It’s the case of the falling pop star as we’re witnessing Katy Perry, who up until very recently dominated pop radio with hit after hit after hit for nearly a decade. Fast forward to 2017 where even she struggles to get airplay. Not since Nelly Furtado‘s The Spirit Indestructible has a reigning pop diva had such a shift in popularity between albums.
To Katy’s credit, she was already facing an uphill battle. Pop music is undergoing it’s routine transition where previously established stars are pushed back in favour of the next crop of up-and-comers. Hip-hop is once again at the forefront of popular music, and it’s producers, not singers, leading the charge of what’s in. Case in point, Katy’s best chance at a solid hit this year is her feature on the Calvin Harris track Feels.
Why does pop radio and popularity matter in this case? Because since 2008, Katy Perry has been THE definition of pop. When you thought of pop music, you thought of a Katy Perry song. Nine #1s and nearly two dozen hits are hard to argue with. But things change and Katy has been long overdo for change herself.
The first single from Witness showed some of that change – just not enough to really count. Chained To The Rhythm was still a very Katy song, albeit with disjointed hooks and disorienting structure. A song about (perhaps ironically) sheeple following the masses in today’s society. In the video, Katy is the one who deviates from the pack to be her own person. You might say she’s woke. In reality, she attempts to do the same, separating her new album from the ‘Katy Perry’ of before. New image, new collaborators, new themes. The question at the start is: does she succeed?
Chained To The Rhythm was the kick-off of her “era of purposeful pop,” a claim that may have set the bar too high. Not that Katy is incapable of ever inserting a message of any significance into her music. It really comes down to, can she do it successfully despite expectations from her audience. I’m told Chained is a politically-charged song and the lyrics support it and yet I still can’t think of it as such.
Beyond Chained To The Rhythm are self-empowerment feminist anthems, sexually-charged songs stuffed with double-entendres so obvious they’ll slap you on your butt, and songs written after last year’s election. Bigger Than Me was inspired by Hillary Clinton‘s election loss that sparked new determination.
It’s commendable how much went into making this album unlike Katy’s previous ones without fully abandoning ship, and much of that is helped by the album’s collaborators, such as Canadian electronic group Purity Ring on Mind Maze and Mike Will Made It on Tsunami. Ali Payami, hitmaker behind The Weeknd‘s Can’t Feel My Face, opens the album with the right notes on the first three tracks, and DJ/producer Duke Dumont takes the lead on Swish Swish, the throwback to 90s house with its Fatboy Slim sample and stirring verse from Nicki Minaj.
It’s after that where things start to scatter. The monotonous Déjà Vu never gets off the ground, the tedious Power with its aggravating recurring drumroll, and the obligatory ballad Miss You More all fall on the side of misses. Yet, despite the record’s weaknesses, nothing sinks as low as Peacock or This Is How We Do from Teenage Dream and Prism respectively.
If anything, Witness is an album of missed opportunity and underwhelming results. Bon Appétit is a jam that would have been better served without a side of Migos, plus it doesn’t really start to sizzle until the second half of the track. By then, it’s too late. Swish Swish is just a tad delayed as a response to Taylor Swift‘s Bad Blood, making it an unnecessary rehash to a feud few cared about anyway.
With Witness, the desire is there, the effort is there, but the result is a work-in-progress. It’s satisfying. I might even say it’s a step up from Prism. But at the end of the record, it just might be a little too much of too little. The remaining question now is, where will Katy step next?
2. Hey Hey Hey
4. Swish Swish [featuring Nicki Minaj]
5. Déjà Vu
7. Mind Maze
8. Miss You More
9. Chained To The Rhythm [featuring Skip Marley]
11. Bon Appétit [featuring Migos]
12. Bigger Than Me
13. Save As Draft
15. Into Me You See