It was an August to remember for Katy Perry: Not only did she and partner Orlando Bloom welcome their first child together on the 26th, but the pop star also dropped Smile, her new album, just two days later.
This week, the long-awaited LP — Katy Perry’s fifth since rebranding from Katy Hudson, and her first since 2017’s Witness — bows at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, with 50,000 equivalent album units moved. Though the numbers are certainly respectable, they’re relatively low by Perry’s standards, as her last three albums all debuted at No. 1 on the chart.
How should Perry feel about Smile‘s performance? And where should she go musically from here? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.
1. Smile debuts at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, with 50,000 equivalent album units moved in its first week. If you’re Katy Perry, how wide is your smile or deep is your frown at those numbers?
Becky Kaminsky: If I’m Katy Perry, I’m smiling from ear-to-ear for the foreseeable future with my newborn and Orlando Bloom. But when it comes to the numbers, I’ll go for a straight face. With Taylor Swift’s Folklore still going strong, I would have anticipated at least a No. 2 debut, so I’m guessing landing at No. 5 has gotta sting a bit.
Jason Lipshutz: Those are not numbers that will make an artist grin from ear-to-ear — especially if your previous album was much-maligned and wildly uneven, but still managed to score a No. 1 debut and more than triple that equivalent album units number in its first week of release (180,000 for Perry’s 2017 full-length Witness). The lack of a No. 1 bow shouldn’t bug Perry, but that equivalent album units drop-off makes it particularly difficult to turn a frown upside down.
Mia Nazareno: If we’re only looking at the numbers, then probably a little frowny, tbh. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it given that she just had her first baby and that her man is everyone’s middle school celebrity crush. There’s still lots to smile about!
Andrew Unterberger: A slight frown, probably, but likely one turned upside down before long. Perry’s days as a sure-thing chart-topper may be behind her, but precious few megastars stay at that level forever — and given Perry’s own admission about her struggles with the reception to her last album, she might welcome that pressure being lifted at this point, especially if she’s able to continue making more personal, interesting pop music as a result.
Christine Werthman: Oof. Pretty deep frown considering her last album, 2017’s Witness, debuted at No. 1 with 180,000 equivalent album units. Now, Witness did get a ticket-bundle boost, while Smile only had merch — but even if that cheers you up a little bit, you’re probably brought back down to earth a little when you realize you got beat by a Metallica live album. Sad but true.
2. While Perry used to be one of the most automatic artists on pop radio, none of the songs she’s released in the lead up to Smile have made the top 10 of Billboard’s Pop Songs chart (with “Never Really Over” just missing at No. 11). Why do you think pop radio isn’t as receptive to Katy anymore — and is it a trend she can still reverse?
Becky Kaminsky: I’m shocked “Never Really Over,” “Smile” and “Daisies” never made it into the top 10, but I think pop radio feeds off narratives and momentum, and that was somewhat missing here. I really wish “Smile” was attached to an animated movie this summer, to push it into Pharrell’s “Happy” or Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” territory. I hope KP can make a comeback on pop radio, but it won’t be with this album.
Jason Lipshutz: What 2019 demonstrated is that pop radio can still be receptive to Perry — depending on the song, of course. “Never Really Over” was a legitimate pop hit, peaking at No. 15 on the Hot 100, and her “Con Calma” remix with Daddy Yankee and Snow wasn’t far behind it, reaching No. 22 on the chart. The commercial performance of Smile has suffered because none of the singles preceding it have been able to replicate that radio success, but her wins from last year prove that just because you think she’s over at top 40 doesn’t mean she’s really over.
Mia Nazareno: When I first listened to “I Kissed A Girl” on Myspace as a teen, I felt like I was getting away with something a tad naughty. And then when I heard “You PMS like a b–ch,” “Hot N Cold” became my favorite song of 2008. I know that artists mature over time, but it seems like KP lost a little of her edge along the way to becoming an American Idol judge. But I think if she pulls off a Lady Gaga or a Taylor Swift and goes back to the basics, I do think she can reverse the trend. I’m def rooting for her!
Andrew Unterberger: Katy Perry’s signature turbo-pop was so radio dead center for the first three albums of her career that it’s been tough for her to adjust once radio pivoted to a more hip-hop-influenced, downtempo sound that she doesn’t necessarily excel in. (For the record, even though they’ve remained massively successful in other arenas, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga have also experienced FM doldrums at points over the last half-decade.) The good news for Katy is that radio is more upbeat in 2020 than it has been in ages, and now it’s just a matter of finding the right dance-pop killer for her to achieve radio ubiquity again. (Sadly for her, she might’ve simply been a year too early with “Never Really Over,” which could’ve sounded massive in between Dua Lipa and The Weeknd on 2020 top 40.)
Christine Werthman: The Big Pop that Perry makes is not really the wave on the Hot 100 right now. The current hits are more understated (see: “Watermelon Sugar” and “Adore You”), emo (see: “Before You Go” and “If The World Was Ending”), ’80s (see: “Break My Heart” and “Blinding Lights”) or, uh, TikTok (see: “Savage Love”). Smile goes more toward pump-up pop than what’s on the charts, but the album is a bit more deflated than Perry’s usual “Roar”-level output. It’s also a lot safer than Witness, with no real variation outside of tempo and no interesting guest features to shake things up. After seeing Perry bounce from a No. 86 peak on the Hot 100 with Zedd collab “365” to No. 15 with “Never Really Over” last year, it’s clear that she still has chart potential as an artist, she just needs the right propulsive hit to get her back on top.
3. What’s something that Perry does well on Smile (either in general or on an individual song) that you hadn’t heard from her before or that kinda took you by surprise?
Becky Kaminsky: I was surprised to hear the f-bomb dropped in the middle of the final track, “What Makes a Woman.” I would gladly take more of that spicy KP on future releases.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s a shame that “Daisies” didn’t take off as a lead single, because in that context, it’s a pretty excellent change-up for Perry: a slower, more methodical type of anthem that leads with an open heart instead of a wink, almost like “Unconditionally” on steroids. Perry has recorded songs like “Daisies” in the past, but as a radio offering, the song was delightfully unexpected.
Mia Nazareno: Tracks like “Only Love” and “What Makes a Woman” sound more reflective and grown up. The latter is a short and sweet song, but it sounds like it carries the hard-earned lessons she learned as a woman who survived pop stardom.
Andrew Unterberger: I still find the lithe, dub-inflected bounce of “Harleys in Hawaii” pretty irresistible. Between that and the “Con Calma” remix, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea for Katy to get out of the continental States a little more often. (Respectfully, of course.)
Christine Werthman: Though this album does feel a bit samey from song to song, one of its biggest flaws is also one of its greatest strengths as the lack of sharp left turns make it a consistent listen. I was surprised that she could put out such a streamlined project, a solid 36 minutes of mid-tempo, self-reflective pop. Nothing wrong with a little predictability in an unpredictable time.
4. If you could advise Katy Perry on a musical or thematic direction to further pursue on her next album, what would you suggest she focus on?
Becky Kaminsky: I think Smile and its accompanying rollout tried to go in too many directions, so I’d have to say pick one, commit to it, and tighten the timeline. I love the flower child vibes of “Never Really Over” and “Daisies,” and I was really hoping the entire album would have that kind of energy. I was surprised to see the clown aesthetic own the cover art and title track. For me, listening to Smile track-by-track and watching the promotional imagery play out for over an entire year didn’t feel like a cohesive album, but rather a string of unrelated singles that she wanted to release at some point.
Jason Lipshutz: I find it interesting that the standard edition of Smile ends with “What Makes a Woman,” Perry’s twist on adult contemporary pop with understated acoustic guitar and effective personal-to-universal messaging. At a little over two minutes, “What Makes a Woman” plays out like a coming attraction for Perry’s first post-Smile era — perhaps a full transition away from top 40 and toward lush, family-focused storytelling. Even if she can still theoretically knock out a few more pop hits, that pivot may prove to be a savvy one if it were to happen.
Mia Nazareno: I think Katy would be really good at provocative mom songs. Fergie dabbled in that genre a few years back, but I think KP would rock it. Alternatively, an acoustic album from her would be refreshing. As an old school Katy Perry fan, I miss her singing like this.
Andrew Unterberger: More songs with Charlie Puth! “Harleys in Hawaii” didn’t bust up the charts and “Small Talk” was relegated to the Smile deluxe edition, but for my money those two Puth co-writes are the two most interesting and successful songs here: smaller than Perry’s signature bangers, but ones that still have an intimate understanding of her personality and the spaces she excels in. Would love to see that collaboration expanded and explored further.
Christine Werthman: Go bigger, get weirder. But more like “Swish Swish” weird and less like “Harleys in Hawaii” weird. I should probably be a star producer with those kinds of notes, right?
5. What non-Katy related song about smiling never fails to put a grin on your face?
Becky Kaminsky: I’ll go with “U Smile” by Justin Bieber. It’s the flippy-hair, Bieber-fever nostalgia for me.
Jason Lipshutz: I always enjoyed “U Smile,” an ooey-gooey doo-wop riff from teenage Justin Bieber, on My World 2.0. If you haven’t listened to it in a while, do so — young Biebs sounds great on it! And he really commits to the romance! Good luck not smiling when it’s playing!
Mia Nazareno: Gotta be “Smile Like You Mean It” by The Killers.
Andrew Unterberger: I’ll throw it back a half century to one-hit wonders The Flying Machine’s 1969 No. 5-peaking smash “Smile a Little Smile For Me.” Hard to say no to those harmonies, impossible to say no to that trumpet.
Christine Werthman: “Shark Smile” by Big Thief. It’s actually a super depressing song, but it’s a nice ride — at least until the end.