Katy Perry’s 2008 debut remains frozen in the era it represents; a tween slumber party soundtrack that couldn’t be more 2008 if it tried. From the casual slur of ‘gay,’ giggling about kissing girls and staging a fake wedding with your boyfriend in Vegas that matches the 2009 film The Hangover in childish hilarity, the album plays out like the lifestyle and emotions 13-year-old’s think adults have.
But that’s exactly the kind of album you need to reach the new youthful generation on the edge of their adolescence. Want to survive in the pop world? Make a soundtrack to a middle school dance. Everything, from the way Perry marketed herself (like an idealised pin-up princess) to the cartoonish album cover and pop rock beats that were just enough rock to target the same fans who grew up with Avril Lavigne, screamed youth. It was clear from the start who Perry’s ideal audience was, even if some lyrical themes teetered more towards the mature side.
Musically speaking, One of the Boys doesn’t feel like a typical Katy Perry record. Like a side project the star made before she took over the world with the candy-soaked Teenage Dream. But when you look at it in the scheme of her entire career, the album is one hell of a debut. Not only did it prop Perry up on a pedestal she only ever dreamed of being on, but it successfully locked in an entire generation that would grow up to devour the rest of her discography. Whether they stayed die-hard fans or not, Perry’s tunes would be heard throughout every single milestone of their lives and the star would grow up alongside them (Perry is expecting her first child in 2020).
The majority of the album revolves around a classic theme of Perry’s: love. More specifically, how that love has been broken. In the strong ballad ‘Thinking Of You’ she can’t help but think of a past love even though she’s moved on and ‘I’m Still Breathing’ sonically represents her heartbreak after an affair’s ended. But that’s about as sad as we get, because the rest of the broken love tracks come in forms of both love and hate letters to all her lovers. In typical 13-year-old style, of course.
The opening title track, which could easily be the soundtrack to a Lindsay Lohan teen movie, sees Perry frustrated at being seen as just another friend to her crush. She then shaves her legs one summer and reads Lolita and suddenly her crush is interested (alas, the track didn’t exactly age well, but it’s got a good tune). On ‘Mannequin,’ she compares a man to, well, a mannequin just because she can’t understand him and the aforementioned ‘Ur So Gay’ has Perry (in a clear reflection of 2008 times) listing all the ways her ex fits the gay stereotype without actually liking boys. But the diary scribbling doesn’t stop there. Perry gets angsty about a boy’s mood swings on massive hit ‘Hot N Cold’ and sassily preaches that she’s worth a lot more than her current flame thinks on ‘If You Can Afford Me.’ It’s all strong relationship stuff in theory, but the strawberry bubblegum stench of all the tracks makes you feel the heartbreak of your primary school crush more than any proper love.
In the Hannah Montana-esque ‘Fingerprints,’ Perry essentially predicts her superstardom. “I’m leaving you my legacy. I gotta make my mark, I gotta run it hard. I want you to remember me,” repeats the chorus. In 2008, the track would’ve probably been swept into the pile of “tracks about childish pipe dreams” but in 2020, it’s absolutely iconic to see that Perry knew fame was coming her way. It’s an inspirational gem hidden in a cave of angsty love and cements the message that girls can do anything. ‘Fingerprints’ wraps up the entire album nicely, putting a bow on female adolescence and clearing the sky for Perry to decorate. And that she certainly did. In 2020, Perry has proved to be an excellent role model. She represents the women who stand out from the crowd, go out and achieve anything they want, and never let any kind of love fully break them. And every girl who started out dancing in their PJ’s to One of the Boys in their bedroom can thank her for who they’ve now become.