“It really captured the hearts of everyone from your grandma to your metalhead cousin.”
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
The things we demand of our pop stars aren’t so different from what we demand of politicians: the illusion of ease. Try too hard to reach people, and you’ll be shunned for appearing overly calculating and rehearsed. Do the opposite, and you’ll be mocked for phoning it in and not having a point of view. But if you can hit the sweet spot — if you can make hours of work and fine-tuning seem like it just spilled out of you — you can win over millions.
Katy Perry found her way there in 2010. “Teenage Dream,” the title track to her megawatt album of the same name, has an undeniable levity to it: There’s the romantic subject matter, the fragile high notes, the steady but gentle kick drum; even when the chorus hits, the whole thing bounces like it’s wearing moon boots, never staying on the ground too long. (Musician Owen Pallett would later offer a detailed breakdown of how the song’s chord structure captures that exact feeling of suspension.)
Yet the song’s creation was hardly effortless. “I hadn’t had any hits at all, so I was like, ‘This is my 8 Mile moment,’” recalls co-writer Bonnie McKee, who had befriended Perry in a thrift shop in 2004, back when they were both up-and-coming artists signed to labels that would eventually drop them. When they started work on what would become “Teenage Dream,” they had already knocked out a handful of songs for the album. But they just couldn’t find the right lyrics for this one track from producer/co-writers Max Martin, Benny Blanco and Dr. Luke.
Perry and McKee made half a dozen attempts — one working version called “Born Again” compared love to a religious reawakening, while another was built around the metaphor of “trying me on,” à la Madonna’s “Dress You Up” — but the rest of the group deemed each idea too cutesy or not cool enough. Later at home, McKee thought back to all her first brushes with romance: talking about boys at sleepovers, crushing on Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, her first boyfriend. “The word teenage kept coming up,” she says. “So I dug deep and came up with ‘Teenage Dream.’ I love it because it also implied a wet dream, which was sexier but innocent enough on the surface to get away with it.”
Martin was initially reluctant to hear a new version — he, like almost everybody in the crew, was ready to be done with it. But when Perry eventually recorded the new take and the team listened back, “Max turned to me and said, ‘I wish I could bottle this feeling,’” McKee recalls. “And I was like, ‘What feeling?’ And he goes, ‘When you know you wrote a hit.’”
He was right: The song was the second in a string of five consecutive No. 1 singles from Teenage Dream, which would tie Perry with Michael Jackson for most chart-toppers from a single album, and it powered a marathon album campaign that included a reissue (which spawned two additional hits) and even a theatrically released documentary. Few pop albums these days get to five singles, and the ones that do often either burn through them in a matter of months (compared to Teenage Dream’s two-year spread) or release them all in the run-up to the album, chasing some kind of critical mass to justify an album release at all. “Teenage Dream” was the fuel.
It helped that the song was in dialogue with what was happening around Perry, as the pop star was about to marry comedian Russell Brand, and their relationship both stoked tabloid interest in the song and helped sell the very fantasy it promised listeners. Yet “Teenage Dream” didn’t just tap into her public image — it also updated it, with a softness that proved Perry was more than rowdy “cool girl” she played on 2008’s One of the Boys, or even the cartoonish Candy Land pinup she embodied in the video for “California Gurls,” Teenage Dream’s lead single. “There was something about ‘Teenage Dream’ that brought her to another level of sophistication,” McKee says, “where it really captured the hearts of everyone from your grandma to your metalhead cousin.”
The song’s appeal is simple: Making you feel like a teenager again is pop music’s holy grail. (It helps the song’s nostalgic production — which McKee notes “could come from any era” — helped it age better than other Martin-Luke-Blanco productions of the time.) But “Teenage Dream” also captures a melancholy that not every “live like we’re young” anthem possesses: Between the lyrics and the chord structure, there’s a feeling of mournful longing for when every emotion felt dialed up to 10. (Fittingly, the song arrived the same summer as Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” perhaps the decade’s most archetypical dancing-while-crying tune.)
“The word teenager, it makes us all a little sad, because it’s not something that can last forever,” McKee says. “There’s a sick sadness when you think about your teenage years.” But for just a few minutes, “Teenage Dream” offers to be your time machine — and it makes recapturing those feelings seem like the easiest thing in the world.