Lady Gaga screams a lot on stage. She scowls, she growls, she strikes rigid, ghoulish poses, evoking her legions of followers with a gnarled little monster claw. She hardly ever smiles. Even walking around for the paparazzi, teacup and saucer in hand, she always looks deadly serious. You'd think someone who hit the big time as quickly as she did and now has the world at her feet would have a little fun with it.
Katy Perry, by stark contrast, is having a great time. At least, that's the image put forth relentlessly in her colorful concerts and on "Teenage Dream," the second pop album from this preacher's kid-turned-saucy starlet. Loaded with youthful exuberance and naked candor, Perry she-bops through a dozen confections as light and fleeting as the cotton candy used as a theme throughout the CD's graphic art.
"I wanted to call it 'Teenage Dream' because ... it kind of exudes this euphoric feeling like everyone remembers what their teenage dreams were," Perry recently told MTV News. "All the girls that were on your poster walls ... and I want to continue to be one of those ... teenage wet dreams."
Perry's songs here slice right between both extremes of the female teen experience, celebrating its innocence as well attempting to alleviate its guilt. In the title track, a pretty, patient little pop aria with a thrumming guitar, she swings between falsetto and bravado, singing sweetly about wanting to run away with her love and then belting about going all the way with him tonight. Lest we forget, Perry was raised by two preachers and her first album was a gospel record. She then bounced between major record labels before getting her Madonna on with the platinum 2008 single, "I Kissed a Girl."
She probably deserves the Madonna comparisons more than Lady Gaga does, at least for an early career. Madonna didn't start out the overly dramatic icon with "Like a Prayer" choirs and oblique Kabbalah references. She showed up as a nubile vixen, writhing suggestively on a gondola, biting her thumb and squeaking out then-shocking, now-quaint sexual urges over some highly manufactured disco pop. Which is all Perry is doing, albeit with considerably less style.
"Teenage Dream," like Madonna's "Like a Virgin" album, is coquettish and presents a studious lack of shame. In "Last Friday Night," she revels in the bits she can actually remember from a marathon of debauchery -- she took too many shots, went streaking and then skinny dipping, had a ménage a trois, even secured a warrant for her arrest -- and then says she hopes she and her gal pals do it all over again this Friday. The pictures of the shameful deeds have even wound up online, she says, to which her conclusion is: "Oh well."
"Peacock" is the requisite lewd metaphor song, the first syllable merely providing an excuse to discuss the second. It ain't no "Raspberry Beret," nor is Perry a good copy of Peaches. This just sounds like a little girl talking naughty, and she possesses all the grace of her baffling comedian fiancé, Russell Brand.
Like Lady Gaga (but not like Madonna), Perry really can sing quite well, which she is allowed to showcase on the more innocent ballad of empowerment, "Firework," and to some degree on another of her hit singles this summer, "Circle the Drain." Her other hit summer single, "California Gurls," is here, too, sounding slightly out of place; for such a fast-rising No. 1 success, it's a remarkably tuneless song -- with Snoop Dogg, touting Daisy Dukes and bikini wear -- among a batch of strong melodies. Just not strong enough to keep "Teenage Dream" in our heads the next morning, or certainly when next summer's fluff floats by.