Katy vs. MJ: Who’s Bad?

Paul Grein
Chart Watch (NEW)

You probably know that Katy Perry is vying to break a record that she now shares with Michael Jackson for the most #1 singles from an album. But it's starting to look like it's not going to happen. "The One That Got Away," Perry's bid for a sixth #1 hit from Teenage Dream, drops from #3 to #6 this week.

There has been some backlash to Perry tying Jackson's record. Most of it strikes me as unfair. After all, the Jackson album that held the record wasn't the ground-breaking Off The Wall or the earth-shaking Thriller, but Bad, an album that, for all its success, was widely faulted for playing it too safe; for putting commercial success ahead of artistic growth.

But it got me thinking: Are Perry's singles from Teenage Dream in the same league as Jackson's singles from Bad? I pulled out my albums and played the singles, in order, Jackson first, then Perry. I scored each round. (I invite you to do the same.) Here's my report:

First Single: "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" vs. "California Gurls."

Both artists went with a male/female pairing as the lead single. Jackson teamed with newcomer Siedah Garrett, who sang an uncredited backup vocal. Perry teamed with rap icon Snoop Dogg for a full-fledged collabo. "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" is a pretty ballad, with immaculate Quincy Jones production, but it has two strikes against it. The lyrics are beyond trite. And there's little differentiation in the vocals of Jackson and Garrett. So what was the point of bringing in another singer? You have the sense that Jackson's camp figured the first single from this long-awaited album would be an automatic #1, so they deliberately held back the stronger tracks. By contrast, "California Gurls" is one of the strongest tracks on Perry's album. It's day-glo, candy-coated fun (with a terrific video). Snoop gives the song some edge, which cuts the sweetness of the bubblegum. "California Gurls" received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals. My grades: Jackson: B. Perry: A-. Advantage: Perry.

Second Single: "Bad" vs. "Teenage Dream."

Both artists went with the title tracks from their albums as the second single. At the risk of sounding sexist, "Bad" is all about masculine energy, while "Teenage Dream" is very feminine; flirty and sexy. The aggressive tone of Jackson's song is set from the opening line, "Your butt is mine." Jimmy Smith, a jazz organist with R&B hits dating back to 1962, played the organ solo.  Martin Scorsese, no less, directed the video, which was set in a New York subway. I wish Jackson hadn't sold the song to Pepsi, because I can't hear the song anymore without thinking of the commercial. Perry's song is pure pop, a celebration of youth and sex. Both of these singles were Grammy finalists. "Bad" was nominated for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. "Teenage Dream" was nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. My grades: Jackson: B+. Perry: B+. Let's call this one a tie.

Third Single: "The Way You Make Me Feel" vs. "Firework."

Both artists had strong releases in their third at-bats. Jackson's song was lusty and funky. The song and the accompanying video showed another, more adult side of him. The song and "Man In The Mirror" would have been welcome additions to Off The Wall or Thriller, which is high praise. Perry's song is inspiring and exhilarating. It has a great opening line: "Do you ever feel like a plastic bag/drifting through the wind…" The low-key sincerity of the opening, in which Perry is warm and nurturing, sets up the big, "boom-boom-boom" finish. Both the song and the video deal with themes of empowerment and developing healthy self-esteem. "Firework" is vying for Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance. The video won a VMA award as Video of the Year. My grades: Jackson: A-. Perry: A. Advantage: Perry.

Fourth single: "Man In The Mirror" vs. "E.T."

I think this is one of the best records Jackson ever made. Grammy voters agreed. This was nominated for Record of the Year. (It really should have won. It lost to Bobby McFerrin's lightweight ditty "Don't Worry Be Happy.") "Man In The Mirror" revisits the same social consciousness theme as "We Are The World," which Jackson had co-written with Lionel Richie. But where that song is somewhat sweet and sentimental, "Man In The Mirror" has grit and soul. Siedah Garrett, the backup singer on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," co-wrote the song with Glen Ballard. Garrett also sings background vocals on the track, along with the Andrae Crouch Choir and the Winans. They give the song a stirring gospel quality. "E.T.," Perry's collabo with Kanye West, was a giant hit. It won VMA Awards for Best Collaboration and Best Special Effects. The spacey, futuristic sound was, for many, an effective change-of-pace from Perry's pure pop hits, but it left me cold. Obviously, 4,960,000 fans (the number of people who have paid to download the song) can't all be wrong, but they hear something I don't. My grades: Jackson: A+. Perry: C-. Advantage: Jackson.

Fifth single: "Dirty Diana" vs. "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)"

"Dirty Diana" was "the rock track" on Bad. It was meant to be the album's "Beat It," but it didn't have nearly the same impact. Steve Stevens, Billy Idol's guitarist, fills in for Eddie Van Halen, who did the honors on "Beat It."  Perry's song is a trifle, but it's fun. And the John Hughes-style video, featuring cameos by such well-chosen artists as Debbie Gibson, Corey Feldman and Kenny G, is a hoot. The video is so clever and appealing, it probably played a key role in pushing the song to #1. My grades: Jackson: B-. Perry: B+. Advantage: Perry.

Sixth single: "Another Part Of Me" vs. "The One That Got Away."

I don't know what Jackson's team was thinking when they released this song, especially when the superior "Smooth Criminal" was waiting in the wings. Maybe they were holding that song back for a strong finish, in the same way that "Thriller" was held back to be the seventh single from that album. If so, they were overconfident. This peaked at #11 in September 1988. It was Jackson's first solo single to fall short of the top 10 since before Off The Wall. "Another Part Of Me" isn't a bad song, but it doesn't leave a distinct impression, which is the key to a great single. By contrast, Perry has one of her stronger efforts. "The One That Got Away" is a solid, gimmick-free pop record, not unlike "Hot N Cold" from her first album. I love the line "talk about the future/like we had a clue." My grades: Jackson: B-. Perry: A-. Advantage: Perry.

Seventh single: "Smooth Criminal" vs. ???

Jackson regained lost ground, both commercially and artistically, with this sleek single. It peaked at #7 in January 1989. (If it had been released as the sixth single, it might have maintained his string of #1 hits. Momentum and a perception of hotness is crucial in pop music.) The stylish video ranks among Jackson's best. Will Perry release a seventh single from Teenage Dream? Stay tuned. My grade: Jackson: B+.

Summary: Perry wins four rounds, to just one for Jackson. But that's misleading. Perry won a few of them narrowly, while Jackson won Round 4 by a wide margin.

Jackson wrote all but one of his hits from Bad. (Ironically, the one he didn't write, "Man In The Mirror," is easily the best song on the album.) Perry has co-written all six of her hits from Teenage Dream. Top producers worked on both albums. The legendary Quincy Jones produced Bad (as he had Off The Wall and Thriller). Red-hot hit-makers Dr. Luke and Max Martin co-wrote and co-produced five of Perry's six hits from Teenage Dream.

Perry has made ambitious conceptual videos for all six of her hits from Teenage Dream. Jackson made just three conceptual videos for his Bad singles. He went with simple performance clips for "Dirty Diana" and "Another Part Of Me" and didn't make a video at all for "I Just Can't Stop Loving You."

Closing Thoughts: The attention that Perry has gotten for tying Jackson's record is really a tribute to Jackson's star power. I don't think Perry would have gotten nearly this much attention for tying the record if it had been set by Janet Jackson, George Michael, Mariah Carey, Usher, Rihanna or some other  hit-maker. They're all top recording stars, but Jackson was a legend.

I think Jackson would have admired Perry's records and videos. He had a similar desire to entertain a mass audience. Would he have sent her a congratulatory note last August when she tied his record? I like to think so. Jackson, a proud and competitive man, would have hated having to share his record, but he would have respected that Perry tied it with a series of well-crafted hits; records that largely reflected his own musical values.