History has proven this move a winner. See also: The Strokes’ “Last Nite.”

3. The same people who wrote the Kelly Clarkson song (“Since U Been Gone”) are the same people who wrote this one. Dr. Luke and Max Martin. Can I blame the producers for cannibalizing themselves, sticking to what works? This is what all major pop producers do — develop a signature bag of tricks. The up-the-scale synth riff on “California Gurls” that Luke, Martin, and Benny Blanco used for Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” just a few months ago. The “Eurogate” supersaw fruity loop that Tricky Stewart uses for “Circle The Drain” and “Who Am I Living For?” — both songs on this very album. Choruses coming in around :53 or :54 on almost half the songs. Confer romantic comedies, detective novels, everything.

4. I don’t like the song, but admire the process of making it. I admire the subtle changes to tropes that make people like pop songs. I admire the way, for instance, that the main guitar riff is mixed here: wide stereo panning, two monophonic lines played together as opposed to one guitar playing two notes at once, lots of attack a/k/a “string action.” Similar line to “Since U Been Gone” but played and produced very differently.

Isn’t this the same thing as saying I admire the song for being an advertisement for Katy Perry? And isn’t the build-out of this idea something more frightening and propagandistic, the way Stockhausen worried about martial beats, the way Adorno worried about Tin Pan Alley, the way a government can manipulate via culture?

5. Is this another way of saying I am appreciating a kind of manipulation? Am I in the control room now, talking about what “people” will like about the song, or why “people” won’t like the song unless X or Y happens? What makes these people different from “me” exactly?

6. Maybe “people” don’t “see” the structures of the songs. Consider the production team who call themselves The Matrix. They create the web of numbers that comprise what we believe to be the seamless, unconstructed “reality” of the song we are hearing.

7. But my friends, my critic-friends, they see the structures. Critics are not unaware of the tropes. And my favorite critics like this song. They are not being manipulated, but they also experience an immediate pleasure. First and foremost they like Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” not Dr. Luke and Max Martin’s precise machine. Or they are willfully being manipulated.

8. How can they like this song? Katy Perry’s voice is a cipher. All delivery and character in the vocal track is lost through an extreme, unflattering compression, as if the producers were trying to reduce her voice to the melody’s notes on the staff paper. It is rote execution. Anybody could be singing this song.

9. It is impossible, at least right here right now, to think of Kate Perry’s “Teenage Dream” without conflating it with the knowledge of who Kate Perry “is.” Her voice is a cipher precisely so that “people” will fill it up with what they know about Perry courtesy the media and Perry PR. This is the Katy Perry who is singing “Teenage Dream.” Problem solved.

10. Taking stock here. I don’t like this song, but do appreciate the work and process that went into making it. I don’t like Katy Perry’s voice, which has no character, but I do like this “voice is a deliberate cipher” type idea I have developed. I admire the overall cultural product that is “Katy Perry,” a complex of music and persona.

11. Isn’t this the same thing as saying I admire the song for being an advertisement for Katy Perry? And isn’t the build-out of this idea something more frightening and propagandistic, the way Stockhausen worried about martial beats, the way Adorno worried about Tin Pan Alley, the way a government can manipulate via culture?

12. Ann Powers at the LA Times thinks it’s Katy Perry’s “brutally effective advertisement for a self” — worth three out of four stars.

13. Is there anything more patronizing a critic can do than reward an artist for her “brutally effective advertisement”?

14. Pop music is what people like and listen to. Even as a recreational rock critic, I have an obligation to report on this kind of music, which exists to sell both itself and the artist’s greater brand, and to find some entry point into it. If I want to eat, I have to find a way to make this music interesting to me.

15. So now I am not in the realm of liking the song; or the construction of the song; or the thought process behind the construction of the song; or the way in which the song mediates between the artist and the general public; or my understanding of any of these topics, since actually they depress the hell out of me.

To be clear, now I am in the realm of appreciating other people’s appreciations of the song. This is where I start to get behind Katy Perry: e.g. Ryan Dombal’s excellent piece in the Voice, about the construction of celebrity, about the negative approach involved in carving out one’s niche in the world of celebrity: I’m not “this,” I’m not “that,” I’m not “the other,” until slowly she became what she was, i.e. a “human being.”

16. This is a song about inhibitions melting away, feeling (if only for a few minutes) like a teenager, acting irrationally, which is to say following the heart as it’s commonly called, not the brain. “Teenage Dream” not “Teenage Reality,” etc. I guess I take a small amount of pleasure in the irony of my failure.

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Wavves: Just a Sucker with No Self-Esteem

On Nathan Williams and the King of the Beach LP
By Nick Sylvester
Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Today I revisited the California mall-punk band Offspring’s Smash LP. This thing came out in 1994 and, riding the coattails of grunge, sold over three million in the US and two million in Australia. It had “Self Esteem” and “Come Out And Play”, also known as “Keep ‘Em Separated” in like a “Baba O’Riley”/”Teenage Wasteland” kind of way. I remember finally getting my hands on a copy just a week before the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, and later watching a friend’s father try to snap it in half at his son’s first boy-girl birthday party.

This was strictly a work-related venture vis a vis the new Wavves album, which I’ll explain in a second. But what you should know upfront is this:

Nathan Williams a/k/a Wavves

Nathan Williams

I am of a generation of recreational rock critics who believe guitars almost always sound better when played through chorus effect. When I first heard King of the Beach, the Cali lo-fi punk act Wavves‘s wildly celebrated new album, I admit to being short-circuited. This was what rock music felt like when I was 13 and regularly practiced stage dives onto my bedroom mattress. The record had been tracked by an actual engineer in an actual studio, produced by an actual producer, and performed by an actually competent backing band — just like an “actual-fi” or “fi-fi” rock record from back in the day.

Wavves, a/k/a Nathan Williams, told The Fader he thought Beach might be his Nevermind, a polished follow-up for a larger audience. The record would prove that his songwriting could “handle” professional quality production. In addition to grunge, the record has sunny pop songs that borrow moves from ’60s girl-group music and ’00s “future-primitive” indie rock that itself borrows moves from ’60s girl-group music. The producer, Dennis Herring, knew which frequencies to pull down when equalizing Williams’s nasally voice, and apparently refused to remedy Williams’s bad takes with distortion and reverb. Instead, Herring demanded better performances. The record took them three months to make and — perhaps benefiting from the contrast to Wavves’s unlistenable previous albums and the leagues of lo-fi charlatans out there for whom music exists mostly as a mating ritual — it does sound like someone in the room actually cared that his name was on the sleeve this time.

My guess is you don’t want to be dragged through the musicological reasons why I find these songs so unsatisfying, how they’re lacking in anything that remotely resembles swagger. Really it doesn’t take much to become King of The Beach, or whatever shorthand we’re using here to describe the rash of solipsistic slacker internet type bands who are ‘bored’ and ‘remember slap bracelets’ and ‘don’t give a shit’ and ‘hate themselves but who’s to blame’, as if mea culpa ever counts for self-awareness.

Here is a 24-year-old man who sings with a straight face, “Misery, will you comfort me in my time of need?” A 24-year-old man who fundamentally misunderstands what made fellow lowlife Kurt Cobain so great — not the navel-gazing, but the umbilical noose.

Instead let’s talk about the persona of Nathan Williams, a 24-year-old man whose lyrics move from teenage fantasy (“you’re never gonna stop me!”) to pre-teen rebellion (“I could say I’m sorry… but it wouldn’t mean shit!”) to a kind of infantile neediness (“I never wanna leave home, Everything in the back of my brain/ told me that I would be sick/ when I’m out there”). These are tough themes to pull off but they’ve been pulled off before, if only because there’s a difference between directness and artlessness. There’s also a difference between self-loathing, which Williams thinks he’s up to, versus self-pity, which is all I’m hearing. Here is a 24-year-old man who sings with a straight face, “Misery, will you comfort me in my time of need?” A 24-year-old man who fundamentally misunderstands what made fellow lowlife Kurt Cobain so great — not the navel-gazing, but the umbilical noose.

It’s the same sort of vapid I felt re-listening to Offspring. “Self-Esteem” was so desperate to tap into “Teen Spirit” that it couldn’t help itself from stealing the riff’s very rhythm. This was second-rate grunge/punk fifteen years ago — and yet everything about “Smash” is less irksome to me than Williams’s borrowed nostalgia. The progressions are smarter, the lyrics are wryer, the record itself was better produced, which is supposed to be Wavves’ ace in the hole here. Who knows how this piece would have turned out if I had remembered Silverchair in time!

Anyway, the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care, right? If people want to pretend like they’re 13 years old again and break into the neighbor’s pool to the sweet sound of “Post Acid”, fine by me. I patiently await a band that pillages the part of late ’80s/early ’90s rock that wasn’t the self-absorbed binky rock that made me cringe even then.

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