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Why Katy Perry’s ‘Prism’ Era Is More Impressive Than You Think

Katy Perry is everywhere, and that ubiquity doesn't always equate to admiration. But the success of her latest album, Prism, begs to be respected, even by those who have never and will never consider…

Are we appreciating Katy Perry enough?

That’s a strange question to ask in January 2015, when Katy Perry is a massive pop star, one who’s once again Grammy-nominated and selling out arenas. She’s about to headline the Super Bowl halftime show, the biggest musical platform in the world. She is everywhere, and that ubiquity doesn’t always equate to admiration. But the success of her latest album, Prism, begs to be respected, even by those who have never and will never consider themselves KatyCats.

We’re nearing the end of Perry’s run promoting her third Capitol Records album, Prism, which was released in October 2013: following the Super Bowl halftime show performance on Feb. 1, Perry will perform the final leg of her Prismatic tour in Europe, wrapping up her latest trek on March 22. There may be another single from the album, or fifth single “This Is How We Do,” which entered the Top 40 way back in early September, but it’s more likely that Perry is playing out the string with Prism and is ready to finish this chapter after an 18-month-long promo cycle. Prism will be remembered for generating precisely two smash hits, “Roar” and “Dark Horse,” yet in a lot of ways, Perry’s latest run has been just as impressive as the record-setting lap she took with her sophomore album, 2010’s Teenage Dream. In some ways, she’s even surpassed that towering mark.

Teenage Dream is famous for becoming the first album since Michael Jackson‘s 1987 full-length Bad to score five No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart; no album other than those two has ever earned that honor. Following the success of singles like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold” from her 2008 debut One of the Boys, Perry unleashed 2010’s song of the summer with “California Gurls,” then hit more home runs with the buttery “Teenage Dream,” inspirational “Firework,” glitchy “E.T.” and bubblegum “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” It was an unbelievable run that earned Perry an album of the year Grammy nomination; spawned a (sneaky-great) documentary, Katy Perry: Part of Me; warranted a deluxe edition that produced two more hits, “Part of Me” and “Wide Awake”; and, for all intents and purposes, turned Perry into a superstar.

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So how did Perry top that commercial run? She didn’t. No one could have. Again, Teenage Dream is only the second album ever to produce five No. 1 Hot 100 singles; it’s essentially a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. With that in mind, Prism has come a lot closer to duplicating that success than Katy (or anybody) could have hoped for.

Consider the chart performance of Prism‘s five singles:

“Roar”: No. 1 peak (two weeks)
“Unconditionally”: No. 14 peak
“Dark Horse”: No. 1 peak (four weeks)
“Birthday”: No. 17 peak
“This Is How We Do”: No. 24 peak

There were a total of four top 20 hits, and two chart-toppers: “Roar,” the empowering lead single, and “Dark Horse,” the oddball trap-pop anthem. In between, the austere ballad “Unconditionally” peaked at No. 14, the bouncy dance track “Birthday” topped at No. 17, and “This Is How We Do” reached No. 24 on the chart last fall. The latter became Perry’s first proper single in nearly five years to miss the top 20 of the Hot 100 chart (the promotional single “Walking On Air” also charted at No. 34 on the Hot 100, but was never officially released to radio).

So, Prism didn’t dominate the pop universe quite like Teenage Dream did — but is it really fair to compare the career-defining blockbuster with its follow-up? Since the chart run of Teenage Dream has long been contrasted with that of Jackson’s Bad album, let’s equate Prism with MJ’s Bad follow-up, 1991’s Dangerous. As covered by Billboard chart whiz Gary Trust in October 2013, here’s how Jackson’s Dangerous singles performed on the Hot 100:

“Black or White”: No. 1 peak (seven weeks)
“Remember the Time”: No. 3 peak
“In the Closet”: No. 6 peak
“Jam”: No. 26 peak
“Heal the World”: No. 27 peak
“Who Is It”: No. 14 peak
“Will You Be There”: No. 7 peak

It’s a  startlingly similar run to that of Perry’s latest album: seven total weeks at No. 1 for Dangerous singles compared to six for Prism, a handful of solid but by no means defining hits (“In the Closet” is Jackson’s career equivalent to Perry’s “Birthday,” “Will You Be There” his “Unconditionally”), and a couple relative misfires that couldn’t crack the top 20. It’s mind-boggling to consider that Perry has followed Michael Jackson’s commercial trajectory on multiple albums now — on the commanding Teenage Dream, and then the huge-if-not-quite-enormous success of Prism.

As Gary also noted, Prism tweaked Perry’s radio-friendly sound less than Jackson’s Dangerous, which leapt from Bad into a multitude of daring new formats. On the other hand, Perry scored her biggest hit from Prism with “Dark Horse,” one of her musically weirdest songs to date and a Juicy J collaboration that wasn’t initially planned as a single. The song spent 57 weeks on the Hot 100 chart, a number only 22 songs in the chart’s history have reached; meanwhile, the music video for “Dark Horse” is now Perry’s most-viewed video ever on YouTube, surpassing “Firework,” which won the video of the year trophy at the 2011 MTV VMAs, by nearly 250 million views. “Firework” has sold 6.8 million downloads compared to 5.8 million for “Dark Horse,” according to Nielsen Music, but the fact that “Dark Horse” has come within spitting distance of the biggest-selling single from Teenage Dream should count as a clear win for Team Perry.

For Capitol Records, it was all about setting the proper expectations with Prism — if one accepts the fact that it was never going to topple the success of Teenage Dream, it’s easier to feel victorious about getting somewhat close to the numbers of that album. “We didn’t think that we could repeat Teenage Dream, but that’s like saying, ‘I’m gonna go paint another Picasso,” says Greg Thompson, EVP of Capitol Music Group, of Prism. “The interesting thing is if you look at Prism compared to Teenage Dream after each album’s first year, Prism was very much in line with the sales of Teenage Dream [1.5 million vs. 1.7 million in each title’s first 52 weeks, according to Nielsen Music]. Taking into consideration that the market is down and yet Prism sold essentially as well as Teenage Dream in that span says something about the evolution of Katy as an artist and her abilities to sell albums.”

The sales-to-date gap between the two albums is a bit wider: 1.6 million sold for Prism compared to 2.9 million for Teenage Dream, according to Nielsen Music. Album sales are falling across the board, of course, and, as Thompson noted, Prism is about to receive its biggest television plug yet at the Super Bowl. Last year, Bruno Mars‘ album sales soared following his halftime performance, with his most recent album, Unorthodox Jukebox, scoring a 92 percent uptick in the week following the Super Bowl show.

And from a strictly monetary standpoint, Perry’s current arena tour is massively outperforming her previous one. According to Billboard Boxscore, 105 dates of the Prismatic tour have grossed $146 million, with 1.37 million KatyCats in attendance. Compare that to 105 dates of the California Dreams tour, Perry’s international run supporting Teenage Dream, which grossed $52 million and had an attendance of 1.08 million. Granted, that gross is inflated thanks to heftier ticket prices… but whatever the means were for securing that sum, that extra $94 million more than makes up for the difference in album sales between Teenage Dream and Prism.

In a half-century, I’m unlikely to plop my grandchild on my knee and say in an old-timey voice, “I remember when Katy Perry’s Prism was the talk of the town!” Prism is not an epochal pop release, especially when one remembers the claims of cultural appropriation, the hammy “Birthday” video and the regretful RiFF RaFF remix that were included in its promotional cycle. But that’s the point: even a flawed Katy Perry release has been bulldozing, another comfortable victory to follow a blowout win. Perry has once again slapped commercial stratospheres that other artists would kill to graze, and when she takes the Super Bowl stage next month, she’ll have plenty of reasons to roar.

(Additional reporting by Gary Trust, Billboard)