Problematic faves date back as far as the concept of celebrity itself, and the enduring memory of social media and the Internet now puts flaws up on think-pieces right next to their album reviews. For one reason or another, culture keeps these figures relevant and in-rotation despite their public drawbacks, whatever they may be. Someone who stands to win the problematic faves pop culture bracket is Katy Perry, one of the reasons being that it’s hard to explain why many of us still listen to her.
To her credit, Perry has pipes, but if you asked someone the common or unifying thread between her material and artistry it’s doubtful much would come to peoples’ minds. The lack of identity, or rather the generic scenarios and feelings that structure her music make it easy to vicariously experience — pop voyeurism at its finest. Everyone’s been a teenager, everyone’s experienced a wild Friday night, and those who’ve felt like that bag in American Beauty will also feel vindicated by her. But Perry is pop’s girl next door who leaves her hometown and brings all its subtle ignorance along through her statements and behavior.
Knowing that purposeful pop comes packaged in the Katy Perry deal, her ‘wokeness’ can and should be addressed as a factor in discussing Witness, especially because Perry’s far too large a star and made far too many mistakes to keep making them. Her social justice rebrand largely stems from her very vocal support of Hillary Clinton from an early stage, which is both impressive and unimpressive at the same time because everyone should have been on the Hillary wagon based on the two options presented. Perry now strives to take the activism to the studio, updating her professional resume for the world to see. Yet Witness acting as a soundtrack to a revolution is like declaring Caitlin Jenner the sole authority on the matters of transgendered community; girlfriend means well but sometimes their actions muddle the positive work they attempt.
Since Witness clearly will not provide the historical soundtrack to the #resistance, the question stands will it stand up in the annals of pop music history? In many ways, Katy Perry’s fifth record follows much of the same formula of her prior work, stretching words to rhyme together, big-ass choruses, and melodramatic ballads that compliment her throaty crooning. Furthermore, the rollout to Witness obviously took some unexpected turns, which makes you question Katy Perry, the person, holds any control over Katy Perry, the brand and megastar.
Regardless of your opinion of her, Katy Perry possesses a pop sensibility that can point her in the right direction. Now that it’s had some time to mature, and its godawful lyrics are easier to digest, “Chained to the Rhythm” could probably get a club going with its swinging pianos and Daft Punk undulations. On “Mind Maze”, Purity Ring places Perry in perhaps her most futuristic setting, sending her droning through a matrix of electronic elements for one of the album’s more engaging rides. Yet in their attempt to curate for one of pop’s most vanilla mainstreamers on hollow activist anthems like “Bigger Than Me”, they give up much of the avant-garde stylings Perry could definitely use to solidify Witness as a pop milestone. “My intuition says there’s a bigger mission I must embrace,” is less committed to change than it is to pop music, and even then it falls way short.
This also stems from laziness on Perry’s part, something unacceptable at a time when pop stars are pushing the envelope of what is considered catchy and club-ready. Firstly, end the mediocre diss track. In 2017, if you’re not delivering “Shether”, then give us “Birthday” (not the video, though). Katy, I know you’re meaner than this, so the half-hearted beating you give your beef on “Swish Swish” fails to make it any more appetizing. Maybe she meant to take it back all along, but based on the unexpected trajectory of Witness so far, she probably didn’t. On the occasion when Perry commits to something on the album, such as on the percussion and horn-driven “Power”, she manages to make a statement worth repeating. But a lack of feeling behind much of Witness’ material does a listener no favors, and much of it gets forgotten once you leave it in your rear-view.
However, if you take Witness less seriously, it reveals itself a bit of camp that is in many ways more compelling than the music project it’s supposed to be. When Perry brags about her “big beautiful brain” on “Hey Hey Hey”, it sounds like Summer Heights High’s Mr G describing his dog. Interestingly enough, Perry also wrote a song about wet spots using the Japanese term for tidal wave, an artistic choice that feels interesting yet unsurprising coming from her and only adds to Witness’ lack of self-awareness. In 10 years we will realize Katy Perry unwittingly gave us comedic gold performing “Bon Apetit” on SNL, flanked by the opposing yet integral stoicism of Migos. The moment it comes skipping out of my speakers, I find myself short of breath from voguing and laughing simultaneously at the extra of it all. Often when Perry goes over the top with a shallow concept, it sticks. “California Gurls” cares about rhyme-scheme as much as you care about speeding down the PCH while it blasting out your speakers for all of Malibu to hear, yet it rightfully began the super-stream of number one hits from Teenage Dream clocked for itself over 2010-11.
One thing Witness does deserve credit for is placing Perry in her best vehicle, high-energy dance pop tracks. “Roulette” does exactly what Top 40 jams are supposed to do, propel a pop star onto the dancefloor. Despite its lyrical content, “Swish Swish” rocks a driving ‘90s house beat Perry at least steers well vocally. A similar compliment can be made for “Deja Vu”, though the issue with both tracks are that the production overshadows any personality Perry tries to put in each one.
Perry closes Witness with “Into Me You See” revealing more about herself than I think she realizes. By the end of both this album and its promotional tour, she’s completely exposed for all to see, for better or worse. This display of Perry for all of her talents and shortcomings now feels integrally part of who she is as a pop star, to the point where you can’t separate them from each other anymore. Such knowledge in hand, along with knowing Perry’s past highlights, makes for the overall listening experience of Witness kind of melancholic. You can strut and vogue to it all night, but like those tequila shots you take between tracks at the club, you might feel bad about it the next day. C