As far as singles go, "Unconditionally" is about as far from "Roar" or "Dark Horse" as you can get. It is, very simply, a power love ballad about unconditional love. "Thinking of You" and "The One That Got Away" were major hits as ballads for Katy, but this one didn't fare nearly as well on the charts. Why is that? Let's see if we can figure it out.
"Unconditionally" shows us Katy at both her most vulnerable and also at her most powerful. Katy has a far more powerful voice than a lot of people realize, vocal talents that were not always incredibly apparent on many tracks on her previous album, One of the Boys and Teenage Dream. Katy really shines on this track, singing from the heart in ways she's only ever done with "Thinking of You," "Who Am I Living For," and "Not Like the Movies." (The latter two are actually very underrated tracks.) This is not to say that she doesn't always sing from the heart, but this is easily one of the most intense singing performances that Katy's ever undertaken. There are a few other tracks later on PRISM where she matches and even surpasses the vocal efforts in this one. Katy really wanted to test herself on this record.
Critics were generally very kind to "Unconditionally." Some fan reactions to it were that it felt a bit "generic" for a love song. But it has some very powerful lines in it. The most poignant one I would say is this: "Acceptance is the key to be/To be truly free." You have to accept both yourself and your partner for your respective faults in any given situation and learn how to be there for one another; that was something that obviously did not happen in her disastrous first marriage. But the best part about "Unconditionally," and Katy has said this herself, that the song can be taken on a wide variety of levels. It's the entire concept of unconditional love that she's singing about, in any kind of relationship, familial, platonic, romantic or otherwise.
Unconditional love is all about taking those bad days with the good and learning how to help your friend or partner open up and stop fearing being judged unfairly. This is a very difficult concept for some people to understand. As Katy has revealed herself, she never really gave people a chance to understand just how badly her depression after her divorce from Russell Brand affected her. While she certainly downplayed it a bit around the time of the album's release, Katy has over time become more open about how long Katy was in a very dark place, desperately fighting to keep herself going. Even with all of the overwhelming fan support she received, Katy realized that she finally had to let the light in for herself. She had to learn to love herself unconditionally, as well. And in learning that, Katy wants to spread that love to everyone. Katy's promise to love unconditionally is just one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.
"Unconditionally" never became a #1 hit, and peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, it is a song that is beloved by many and just isn't the sort of song that charts well nowadays. It deserves a high rating simply because it is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Back in November I rated it as a 9.5 out of 10. I'm tempted to give it a perfect 10, but I'll hold to that judgment for now. It's certainly one of the most beautiful songs on PRISM and it has been a real treat to hear her perform it live.