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.