This is not Katy Perry’s year. Hillary Clinton’s favorite pop singer’s career has been on a slow and steady decline ever since the election. Of course, very few people—barring the owners of the storage unit where Katy Perry keeps her HRC campaign gear—can say that their lives were positively impacted by the election of Donald Trump. Our unique political moment is particularly punishing for historically oppressed and disenfranchised groups, like African-Americans and LGBTQ folks (to name just two). Incidentally, these are also minority groups that have been offended by Katy Perry—a white lady who was once referred to as “the face of cultural appropriation.” Before Katy Perry was an outspoken Democrat or a self-proclaimed activist, she was the pop singer who achieved infamy through her “yellowface,” “blaccent,” and penchant for the term “tranny.” She also penned the world’s worst bisexuality anthem, “I Kissed a Girl,” a song that somehow managed to offend both homophobes and actual queers.
Naturally, given Perry’s newfound “wokeness,” it was assumed that she would give up on her decades-long mission to appropriate from/piss off every single minority in America. But old habits, like trying to act black to sell records, are hard to break. Perry made headlines for all the wrong reasons once again during a recent SNL appearance with Migos, during which the singer appeared to be getting uncomfortably jiggy with it. With a new album coming out this Friday, the timing truly could not have been worse. And Witness—or Whiteness, as some Twitter users have taken to calling it—was already set up for a less-than-stellar debut.
Anyone who knows anything about pop music already knows that Witness is no Teenage Dream. That’s because the three singles that Perry released ahead of time—presumably the record’s strongest and most buzz-worthy tracks—all failed to resonate and underperformed on the pop charts. First there was “Chained to the Rhythm”—a confusing song that, despite being presented as American political commentary, only managed to make No. 1 in Hungary. Then there was “Bon Appétit” or, as Taylor Swift Squad Member Ruby Rose definitively re-branded it, “Bomb a Petit.” Last but certainly not least was “Swish Swish” which, thanks in no small part to Nicki Minaj, was the only potential banger in the bunch. Despite being a diss track meant to dwell on one of the most interesting things about Perry—her ongoing feud with Taylor Swift—“Swish Swish” failed to deliver the scalding hot tea and quickly found itself out of the running for song of the summer. Additionally, releasing a Taylor Swift diss track revealed that Perry was a little too thirsty for streams, and quite possibly not as confident in her new album as her promotional interviews would make it seem.
As much as I would love to skip ahead to tearing into Witness, an album that only Kitty Purry (Katy Perry’s eponymous-ish cat) could love, we need to take a moment to give credit where credit is due. Katy Perry has, historically, made real contributions to the glittery, bright, hyperactive world of 21st-century pop. Nobody toes the line between amusing the masses and inciting violent flashing light-induced seizures quite like Katy Perry. Her frenetic music video visions and over-the-top aesthetics make her the party girl’s answer to Lady Gaga. Instead of covering herself in raw meat, she’s been known to shoot whipped cream from her tits. Katy is one of the few, all-purpose pop stars who can draw fans in with sex appeal as well as universally appealing aphorisms. In fact, some of her most successful singles have been of the inspirational variety—like “Firework,” a ballad that is not actually about gay kids, but is still catchy enough to listen to all the way through when it comes up on shuffle. And then there’s “Teenage Dream,” which is very good even though the Glee version is—don’t @ me—much better.
The interesting thing about Katy Perry as a pop music-producing entity is that her weaknesses are the same as her strengths. Perry is a blank canvas, entirely open to new genres, career phases, and looks. Drastic changes in appearance aside, Perry’s mutability is more than just aesthetic—she will change her sound at the drop of a hat. Sincere singer-songwriter? Sure! Over-the-top pop? Definitely! Hip-hop? Why not! In keeping with this willingness to change course emphatically and often, Perry sings songs that could really go in any direction. Katy Perry lyrics often appear comically incapable of making any sort of statement. “Firework,” for example, manages to be highly inspirational while remaining so, so very vague. Its message of self-empowerment through clichéd analogies can be applied to almost any situation—which was super convenient for Perry when she started marketing it as a LGBTQ anthem.
Perry’s fatal misstep was deciding to re-brand herself as a political pop singer with something to say, when her real talent lies in saying absolutely nothing. Instead of embracing and flaunting her changeling nature with a Ska phase or something, Perry decide to get sincere, political, and real. As she explained in a Vogue profile, “I don’t think you have to shout it from the rooftops…but I think you have to stand for something, and if you’re not standing for anything, you’re really just serving yourself, period, end of story.” So what does Perry and her new “purposeful pop” stand for? The issue is simple: Perry has been so consistently allergic to using her music to make a statement that she appears to have actually lost the ability to do so. “Chained to the Rhythm,” which was billed as the debut of Perry’s new politically-conscious sound, seemed more like apolitical commentary on how millennials are always staring at their phones.
Instead of, say, rapping about Planned Parenthood or delivering a tear-jerking ode to the still-unbroken glass ceiling of the Javits Center, Witness picks up where “Chained to the Rhythm” left off, offering a whole lot of vaguely charged, ultimately toothless pop. (Side note: between “Chained to the Rhythm” and the song from the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial, is Skip Marley quietly sabotaging all the famous white ladies in 2017?)
In the age of the pop single, Witness isn’t singular in the fact that it should not be listened to in one sitting. In fact, listening to this entire album at once—which is clearly not the way it was designed to be consumed—will make you feel like you are going insane. Every track sounds vaguely similar (aphoristic lyrics, sultry synths, the occasional musical instrument, an even more affirmative chorus) but is totally self-contained. There’s the one about girl power, the one about an inescapable ex, and the one about Taylor Swift. These songs talk past each other completely, and anyone looking for an overarching narrative or even a thematic connection is setting themselves up for disappointment. Naturally, attempting to sing about serious things like gender equality without saying anything that couldn’t be found on a wooden Etsy sign leads to some strikingly bad lyrics. “Hey Hey Hey” stands out for gems like “A big beautiful brain with a pretty face, yeah / A baby doll with a briefcase, yeah” and “Got my own cha-ching / In my chubby little wallet.” Here’s an idea: if you don’t want to be infantilized, maybe try using less baby talk?
After that attempt at a Rihanna-esque, ladies-getting-paper banger, Perry does more impression work with “Roulette,” which sounds like a worse and less empowering “Poker Face.” We get it—love is an exciting, occasionally cruel gamble and, clearly, so is working with Max Martin. One of the weirdest things about this album is that it often seems like Perry is in on the joke. If there’s a thread that weaves through the tracks, it’s the idea of being trapped, which seems too on-the-nose for an album that is, even by cookie-cutter pop music standards, incredibly repetitive and borderline unpleasant. There’s “Mind Maze,” a song about seeking “salvation” from a “complex cage” in which Perry robotically ruminates, “Am I a car on fire?”
Katy Perry may not actually be a car that is on fire, but Witness does possess the morbid allure of a car crash. You will be intrigued and upset by how increasingly random the lyrics become. On “Deja Vu,” Perry croons, “Your words are like Chinese water torture / And there’s no finish line, always one more corner / Yeah, they slither like a centipede / Why do you keep me / At the end of a rope that keeps getting shorter.” What does that even mean? And if Katy Perry doesn’t want us to compare her new album to Chinese water torture, then why did she toss Chinese water torture into this word salad?
One highlight is “Save As Draft,” a breakup song with lyrics like “You don’t have to subtweet me / My number’s always been the same” that is undoubtedly about Perry’s ex John Mayer. If you have a soft spot for incredibly literal pop music, “Save as Draft” is the song for you—there are even typing and deleting noises in the background, because Katy Perry is singing about e-mail. While I don’t actually buy that Mayer still sniffs Perry’s shampoo, or that Perry spends sleepless nights scrolling through her drafts folder, I am still down for these Mayer/Perry pop postmortems. “Miss You More” is also relatively solid, although that may just be because the allusions to “a balloon floating away” are reminiscent of Katy Perry’s other, better song about plastic objects.
Witness closes on “Into Me You See,” in which Perry appears to praise herself for the emotional vulnerability she definitely did not show on tracks one through 14. Over-processed robot Perry sings, “Oh, ’cause no one’s ever seen me like this / Seen right through the bullshit / I pray that I can keep unfolding / Pray that I can just stay open,” and the irony is over-abundant. Hearing Perry croon about how open and real she is after listening to more than an hour of highly impersonal pop is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who bothers to buy this album.