Will Cotton / EMI Music
Painter Will Cotton, known for his lush, dreamlike candy landscapes, was the art director for Katy Perry's "California Gurls" music video. He also created the cover art for the album.
Painter Will Cotton, known for his lush, dreamlike candy landscapes, was the art director for Katy Perry's "California Gurls" music video. He also created the cover art for the album. Will Cotton / EMI Music
If I say that for Katy Perry, choosing the right color for a wig or the shape of a high heel for a photo shoot is very nearly as important as what beat to use in a song, I do not intend this as an insult. It is Perry's self-consciousness — her awareness of herself as a complete package — that makes her interesting. That, combined with the air of playfulness that makes sure she doesn't come off as overtly cynical or shrewdly manipulative in the Madonna manner. Well, all that and the fact that many of her songs sound awfully good: lush, lustily sung, creamy canvasses against which her image and her voice can pose.
Perry wants to be a lot of people's teenage dream. She's cited influences that literal teenagers may not recognize these days: Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Russell. But teenagers at heart, who know the history of the good-girl-art tradition Perry's media appearances are referencing, can't help but be charmed. I don't think Perry's take on "California Gurls" exceeds The Beach Boys', but neither does Perry. For her, the phrase "California Gurls" is less about summoning up a state of mind than it is some combination of anthem and a celebration of celebrity. Specifically, what it's like to hang with Snoop Dogg, who makes a vocal cameo, and by implication, what it's like to introduce your new boyfriend-fiance, British actor/comedian Russell Brand, to the California lifestyle.
The Katy Perry art project includes having artist Will Cotton execute a portrait of Perry swaddled in cotton-candy clouds. It includes turning her relationship with Russell Brand into ongoing performance art at public appearances. And it includes the creation of clever pop songs such as the cute decadence of "Last Friday Night," in which Perry can say she woke "smelling like a mini-bar" and still seem bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Plus, it's nice to hear the syllables of a couplet such as "I think I need a ginger ale / That was such an epic fail" click into place.
Perry's album has its serious moments, extravagantly emotional ballads in which the 25-year-old gets in touch with her inner 15-year-old. From these, some of us avert our ears. Most of the time, however, Teenage Dream is an album that suggests you can will yourself into happiness, into romance, into offering a pop-art alternative to competition that includes not only Lady Gaga but Eminem and Arcade Fire. Aware of music as an art project, Perry is clearing some territory for herself, staking her claim by pouting at the camera, stamping a high heel into the soft center of the music industry, and singing in a clear, strong voice about how exhilarating it is be clear and strong about what you want.