Katy Perry begins anew with “Smile”


Christine Hahn

“Smile,” the sixth studio album by pop star Katy Perry is set to release Friday.

Pop icon Katy Perry, known for exuding charisma and spontaneity, was candid about where she was only a short time ago while working on her new album, “Smile,” set to release August 28.

“I wrote this record during one of the darkest times of my life,” she said during a Zoom press conference, “where I didn’t really plan for the next day, or didn’t necessarily want to. I was very flatlined and I was kind of clinically depressed, which is something I had never dealt with.”

“You know the saying ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?’ I’d like to edit that and say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but sometimes you have to walk through Hell to get that strength.”

“Smile” draws from some of her lowest moments. She said songs on the album like “It’s Not the End of the World,” “Teary Eyes” and “Only Love” draw from days she was stuck in a loop of negativity and had to battle to change her perspective. At the same time, however, “Smile” is laden with themes of what she describes as “hopefulness and resilience.” Already, “Daisies” and the title track have been released to great success, with “Daisies” at almost 70 million streams on Spotify and “Smile” at over 16 million. 

Perry was introduced to the world when so much of her current fan base was still quite young, with her debut album, “One of the Boys,” in 2008. She connected with a young audience of all ages, including Leo Plaza, a sophomore at DePaul, who has been a Katy Perry fan since hearing “I Kissed a Girl.”

“I was living in Puerto Rico in 2008 and I heard ‘I Kissed A Girl’ on the car radio and the beat, the catchy lyrics drew me in,” he said via email. “My dad looked at me and said ‘What are you doing?’ And I said ‘I’m a KatyCat.’ From there I have been a true fan.”

Similarly to Plaza, Grace Ulch, a senior at DePaul, also remembers when “I Kissed a Girl” first blew up.

“I was surrounded by super homophobic people at the time who were criticizing the song which made me like it more,” she said. “I was really young so I didn’t fully understand all the implications but I just thought it was catchy.”

“Smile” will be the sixth studio album for Perry, who has sold over 45 million albums and accumulated 45 billion streams in her career. Her break into the music scene came with “One of the Boys” starting her career as a young, enigmatic, black-haired superstar who would host “Saturday Night Live” or run after Elmo on “Sesame Street” while singing “Hot N Cold,” one of the iconic songs of the 2000s.

The music video for “California Gurls” saw her nakedly laying on a giant purple cloud in a Candyland-like world, while “Teenage Dream” made her young audience imagine young love with wonder and her adult audience reminisce on it. Songs like “Firework” and “Roar” drew eyes with their empowering messages, while “E.T.” took her to a whole new world, sonically, with Kanye West. 

The perception around Perry, however, took a turn with 2017’s “Witness,” an album centered around the revelation of the real Katy Perry, but nonetheless is often considered a low point of her career, sometimes seen as an awkward transitional bridge of her music. 

Instead of the familiar Katy Perry style that she’d gotten so far on, true “pop music,” she opted for more beat-heavy sounds that resembled something closer to EDM than what her fans recognized her for. Sometimes stepping out of a box is unsuccessful and, in this case, the public perception turned as a result. In a time of unfamiliar criticism and a falling back to Earth, she was driven to a dark place to which she hadn’t before been. 

“When I say something it’s like having billions of in-laws saying ‘Oh yeah I told you’ or I did this or having a perspective or commentary on your life,” she said. “It’s intense.”

But Perry, now 35, pregnant and with short platinum hair, is in a new chapter of her life and career. The song “Smile” includes lyrics that go “That ego check saved my life/Had a piece of humble pie,” offering a sense of reflection on the recalibration of her career. Now she’s “got back that smile.” 

“Now, from what people can see, she’s in a happy and healthy relationship with a baby on the way,” said Ulch, “and ‘Smile’ is about being thankful about the trial and tribulations people go through that make them who they are today.”

For years, it seemed impossible to drive somewhere with the radio on and not hear her music, with its prevalence marking certain points in peoples’ childhoods. She said this album is much more like her pure pop roots of “Teenage Dream” and “Prism, an aspect of music that she says she enjoys leaning into. 

But despite the similarities, tonally, to such albums that her listeners grew up with, the substance of her music has evolved along with her audience, now drawing on more mature themes than the limited life experiences of a popstar — or anybody, for that matter — in their 20s. “What Makes a Woman,” one of the album’s songs, exemplifies that maturation. It explores Perry’s attempts to answer that very question as she is ready to bring new life into the world. It’s a question, she believes, that can’t be answered with only a sentence, but her song is an attempt to do so.

“It’s a song that I came into the studio and I just had this title,” she said. “I said ‘I want to write a song called ‘What Makes a Woman.’ And it’s almost a trick question. Because if you can actually answer what makes a woman and have it not just continue on forever and ever and ever and ever, spinning out into the universe.”

“Smile” serves as a return to what is known but also as a retrospective of sorts, a reflection on someone’s own maturation and their transition into a new phase of their career, particularly after hitting their low-point. 

“This album is the rebirth of Katy Perry,” Plaza said. “That’s how I see this album. This era is full of bright colors, catchy songs like Smile, Daisies and the tour will be iconic.”

When the album is released on August 28, it will be a return to a familiar Katy Perry, but one that is grown up and draws from life experiences she didn’t have 10 years ago. By stepping back to an older Katy Perry, a new one begins.