2017 is just not Katy Perry’s year.
What was expected to be the pop star’s grand return to usher in an era of “purposeful pop” has been a slow motion train wreck, filled with cringeworthy performances and soundbites, bookended with disappointing music. Pair that with a barrage of negative press, and Perry’s fifth studio album, Witness, was starting to look like this year’s ARTPOP, a.k.a. her fall from the top.
Upon kicking off the era, the pop star had branded herself as socially conscious (an “activist” according to a former iteration of her Twitter bio). And while she did stomp the pavement for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election against Donald Trump, Perry’s attempt at being woke felt incredibly cheap. Lead single “Chained to the Rhythm,” attempted to call out society’s complacency (“Too comfortable we’re living in a bubble, bubble/Too comfortable we cannot see the trouble, trouble”) but didn’t make much noise, literally. Against the volatile political backdrop, including travel bans against Muslim citizens and unapologetic racism and anti-semitism from everyone occupying the White House, Perry’s contribution felt like a light smack on the head, not the Mayweather jab at society she had anointed it.
Perry eventually moved on from wondering if we were truly free or just zombies “dancing to the distortion” or not just as swiftly as she became the gatekeeper for “purposeful pop.” She chopped off her hair and called up Migos for “Bon Appétit,” a song that lacked any sort of subtlety and reeked of desperation for a hit on the charts in the wake of her pervious single’s underperformance. Third single “Swish Swish” served as an answer to Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” but ends up just feeling late to the party (“Bad Blood” came out over two years ago). “Your game is tired / You should retire / You’re ’bout as cute as / An old coupon expired” Perry boasts while declaring she’s a “court side killer queen.” While “Bad Blood” was far from an excellent diss track (or an excellent song at all) “Swish Swish” just feels hollow; not even an (albeit lackluster) assist from Nicki Minaj could give this song the extra kick it needs. The real MVP here is producer Duke Dumont, who samples “I Get Deep” by Roland Clark to stellar results, in fact the song would be better served without Perry or Minaj.
There’s not a whole lot on Witness possesses the insane ear worms or infectious production of “California Girls,” “Birthday” or even a deep cut like “Hummingbird Heartbeat.” There is “Roulette,” co-written and produced by pop mainstay Max Martin, that sees Perry warning a potential partner that her love is a bullet with their name on it; “Let’s roll it / Like a roulette” she pleads against an explosive synth-beat. “Tsunami” feels like a more mature and effective sibling to “Bon Appétit,” featuring some incredible work from the always reliable Mike Will Made It, who helps push Perry’s sound into the places she clearly wanted to, but failed to, go with this album. Both “Miss You More” and “More Than Me” both benefit from Purity’s Ring’s light touch, while “Save As Draft” overcomes its silly execution with the only impassioned performance by Perry on the whole album, 13 tracks in. When Perry sings about being stuck at “a fork in the fucking road,” it feels more honest than anything she’s sang in any of the other 12 tracks.
But even the solid songs on Witness suffer from what is ultimately Achilles heel of the album: the songwriting. No song encompasses this issue better than “Deja Vu,” which sees Perry singing, “Your words are like Chinese water torture / And there’s no finish line, always one more corner.” You could also examine any one of the lame verses from “Swish, Swish;” the aforementioned “old coupon expired line,” and “A tiger / Don’t lose no sleep / Don’t need opinions / From a shellfish or a sheep” elicit more laughter than anything else, and Perry’s talk-sing delivery only makes it cornier. Then again, this is old news. Lyricism has been something of a contentious point for Perry who on “The One That Got Away” tried to rhyme “Radiohead” with “tattoos.” And who could forget the now infamous paper bag lyric from “Firework?” In the past, she had help from Bonnie McKee who wrote/co-wrote Teenage Dream and the better half of Prism. Her absence here is a glaring hole that can’t be overlooked, and with Perry’s constantly tripping her own awkward delivery the album suffers as a result.
Ultimately, Witness‘ biggest crime isn’t that it’s a train wreck (it’s not), but that it’s boring, and fails to deliver on the promise Perry made. Throughout the duration of the album, you can get the sense that she’s challenging herself to push towards the “purposeful pop” she promised before dropping “Chained to the Rhythm,” which is actually pretty hysterical given the singer’s career full of casual, unapologetic racism and cultural appropriation (not to mention her affinity for a certain slur). Not only can Perry not get passed her own limitations, particularly the fact she’s been a blank canvas for much of her career, but Witness fails to pose any sort of real questions, make any grand statements or say much of anything at all.
“It’s something bigger than me / I can feel it happening,” Perry states on “Bigger Than Me” though she never explicates what it is, nor does she really seem all that interested in doing so. Unfortunately for her, no one seems all that interested anyway.
***Essential Tracks: Roulette, Tsunami, Save As Draft***