The Katy Perry Renaissance Is Here: 'Small Talk' Is a Triumph for the Pop Star

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images 
Katy Perry attends MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Dolly Parton at Los Angeles Convention Center on Feb. 8, 2019 in Los Angeles. 

“Never Really Over” hinted at it, and “Small Talk” confirms it: the Katy Perry Renaissance (Perrissaince?) is here, undeniably and spectacularly. 

With her latest single, released on Friday (Aug. 9), Perry has recovered the top-level song craft that both her fans and general pop enthusiasts have been craving for years, a return to form for an artist who spent the better part of this decade’s first half dominating the mainstream. Katy Perry, expert pop-song supplier, is back. Resistance isn't futile, but it’s a lot less fun.

Part of what makes the Perrissaince so gleefully entertaining is how unexpected it is -- at least now, in the middle of 2019. Perry, who collected a whopping 10 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart across her first three albums from 2008 to 2014, faltered as a bulletproof commercial entity with her fourth album, 2017’s politics-adjacent and under-developed Witness. The album marked Perry’s first project that failed to consistently produce hits, and even with lead single “Chained to the Rhythm” debuting in the top 10 of the Hot 100, the album was largely considered a commercial misfire. 

Then, earlier this year, Perry’s first post-Witness radio single was “365,” an undercooked electro-pop collaboration with Zedd that bowed at No. 86 on the Hot 100 and never climbed any higher. Zedd’s first commercial release since his international smash “The Middle” with Maren Morris, “365” and its tepid reception seemed to confirm that, regardless of whether her songs offered a political subtext or not, Perry’s status as a consistent hitmaker may have come to an end, after years of mind-boggling success.

But then “Never Really Over” happened. Another team-up with Zedd, the breakup single contained the sort of ecstatic hooks that Perry had mastered during her Teenage Dream days. There’s an appealing looseness to the song’s energy -- with a rapid-fire chorus (inspired by “Love You Like That” from Norwegian artist Dagny, who’s listed as a songwriter) and the ticking-clock production that Zedd has turned into a recent touchstone, “Never Really Over” allowed Perry to showcase the elasticity of her personality (“I’m losing my self-controoool,” she wails in the opening seconds) in a way that the Witness singles and “365” did not. By the sixth time you heard its chorus and tried in vain to keep up with the bullet-time declarations, it was clear that “Never Really Over,” seemingly out of nowhere, represented a triumph for Perry, and her strongest single since “Dark Horse” a half-decade earlier.

“Never Really Over” did not become another top 10 hit for Perry, but the song did reach No. 15 on the Hot 100, and has hung around the top 40 for months following its late May release (it currently sits at No. 29 on the current chart, up three spots from last week). Combined with the concurrent success of “Con Calma (Remix)” -- Daddy Yankee’s new single featuring Perry and Snow, which peaked at No. 22 earlier this summer -- Perry had made inroads back into popular music relatively quickly after some consecutive missteps.

It’s too soon to tell whether or not “Small Talk” will continue Perry’s hit streak, but the promise of “Never Really Over” is fully realized on its follow-up. Co-written and co-produced by Charlie Puth, “Small Talk” is a total blast, pairing sly, confident songwriting with the lovable quirkiness that Perry kept at the heart of past hits like “Waking Up in Vegas” and “Last Friday Night (TGIF).” “Small Talk” is fascinating to absorb because of how right Perry gets it on the track. It’s as if this is the type of pop that she should be making, since it perfectly plays to her strengths as an artist with a radio-beloved voice and an overflow of screwball charm.

The best pop songs offer a unique spin on an instantly relatable feeling, and “Small Talk” focuses on post-breakup awkwardness -- running into an ex and fumbling through conversation with someone who used to know you on an intimate level physically and emotionally. But Perry treats this situation as less of a dramatic showdown than a mundanity with a twinge of sadness, which is what the situation is for most people. “Isn't it weird that you've seen me naked?” she offers, before sighing, “We had conversations 'bout forever / Now it's 'bout the weather‚ okay.” The lyrics are nuanced -- this isn’t Puth’s first post-breakup rodeo as a songwriter -- but so is Perry’s vocal take, quietly grasping for resolution but also certain it’s not coming, and that this lyrical encounter will mostly just be annoying.

And whereas the “Never Really Over” chorus returned Perry to her “Firework”-esque grandiosity, the main hook of “Small Talk” is all jittery energy as she reviews the shifted relationship in front of her: “Had every inch of your skin, there's nowhere your hands haven't been / Ain't it funny? ‘Cause now there's nothing left but small talk.” When a post-chorus kicks in and Perry can only summon a dejected “Blah BLAH, blah blah,” the ennui has fully enveloped her perspective, right at the moment that the song’s unobtrusive production becomes the most engaging. 

The whole thing is remarkably composed, especially when considering Perry’s penchant for gigantic choruses -- a penchant, by the way, that made her one of the defining pop artists of this decade. She could have gone for the jugular on the “Small Talk” chorus and tried to color in the song’s more muted tones, but her restraint ultimately makes it more compelling, and no less catchy.

Will “Small Talk” become a hit? No clue -- it’s subtler and less flashy than “Never Really Over,” so predicting how Perry’s longtime home at Top 40 radio will treat it is anyone’s guess. What is clear, though, is that Perry is making her most exciting music in years, and within the span of a few months, she has completely shifted expectations for her next project among pop junkies. A longtime superstar just released a quiet, slightly weird, brilliant single. Such things should be celebrated.

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.