Like most waning pop stars, the primary challenge Katy Perry faces is her own past. For Perry, this is twofold; first, that her de facto debut One Of The Boys is utterly cringe-worthy a decade out, and second, that she created the best pop album this side of the year 2000 with its follow-up, Teenage Dream. Like any massive success, Teenage Dream brought massive expectations for a follow up.
Before we go any farther, one fact must be established: Teenage Dream is a masterpiece. It’s so powerful that the title track might have been what made me finally consider premarital sex, something I previously didn’t think would be in the cards for me. The record is sexy and sugary, inspiring and danceable, funny and smart, and endearing — it’s a perfect pop album. Teenage Dream deserves its own essay, and I’ll probably write one for it in August, but for now, we’re puzzling through last week’s release of Witness — which will inspire no such sexual revelations or revolutions — and easily had the most botched, bizarre and short-sighted release of 2017.
Though 2013’s Prism fell short of Teenage Dream, sadly, with Witness, Katy has now dropped the ball twice — usually a sign that a pop star doesn’t have a good grasp on their own identity. For the album, Perry repeatedly borrows everything she sees, but even with the adopted material Perry can’t cobble together a vision of her own, let alone the necessary, larger-than-life pop star hologram. You’d think a weekend-long livestream could establish that, but she couldn’t even come off convincing on her own terms, further proof that her self-awareness is at an all time low.
But let’s start at the beginning, and one of the brighter moments of the Witness cycle, “Chained To The Rhythm,” and its corresponding dystopian theme park video. There’s a Pleasantville peacefulness here, perfection shot through with greater unease, which is also the song’s theme: The world is bullsh*t (word to Fiona Apple), and we’re all distracting ourselves with songs, liquor, and dancing. A newly post-Trump America allowed this rather obvious insight to count as political discourse, which? Fine.
However, instead of skewering that practice, the song and video perpetuate the same behavior they purport to critique. When Skip Marley arrives to deliver his bland “wake up” call, Perry rises from her seat to follow him like a cult follower, which doesn’t exactly count as rebellion against capitalistic forces. It’s unsurprising though, given Skip Marley is guy who had absolutely no problem with his song soundtracking Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi commercial — another instance of white women leading a piece of cultural commentary that was, well, rather short-sighted.
Weirdly enough, the tepid, technicolor world of “Chained To The Rhythm” and the quickly-following Witness artwork would be the high point of the album release cycle, it all seems like heaven in retrospect. Witness got a name-tease boost from Katy’s Met Gala outfit before it was officially announced alongside a world tour and imagery that was strangely derivative of a classic Bowie look without any direct reference to the icon. Later, that artwork was swapped out for an even more bizarre image featuring the now-blonde Katy with an eye in her mouth and her own eyes covered; it was the first of many empty signifiers that blindly added up to nothing. But an empty copy of Bowie would soon be the least of her worries.
The glam-pop aesthetic was quickly replaced with another one: Katy Perry as body horror food item. Honestly, did she have no one in any room loyal enough to tell her this was a bad idea? While the “Bon Appétit” artwork was roasted from the moment it appeared, the video, which Perry claimed was “liberated” — though its visuals and lyrics turn her into a literal meal for men — had everyone creeped out by their cannibalistic overtones.
Things only got worse when, despite the backlash, Perry chose to perform the song on SNL and was further roasted for a weird, stilted performance that threw in drag queens alongside Migos, leading to rumors that the rap trio, who have been openly uncomfortable with queerness in the past, were unnerved by the queens.
The story of Migos’ tension with the queens, which was first reported by the production company behind RuPaul’s Drag Race, World Of Wonder, was later pulled down, leading many to question its veracity. But personally? A label-disappeared rumor taken down a day later doesn’t really make me disbelieve it. When I reported on the story, I noted all along it was alleged from anonymous sources, but it seems highly unlikely that the story appeared out of thin air with several corroborating sources, then removed after pressure from the label because it was false. WOW had absolutely no reason to lie, and every reason to be upset if the alleged discrimination did go down, as one of the forces who first helped protect and honor drag queens as respected figures in American mainstream consciousness.
Even if none or some of it is true, Katy still willfully chose to align herself with a rap group whose stance on queerness is even less nuanced than her own One Of The Boys hits, “I Kissed A Girl” or “Ur So Gay.” It seems like she’s only invested in invoking the LGBTQ community and “using her voice” when it serves her as virtue signaling in an album release cycle. And if it’s false, why did neither Katy or Migos give comment that openly denied it and affirmed their support for the queer community? When she sat with RuPaul later as part of her livestreamed weekend, it felt even more forced than normal — even if he’s ever-gracious around the erratic Katy.
But the most telling part of all this drama is that none of it would’ve happened if Perry had any semblance of her own vision. If so, she probably wouldn’t have felt the need to pull from both hip-hop and drag culture to make a compelling visual performance on television; she has no previous connection to Atlanta rap, nor to Migos, or any of the queens and viral stars that appeared with her, which means they come off as props used to support a flailing white woman with no real ideas of her own.
Speaking of white women, more drama followed Katy via her feud with Taylor Swift, which should’ve been an easy win for Katy given the low approval rating Taylor and her squad are currently facing, but somehow, she fumbled this easy touchdown pass, too. If Katy wanted to get a shot off at Taylor, she could’ve critiqued her militant white feminism that seems to only have room for supermodels and pop stars who are marginally less famous and just as thin as her (Selena, Lorde, Haim), but instead, she released a wacky diss track (that poorly mimics a Maya Jane Cole melody Nicki already repurposed) and calls Taylor — wait for it — a sheep, a shellfish, and an expired coupon. I’m almost worried about the way Taylor will skillfully flip these bricks back into viable insults. Say what you will about the pettiness of “Bad Blood,” that song was fire, with and without the Kendrick verse. I still put it in as motivation when I’m plotting the downfall of my enemies; “Swish Swish” has none of that song’s glittering, pouty venom.
Even with all that backstory, it seems like the copying and appropriation on Witness knows no end, there’s still more. In late 2016, Himanshu’s new rap group Swet Shop Brothers put out a track called “Swish Swish” that features the exact refrain Katy uses, “swish swish b*tch.” In fact, t’s arguable that Witness and the title track’s chorus itself “Can I get a witness?” are both lifted from the Black church’s traditional call and response model, but given Perry’s own upbringing in a Pentecostal church maybe we’ll give her that one. Adding fuel to the fire, after a random, off-putting comment about her old black hair and Obama set the internet ablaze, one of the Weeknd’s producers, Mano, brought up that time Katy allegedly called him and his friends the n***a with no clue or context as to why that might not be okay.
These instances, along with some previous backlash about using Asian culture as a prop, prompted Katy to seek out DeRay McKesson as part of her livestreamed weekend, and apologize for her past cultural appropriation, crediting those who pulled her aside in quiet with compassion for really making her want to change. Given that caveat, the apology didn’t go very far. It’s especially hard to stomach public apologies and vulnerable therapy sessions when they’re being deployed as part of an album release campaign, not out of a desire to make things right or shine light on the important subject of mental health.
Katy Perry acknowledging her mistakes regarding cultural appropriation, this is extremely respectable of her pic.twitter.com/RkvIhEnXxX
— ㅤ (@touchnick) June 11, 2017
All of this was in my mind as I drove back from San Francisco this weekend with Witness on repeat, attempting to find something on the record that was more compelling, or offered an explanation for the above mess. As noted in the beginning, I’m a longtime listener of Katy, and I consider myself a fan. But sadly, I couldn’t find anything to root for here. Perry’s voice can be throaty and velvety, but on this album she uses it mostly in a sneering, too-thin upper register that verges on the baby’s-breath-bullsh*t pop stars have been employing, poorly, for years. The production on the record, usually reliably provided by pop mastermind Max Martin, is all over the map, and mostly tired, tinny and too syrupy.
A Sia joint, “Hey Hey Hey,” is almost relatable, with its insistence on contrasting femininity and success, but vivid lines like “Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck” are sidled up to next to clunkers like “You think that I am fragile like a Fabergé.” (??) Yes, she’s referencing a jeweled, decorative egg there. Then, there’s the fact that the song is named “Hey Hey Hey,” which is more lazy and boring than the texts I use for obvious, late night booty calls. Ironically, one of the other better songs here is called “Miss You More,” and it’s a breakup ballad that sounds a lot like 1989.
Even if 2013’s Prism fell short of Teenage Dream, and least it felt cohesive and creative; it felt like Katy Perry. Witness feels like a blind swing in the dark, a reflection of ideas that Perry thought would mask her own emptiness, but all the copying did was reveal a woman who has completely lost herself.
Luckily, for a pop star, a single clunker of an album doesn’t necessarily have to be the end. We know what Perry is capable of, Teenage Dream showed us that, Witness doesn’t have to be the final word on her career. In fact, the record almost ends with a song called “Pendulum” (it’s the second-to-last track, another clunker called “Into Me You See,” a corny wordplay on “intimacy” actually finishes the album), a buoyant, gospel-laced ballad that reaffirms the cyclical nature of all things. For Perry, the past has to remain the past, and a ticking clock is exactly what she needs. The more time she puts behind herself and Witness, the better her vision will be for a follow-up, and that means taking a long hard look at herself, first.