Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’: Why Her Album Will Be Forever Young

Well, hello there! I’m Sam Lansky — writer, pop music enthusiast, and professional plastic bag drifting through the wind. It’s Thursday, and you know what that means: It’s time for another round of Pop Think!

This week, I’ll be discussing the legacy of Katy Perry’s record-smashing, wig-snatching album, Teenage Dream, which might just amass its sixth (!) No. 1 single if “The One That Got Away” tops the charts as her last five singles have.

Is your heart racing in your skintight jeans yet? Good! Now clean up that melted Popsicle and let your colors burst, because after more than a year, this teenage dream is still going strong.

Has one album been more dominant on radio in the last year than Katy Perry‘s Teenage Dream? Since its release in August 2010, Katy’s sophomore album has spawned a spectacular five consecutive No. 1 singles — “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Firework,” “E.T.,” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” It comes as no surprise, given that the album is an undeniable monster, crafted with the industry’s top producers — Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Stargate, Tricky Stewart. It’s also devastatingly infectious, with a solid-gold collection of pop smashes.

Katy was already well-established as a radio-slaying act after her 2008 debut One of the Boys went platinum and ushered in megahits like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold.” But there must be some special magic in an album like Teenage Dream, which, if new single “The One That Got Away” tops the Hot 100, would break the record she currently shares with Michael Jackson for the artist with the most consecutive No. 1 hits from one album. Even if über-producer Dr. Luke is the closest thing to a surefire hit machine that exists in today’s music industry — even he isn’t entirely immune to the fickle conditions of the pop market — an album needs more than just catchy hooks to achieve the kind of success that Katy has with Teenage Dream. Something has to strike a singular chord with the listening public to reach that pinnacle of unparalleled achievement.

And clearly it has, even though Teenage Dream is a curious record, thematically. Sonically, it’s consistent — furiously hook-driven pop-rock with a thunderous dance influence — but lyrically, these singles cover a lot of ground. There’s the wistful jubilance of the title track, the heartrending nostalgia of “The One That Got Away,” the frivolous fun of “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” and “California Gurls,” the uncanny lust of “E.T.,” and the “it gets better” self-empowerment message of “Firework” — a more diverse collection of ideas than is represented in many pop albums, to be sure. One thing is certain, though — if there’s a unifying theme represented on Teenage Dream, it’s right there in the title. This is an album about youth: its joys, its miseries and its tragic brevity.

+ Read more about Katy Perry’s teenage dreams after the jump.

This is a sentiment to which Katy herself has alluded in promoting the album, but to unpack that theme a little further, I went straight to the source: The songwriter Bonnie McKee, who co-wrote the title track on Teenage Dream, as well as “California Gurls” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” Bonnie, it should be noted, is a supremely gifted vocalist in her own right, as well as the brilliant popsmith behind singles such as Britney Spears‘ “Hold It Against Me” and Taio Cruz‘s “Dynamite.” Bonnie’s 2004 album, Trouble, penned entirely by Bonnie herself when she was in her early teens, is an astonishingly precocious (and criminally underrated) set of soulful pop-rock gems that remains on heavy rotation for me even now, seven years after its initial release. But in recent years, Bonnie has enjoyed a career as one of mainstream pop’s most reliable songwriters, and her work on Teenage Dream is some of her finest to date.

“It was inspired by the teenage condition,” Bonnie told me of Katy’s album. “[Katy and I] both had an obsession with that time in our lives. We have a mutual fascination with the bleachers and the prom and all of the things that we never got to have.” The fact that Bonnie referenced the bleachers and the prom struck me — those are such concrete, specific images, as are so many of the most memorable lyrics on Teenage Dream, whether it’s the tender stuff, like building a fort out of sheets in “Teenage Dream” and making out in a guy’s Mustang to Radiohead in “The One That Got Away,” or sunkissed skin and bikinis on top in “California Gurls” and pink flamingos in the pool in “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” Whereas many lyricists rely upon abstractions, on Teenage Dream, Katy uses the highly personal and specific to access a universal narrative about being young and — pick one! — happy, heartbroken, drunk, angry or in love.

But I think it’s those contradictions that makes Katy’s music so relatable. “‘California Gurls’ and ‘Last Friday Night’ are naughtier and more rebellious, and then ‘Teenage Dream’ and ‘The One That Got Away’ are more vulnerable,” Bonnie said. “But that’s why Katy Perry is such a huge star. She can be a vixen and put on little costumes with a wink and a smile, but she can also be so honest and vulnerable.” It’s true that there’s an honesty in a song like “Teenage Dream” that’s emotionally riveting — the first month of its release, I would tear up almost every time I heard it (although, as my fellow Buzzworthy contributor Bradley Stern has noted before, 90 percent of my musical memories revolve around crying while listening to a particular song). But it’s also just that youth is one of those themes, like love or loss, that never goes out of style — and so a concept album about the glorious fleetingness of youth, in all its rowdy drama and emotional complexity, is an album that’s sure to succeed.

Because between drinking to blackout and sporting Daisy Dukes with bikinis on top, there’s something complicated and substantial in these lyrics. “It’s so easy, with pop music, to be shallow,” Bonnie told me. “But Katy keeps her heart in her music.” Teenage Dream, like youth itself, is messy, outrageous, silly and occasionally very profound — and that’s a damn good reason to keep playing it.

Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City. He goes hard for Swedish pop music, “Real Housewives” GIFs and juice. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.