The Ones of the ’10s: Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”

In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.


Katy Perry- “Teenage Dream”

HIT #1: September 18, 2010

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

Pop music has always had a fascination with teenagers and teenage life. For the whole history of popular music, teenagers have been the primary audience and consumers of pop music so it makes sense that artists would make music that relates to their experience. And given that most popular artists are either in their teens or just out of it, many artists tend to write songs that reflect on their own experience as a teenager. 

Many times those songs capture a feeling of nostalgia that not only connects to the artist but connects to everyone. Your teenage years are ones full of constant changes and big moments that are part of your coming of age. And as you get older, you want to recapture those feelings you felt as a teen as well as the innocence. That’s what we get out of the title track to Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream album, a song that more or less has become a modern pop standard.

The initial melody for “Teenage Dream” came from Dr. Luke with fellow producer Benny Blanco coming up with two tracks with Dr. Luke singing over the one track they had available. As fellow producer partner Max Martin put it, “Benny Blanco did a track and then Luke just started singing sounds and nonsense words and he had this flow, where everything that came out was great, including the chorus. He was just standing there and screaming, and it just wrote itself.” The track was then sent to Perry to write lyrics for to which she asked her songwriting partner Bonnie McKee to help with.

Perry and McKee had both shared an interest in writing songs about adolescence wanting to make a forever young type song for the Teenage Dream album. They went through a lot of ideas before coming up with the final version. Initially, they were gonna write it around Peter Pan and not wanting to grow up but felt it wasn’t edgy enough. One idea included the line, “And the next thing you know / You’re a mom in a minivan,” which made Perry and McKee laugh. They wanted to make a sexual-based song based on Madonna’s 1985 hit “Dress You Up” in comparing clothes to sex. All those ideas were rejected by Perry’s producers.

In a 2019 interview with Songfacts, McKee remembers initially settling on a lesser B-side version thinking they shouldn’t waste a whole album-making process on one song. She then described having an 8 Mile moment and started coming up with “Teenage Dream” which finally satisfied Katy and her producers. In John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, McKee recalls getting inspiration from thinking about her teenage years, her first love, and Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, “I was like “teenager” that’s such a great word. It packs a lot of emotion and imagery into three syllables.” She later came up with dream for the title as it provided a sexy edge but innocent enough to get over with music listeners. It’s also where McKee came up with the bridge line “skin-tight jeans” evolving from the “trying me on” concept. 

In her explanation about “Teenage Dream,” Perry stated the song holds a double meaning to her. One is about the feelings you experience as a teenager and love during that age. By the time of the song, Perry had also gotten engaged to the actor and comedian Russell Brand so Perry also considered “Teenage Dream” as nostalgia for her teenage years while she was preparing to get married. McKee recalls Perry being very into the honeymoon phase of being in love around the time of “Teenage Dream.”

Listening to “Teenage Dream,” you can definitely tell the honeymoon feeling that McKee describes. Perry sings about how happy she feels being with her lover, describing how he makes her feel like living a “teenage dream,” and wants to run away forming their own life together, “Don’t ever look back.” Perry delivers all this in a happy and naive style as if nothing could ever go wrong in this relationship: “We’ll be young forever,” (It did eventually go wrong as Brand would divorce Perry only a year later in 2011.). The production also pulls off this feeling with the constant guitar melody that anchors the song along with strings and synths that really bring home the emotion of the song. And this was all done in just three chords. 

While it emulates a happy feeling of being in love it also gives off a wistfulness in reflecting back on your teenage years. You wish you could go back to your teenage years when you were just starting to discover these feelings as well as thinking nothing could go wrong. As McKee points out, “The word teenager, it makes us all a little sad, because it’s not something that can last forever. There’s a sick sadness when you think about your teenage years.” I myself have yet to find love but that feeling of naivety could apply to any time in your teenage years and “Teenage Dream” does make you feel nostalgic for being a teenager. For me at least, it makes me nostalgic for sixth grade, the time I was hearing “Teenage Dream” when it was big. 

Lorde, an artist that will eventually wind up in this column, stated this about “Teenage Dream” to the New York Times, “There’s this sadness about it, where you feel young listening to it, but you feel impermanence at the same time. When I put that song on, I’m as moved as I am by anything by David Bowie, by Fleetwood Mac, by Neil Young. It lets you feel something you didn’t know you needed to feel… There’s something holy about it.” It’s that sentiment that best explains why “Teenage Dream” has become this modern pop classic and appeared on many best songs of the 2010s lists. It’s a song that relates to an artists’ personal experience while also being relatable to everyone else as we’ve all felt those feelings of being young. It makes us want to recapture those feelings again. 

Even as someone who’s never really been a fan of Katy Perry’s music, “Teenage Dream” is a good example of what the pop machine can do at its peak. It’s also a good example of how a song can touch us all and make us think back to our younger days.

We’ll see Katy Perry back in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s 5 Seconds of Summer’s performing a pop-punk version of “Teenage Dream” during a 2014 performance at Wembley Stadium

(5 Seconds of Summer’s highest-charting single, 2018’s “Youngblood,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Niall Horan and Lewis Capaldi performing a folky version of “Teenage Dream” during a 2019 performance at the Jingle Ball festival 

(Lewis Capaldi will eventually appear in this column. Niall Horan has never gotten a Top 10 hit on his own. As a member of One Direction, he peaked at #2 with 2013’s “Best Song Ever.” It’s a 5. His fellow bandmate ZAYN though will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Teenage Dream” being performed on a 2019 episode of The Masked Singer

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