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TERRY GROSS, host:

Katy Perry released a single in May that became what many people agree was the pop hit of the summer, a song called "California Gurls," which is different from the Beach Boys' song.

"California Gurls" is on Perry's new album, "Teenage Dream." Last week, "Teenage Dream" was number one on Billboard's 200 top-selling albums.

Our rock critic Ken Tucker says "Teenage Dream" is just one part of what he calls the Katy Perry art project. Here's his review.

(Soundbite of song "Hummingbird Beat")

Ms. KATY PERRY (Musician): (Singing) You make me feel like I'm losing my virginity, the first time, every time when you touching me. I make you bloom like the flower that you never seen. Under the sun we are one buzzing energy...

KEN TUCKER: 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 don't intend this as an insult. It's 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 either 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 canvases against which her image and her voice can pose.

(Soundbite of song "Teenage Dream")

Ms. PERRY: (Singing) You think I'm pretty without any makeup on. You think I'm funny when I tell the punchline wrong. I know you get me, so I'll let my walls come down, down. Before you met me I was all right, but things were kind of heavy. You brought me to life. Now every February you'll be my valentine, valentine.

Let's go all the way tonight. No regrets, just love. We can dance until we die. You and I will be young forever. You make me feel like I'm living a teenage dream. The way you turn me on, I can't sleep. Let's run away and don't ever look back. Don't ever look back. My heart...

TUCKER: 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, it's about what it's like to hang out 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.

(Soundbite of song "California Gurls")

SNOOP DOGG (Musician): (Rapping) Greetings loved ones. Let's take a journey.

Ms. PERRY: (Singing) I know a place where the grass is really greener. Warm, wet and wild, there must be something in the water. Sipping gin and juice, laying underneath the palm trees, undone. The boys break their necks trying to creep a little sneak peek, at us.

You could travel the world but nothing comes close to the Golden Coast. Once you party with us, you'll be falling in love. Oooooh oh oooooh.

California girls we're unforgettable. Daisy dukes, bikinis on top. Sun-kissed skin so hot, we'll melt your popsicle. Oooooh oh oooooh. California girls, we're undeniable...

TUCKER: 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 a song like "Last Friday Night," in which Katy can say that she woke up smelling like a mini-bar and still seems 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.

(Soundbite of song "Last Friday Night")

Ms. PERRY: (Singing) There's a stranger in my bed. There's a pounding in my head. Glitter all over the room. Pink flamingos in the pool. I smell like a mini-bar. DJ's passed out in the yard. Barbies on the barbeque. This a hickie or a bruise?

Pictures of last night ended up online. I'm screwed. Oh well. It's a blacked-out blur. But I'm pretty sure it ruled. Damn.

Last Friday night, yeah we danced on tabletops. And we took too many shots. Think we kissed but I forgot, last Friday night. Yeah we maxed our credit cards...

TUCKER: 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 not only includes Lady Gaga but Eminem and Arcade Fire.

Aware of music as an art project, Perry is clearing some territory for herself. She's 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.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Katy Perry's new album "Teenage Dream." She'll perform on the season opener of "Saturday Night Live" September 25th.

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