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Katy Perry’s Musical Evolution in 5 Acts

We trace Perry's evolution from Christian beginnings to "Swish Swish."

By Hayden Wright

For nine years, Katy Perry has been one of pop music’s most powerful forces but she was far from an overnight success. The “Roar” singer toiled on the Christian pop circuit for years before transitioning to the mainstream—and heralding the dawn of one of pop music’s brightest careers. Perry’s fifth studio album, Witness drops Friday but let’s take a look at the chapters that brought her to prominence.

Christian Pop Beginnings: Katy Hudson, 2001.

For most artists, a self-titled debut album sets the blueprint for everything that comes next. Think of Madonna or Harry Styles. That conventional wisdom couldn’t be further from the truth for Katy Perry’s first full-length album, a contemporary Christian record under her legal name, Katy Hudson. Katy Hudson runs the gamut from the overtly devotional (“Faith Won’t Fail”) to the convincingly secular (“Naturally”) but it was hardly a launchpad for superstardom. Instead, Perry’s Christian roots (and pastor parents) supply levels of irony, conviction, and context for all her future projects.

A Subversive Debut: One of the Boys, 2008.

In our desensitized times, it’s easy to forget how bold and shocking the declaration “I kissed a girl (and I liked it)” sounded on FM radio. We’ll never look at cherry Chapstick the same way again. One of the Boys was a reaction against Katy Hudson as much as it was a declaration of intent: Perry’s cheeky power pop delights on tracks like “Hot n Cold” while “Thinking of You” showcased her range. On the record, Perry left her wholesome image behind and asserted herself as a burgeoning pop powerhouse.

The Mainstream Juggernaut: Teenage Dream, 2010.

Teenage Dream was the moment everything went Technicolor for Katy Perry. Single after single hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and she earned a GRAMMY nomination for Album of the Year. Commercial performance aside, Teenage Dream is a diverse yet cohesive collection of top-drawer pop confections. “Firework” set the gold standard for empowerment anthems; “California Gurls” hit the airwaves with irresistible bubblegum force; “Last Friday Night” spawned Perry’s most delightful video to date (and how about that sax solo?). The album’s lower-key moments “Teenage Dream” and “The One That Got Away” accessed something yearning and relatable in legions of pop listeners. An album with one of these tracks would be a big deal—Teenage Dream had all five and more.

Breaking the Mold: Prism, 2013.

After the explosion of Teenage Dream, Perry waited a few years to follow it up. Prism feels like an album tailor-made for Katy Perry fans, like Lady Gaga’s Artpop or Rihanna’s Anti. Though it contained big, broad hits like “Roar” and “Dark Horse,” most of Prism plays to Perry’s base of KatyCats. It marked a major key change in the singer’s stage presence, beginning with the Prismatic World Tour and culminating at the 2015 Super Bowl Halftime Show. Perry’s supersized production values incorporated new elements of nostalgia like Missy Elliott’s show-stealing appearance.

Next Up: Witness, 2017. 

Perry’s fifth studio album will always have an asterisk next to it—it’s technically her fourth, given how far she’s come since Katy Hudson. Her “purposeful pop” promises a new dimension to the artistry we’ve come to expect, informed by the 2016 presidential election and subsequent resistance efforts. On “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish,” it’s clear that Witness won’t be a joyless political album but a fresh restatement of the Katy Perry brand.

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