'Witness' and the disappointing evolution of Katy Perry
With her latest album “Witness,” Katy Perry promised her fans a new sound: “purposeful pop.” Every track would be socially aware and promote 360 degrees of liberation as far as politics, sexuality and negativity were concerned. And being a huge KatyCat since “I Kissed a Girl,” I was pumped that she was making any sort of transformation. Didn’t we all need to forget that her last single, “Rise,” ever existed?
To not mince words, “Witness” is not good. I haven’t found many overly positive reviews out there, and I have yet to find another KatyCat who enjoys this album (though they’re probably out there) for any reason other than they’ve drunk the Katy Kool-Aid. Yes, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. “Chained to the Rhythm” is kind of catchy and had some commercial success, and “Swish, Swish” rehashed headlines about Taylor Swift beef. But the rest of album feels like a collection of unfinished, disjointed songs that try too hard. It’s as if on each track Perry's team took bits of EDM, combined them with some of her indie and hip hop influences and forgot to write in her signature, catchy hooks that have defined her music for the past 10 years. The result is a somewhat cringeworthy excuse for pop music that’s meant to be purposeful and deliberate.
The problem here is that Perry’s quest for purposeful pop had good intentions to reach a deeper level of intimacy with her fans, but couldn’t be fully realized in its execution. In the 72-hour live stream of her life (which gave us tasty nuggets like how John Mayer was Perry’s best lover and her apology to Taylor Swift over their beef), Perry revealed in a therapy session that she wanted to be more Katherine Hudson, her birth name, and less “Katy Perry,” who sometimes dominates her true self under the charade of colored wigs and whipped cream shooting bras. Perry also admitted that part of her reason for cutting her hair was a result of distancing herself from her persona and letting people know “Katherine”—a move that was met with plenty of online criticism and memes comparing her hairdo to that of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. “Witness” was intended to be one of the first steps in that evolution of reintroducing Katy Perry as Katherine Hudson through candid, powerful music.
While “Witness” isn’t Perry’s best, the album is a very formative, transitional album for the pop star. The artist’s most obvious struggle in this album is trying to rebrand her more personally meaningful messages in the same sort of candy-coated lyrics that gave her massive success as Katy Perry. Take, for instance, Perry being a serial cliché, metaphor and euphemism offender. These are benign on pump-up anthems like “Roar” (“I’ve got the eye of the tiger”) and “Firework” (“Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”). They're bad on anything else. In fact, on her last studio release “Prism,” Perry notoriously boasted 226 clichés, which might be overkill. We’re more likely to excuse the cheese if the music is banging.
But on this record, Perry tops herself with her most ridiculous metaphors that it’s hard to take her messages about feminism, woke-ness or intimacy seriously. For example, in the song “Hey, Hey, Hey,” which is about Perry’s strength despite others mistaking her femininity for weakness, Perry sings, “Karate chopping the clichés and norms all in a dress,” a line that itself uses a weird cliché. It's a little ironic. The pièce de résistance of egregious comparisons on this album goes to “Deja Vú”’s “Your words are like Chinese water torture.” Why? Just, why? Write a lyric that’s raw and tell us how you really feel! It’s symptomatic that she’s having a hard time musically reconciling what Katy Perry’s been known for and who Katherine wants to be. I’ve seen more intimate lines on bumper stickers found on trucks with actual fake, hanging testicles than on the recent Katy Perry album. (Google it; my editor says we can’t hyperlink to a picture.)
Artists are allowed to evolve. Changes in muse, style and even performance keep their career interesting for fans and can show a greater range of the artist’s talent. But if intimacy and resonance with her fan base is what Perry wants, she could start with taking a few notes from some of her musical peers. We’ve seen this trend with some of Perry’s contemporaries like Lorde, Lady Gaga, Adele and Beyoncé, who have found success with new albums that are more lyrically revealing and melodically dynamic. Compare Beyoncé’s artistic evolution from “Crazy in Love” to “Love on Top” to “Drunk in Love” to the entire “Lemonade” album—that progression took years and was by no means smooth, but Beyoncé, who has quite the private life, has changed her sound and lyrics in each album, experimenting with different styles, to make each song a booming manifesto. Even Lady Gaga, whose “ARTPOP” album wasn’t as well received as her previous work, took to doing jazz with Tony Bennett before settling on the honest inspiration of “Joanne”’s stripped-down sound.
It’s not like Perry is without meaningful inspiration. If she wants to write about political and social themes, then she’s probably quite qualified. She’s one of the most prominent feminist icons, a leader in the music industry and an active political voice, especially as a vocal supporter of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. She’s also been vocal about her mental health issues and coping with fame. That’s plenty of material. And she’s demonstrated that she can write intimate songs with her ballads like “Not Like the Movies” and “By the Grace of God” that discuss, respectively, her disillusionment with relationships not matching Disney-like expectations and her depression post-divorce with Russell Brand. Minimal cheese. Raw lyrics. Great sound. Beautiful metaphors. “Witness” just cheapens her potential, powerful voice.
Perry is allowed to have a not-so-good album with “Witness.” She’s one of the greatest pop stars of all time, breaking records previously held by The Beatles and Michael Jackson. She exists at a rare level of fame, celebrity and wealth wherein she doesn’t need radio-friendly hit music to continue being successful. But maybe instead of writing 40 songs and then picking 15 for the record, just write 15 quality, meaningful songs. Maybe if you want to be socially conscious, pull a Shakira or One Republic and release singles as you write them, not to promote an album, but because it better responds to present times. Katy, I love you and wish you the best in finding your sound—sans the whip cream nips.