Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Katy Perry's Hot 100 Debut For 'Never Really Over'

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Katy Perry, "Never Really Over"

Katy Perry is back, and far from over. The pop star launches at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week with her new single "Never Really Over" -- the week's highest debut, even beating out new entries from fellow marquee names Cardi B and Miley Cyrus. 

While it's hardly new ground for Perry on the chart -- she's scored nine No. 1s, and even 2017's Witness lead single "Chained to the Rhythm" bowed at No. 4 -- the "Never" debut does show that after a rocky couple of years for the veteran star she's still a major factor in pop music. But how big a turnaround is it? And what helped Perry turned the tides? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below. 

1. Is a No. 15 debut for "Never Really Over" better, worse, or about what you would have expected for a new Katy Perry solo single?

Eric Frankenberg: About what I’d expect. If we were still in the iTunes era, its No. 3 debut on the Digital Sales Songs chart would be enough to make “Never Really Over” a top 10 hit. But it might be tough for the veteran pop star to compete with the titles that are out-streaming her, like “The London,” “Earfquake,” and even the nearly-year-old “Sicko Mode.”

Coming off an underwhelming era like Witness, the No. 15 debut feels reasonable, after she hit No. 4 with the highly anticipated “Chained to the Rhythm” and missed the top 40 with follow-ups “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish” in 2017. Similarly, Lady Gaga debuted and peaked at No. 15 with “Perfect Illusion,” a presumed comeback single after the relative chart disappointment of 2013’s Artpop (which also topped out with a No. 4 single, “Applause”). The tit-for-tat comparison ends there for now, but perhaps in two-to-three years, Perry too can return to the summit with her own Oscar-winning power ballad

Gab Ginsberg: While her last major single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” debuted at No. 4, a lot has happened between then and now. (See: Witness.) Katy also already released “365” with Zedd this year, so the world has not been totally starving for content. No. 15 is pretty much all a Katy Cat could hope for, and about what I expected. I see it as an optimistic start for her next era.

Jason Lipshutz: Much, much better, and that’s solely based on recent history. While Perry’s first three albums each had multiple No. 1 singles, transforming her into an especially inescapable superstar, her 2017 album Witness only had one top 10 hit (“Chained to the Rhythm,” featuring Skip Marley). Her follow-ups, including the Migos-assisted “Bon Appetit” and Nicki Minaj team-up “Swish Swish,” couldn’t crack the top 40, and Perry’s quasi-comeback earlier this year with the Zedd collaboration “365” could only muster a No. 86 peak. A No. 15 debut for a single would have been a disappointment for Perry in her Prism heyday of 2013, but that was six years ago. Given her track record over the past three years, a top 20 bow is a major coup for Perry.

Andrew Unterberger: Probably a little better. The charts seem to be feeling a little friendlier to synthy turbo-pop at the moment than they were during Katy Perry's last go-round, true, and we are in the early-summer doldrums when it comes to major releases cluttering the top tier at the moment. But man, you just don't hear much of this stuff in the mainstream these days, and given the minimal impact of "365" and the post-"Chained" Witness singles, I've been betting the under with Perry's debuts these days. To land at No. 15 with this song should be pretty validating for her. 

Christine Werthman: Perry has had 32 hits on the Hot 100, and of all them, this is her fifth-highest debut. So color me at least a little surprised that this return single, after a two-year hiatus, reached No. 15 right out of the gate.

2. "Never Really Over" is much closer to the older turbo-pop Katy Perry made her name with than some of the murkier singles of her Witness period. Does it feel like a throwback to you, or the start of a new chapter/sound/era for Katy?

Eric Frankenberg: Never Really Over” certainly calls back to Perry’s Teenage Dream-era hits in sound, but is more “The One That Got Away” than “California Gurls” in aesthetic and lyrical content. Perhaps this is what she meant (or should have meant?) when she coined the term “purposeful pop” around the failed politico-pop of Witness. A song that combines the inescapable melodies she rode to mega-success with hard-earned wisdom and experience could be the most impactful artistic evolution she (and we) could dream up -- especially if she has an album full of 'em still to come. 

Gab Ginsberg: There are definite Prism vibes on this one, and it’s got a nice chill factor, too, a la “Wide Awake.” But that breathless chorus, in the vein of “DidyoutakehimtothepierinSanta Monica/Forgettobringajacket,wrappedupinhim’causeyouwantedto?”, is a smart update for sure, and Katy is wise to call on Norwegian upstart Dagny for help with crafting a unique pop song in 2019.

Jason Lipshutz: There are certainly shades of Perry’s past in here — the mix of the driving electro-pop and contemplative tone resembles “Part of Me” most closely — but one of the most striking things about “Never Really Over” is its departure from absolutely everything that Perry’s last album showcased. Gone are the political undertones of Witness, as well as the wackier similes of “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish,” in favor of streamlined romance that’s more grounded than her Teenage Dream days. A pivot away from her least successful album was expected, but Perry was succinctly wiped any trace of Witness clean on her new single, and it’s pretty remarkable to hear.

Andrew Unterberger: I definitely get vague Teenage Dream flashbacks, but more than anything, this feels like one for Pop Twitter -- for the voracious consumers of bops who stan Sigrid, still believe Tinashe's big comeback is imminent, and can't comprehend why Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX aren't the two biggest pop stars on the planet. In that respect, the Dagny lift almost feels like a nod to them (OK, to us). 

Christine Werthman: This song is way more in Perry's big-hit, pop-juggernaut wheelhouse than any of those more subdued (for Perry) and introspective (for Perry) non-hits on Witness, but it's not a total TBT. Zedd's sharp, clean production places this electro-pop smash squarely in 2019. I wouldn't call the song sparse because there's a lot going on here -- a finger-snapping start, a thunderous drum-line, a vocal explosion of a chorus that's very classic Katy -- but Zedd really puts some air around her voice. As was the case with "The Middle," he's really good at making sure the vocal is supported by the music, not in competition with it. I didn't love "365," but I thought that Perry/Zedd collab functioned in the same way: gave her space, kept things driving forward and made her sound more contemporary. 

3. Much has been made of some of the missteps Katy Perry has made in the past two-plus years, since the Witness era probably didn't unfold quite as she'd hoped. What's something she's done that you think actually worked out in her favor, and maybe helped reverse her momentum a little?

Eric Frankenberg: She got engaged to Orlando Bloom. This might sound counter-intuitive, since her comeback single refers to being haunted by memories of an ex-lover, but there is a maturity and general zen to “Never Really Over” that eluded recent underperforming singles like “Swish Swish” and “This is How We Do.” Perry made her name on brash, juvenile stories of browned-out memories and partying in Vegas, but more than a decade removed from her pop-punk-adjacent debut, maybe it’s time for the teenage dream to face adult reality. If this new chapter in her personal life is focusing her songwriting, mazel tov to the beautiful couple. 

Gab Ginsberg: An itemized list of my favorite non-Witness-related Katy Perry moments over the past few years:

1. Her Calvin Harris collaboration "Feels" (along with Pharrell Williams and Big Sean), which has an undeniable groove and soothing, pastel-hued music video

2. Her cover of "Waving Through a Window" from the stunning Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen, which everyone should see

3) Her contribution to the remix of Daddy Yankee's "Con Calma," which is extremely catchy and I dare you to prove otherwise in a court of law

4) Perrybloom

Jason Lipshutz: Surprisingly enough, American Idol! The rebooted singing competition has been successful enough to earn multiple seasons, and has kept Perry in the public eye as she’s been trying to move on from Witness and figure out her next era. Maybe it’s not the sexiest path back to superstardom, but Idol has given Perry the type of weekly audience that can otherwise be hard to come by in between projects.

Andrew Unterberger: Let's give special notice here to her turn on "Con Calma," which has stealthily returned her to Top 40 radio for the first time since "Feels" a couple years earlier -- the song is a top 20 hit on both Billboard's Pop Songs and Radio Songs chart. Jumping on a bilingual remix to a Latin pop smash could've backfired spectacularly for Perry, but her brand of fizzy pop silliness has proven to be the perfect mixer for a song already rooted in some slightly messy cultural mishmashing

Christine Werthman: Disappeared? OK, she didn't totally disappear -- and who among us would pass on a Sunday Service invite? -- but a relative hiatus is often the right move if you're trying to reset. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. 

4. Norwegian pop singer/songwriter Dagny received a writing credit on "Never Really Over" because the song borrows some melodies and structural elements from her own excellent "Love You Like That." What other underground pop song of recent years would you love to see Katy Perry reinterpret and/or revive next?

Eric Frankenberg: The ”just because it’s over doesn’t mean it’s really over…” backend of Perry’s chorus screams MUNA to me. I’m not sure which song in particular, but I can hear the women of the USC-bred trio harmonizing over that one-note refrain. A new collaboration between them could be artistically inspiring for Perry and commercially beneficial for MUNA. But a collaborative song-of-the-summer redo of “I Know a Place” or “Crying on the Bathroom Floor” would also do.

Gab Ginsberg: Norwegian singer Astrid S recorded backing vocals for “Hey Hey Hey” from Witness, and it would be cool to hear them collaborate in a more robust fashion. I think Astrid’s "Emotion" or "Someone New" would both go over well.

Jason Lipshutz: A few weeks ago, Peter Robinson of Popjustice tweeted that “Strangers” by Sigrid would have been a great Katy Perry song; since reading that tweet, I’ve thought about this true statement quite often. Imagine Perry attacking that “stra-a-a-a-a-ngers!” on the chorus! Those understated verses sound perfectly suited to her speak-singing mode, too! From Twitter to Perry’s ear: please, make this happen, Katy. 

Andrew Unterberger: Let's get weird with Let's Eat Grandma: Perry could iron out a couple of the kinks to the U.K. psych-pop duo's "It's Not Just Me" -- and maybe jack up the melody a couple keys -- and still have one of her friskiest, most fun dance-pop shimmies, and one still moody enough that it wouldn't have sounded out of place on Witness. We're probably only an album away from the young dark-pop savants showing up deep in the credits to the new BeyoncĂ© or Frank Ocean sets anyway, Katy may as well get ahead of the curve on this one. 

Christine Werthman: Anything by Kim Petras. Maybe "Hills," which dropped in 2017 and has a slower tempo and chilled-out vibe, but is still upbeat and has room for a feature. Or "Hillside Boys," which is straight-up summer pop and drops in a guitar solo that is both totally unexpected and pretty righteous! Petras's music is super pop-y and playful, but it's a little funkier than what Perry usually does. The only one I forbid Perry from touching is "Heart to Break" because that song is goddamn flawless. 

5. Along with Katy, fellow megastars Cardi B and Miley Cyrus also debut on the Hot 100 this week with new songs, "Press" and "Mother's Daughter," respectively. Of the three, which do you think is most likely still to be having an impact on the charts -- or maybe just with pop listeners in general -- towards the end of the summer?

Eric Frankenberg: If we’re to look at recent chart histories for all three artists and trends across pop and hip hop overall, then Cardi B. But “Never Really Over” debuted (one spot) higher on this week’s Hot 100, and also feels like a bigger event than “Press,” which appears to be another in a string of Cardi releases to hold us over until launching her next official album cycle. It’s a toss-up but I think Perry’s track embodies a summer vibe better than the other options and will play well throughout Pride Month, the 4th of July, *my birthday*, and Labor Day.

Gab Ginsberg: This might be cheating, but I believe all three have potential. Miley made quite a comeback in 2019 thanks to her EP, stint on Black Mirror and sure, her familial connection to the Hot 100 chart-topping monster that is “Old Town Road.” Even if the more alt-leaning “Mother's Daughter” doesn’t stick around, a Miley bop to be named later will. Katy, meanwhile, hasn’t shown her whole hand yet, and there’s a good chance she’ll drop more tracks before the summer’s out. Finally, Cardi has the sort of chart stamina that ensures “Press” will stick around at least for the next few months. Let’s be sensible, popheads: there’s a seat at the table for everyone.

Jason Lipshutz: While I believe that “Mother’s Daughter” is a behemoth of a pop single from Cyrus, “Never Really Over” has more momentum and, I believe, greater staying power. Perry’s latest single possesses the shimmer and repeatability of a great summer single, as well as a comeback narrative that can be conveyed to both KatyCats and casual pop fans. Few would have expected the summer of 2019 to be prime territory for Perry to dominate, but in a chart world firmly ruled by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, anything is possible.

Andrew Unterberger: I'll say "Press." Have you seen Billboard's Hip-Hop/R&B Airplay chart at basically any point this year? Spoiler alert: Cardi B was probably No. 1. Even "Money" and "Please Me" -- two songs that might not go down as among Cardi's five best-remembered from her 2.5 years in the spotlight this decade -- have topped that thing for a combined 20 weeks. The harsh, confrontational "Press" might not immediately sound like an obvious radio smash, but radio comes to Cardi these days, not the other way around. 

Christine Werthman: Katy's, for sure. Miley's isn't catchy enough to catch on ("must be something in the water or that I'm my mother's daughter" is a little too cumbersome of a chorus to get shouted on a dance floor), and Cardi's is too heavy for summer, like wearing a wool sweater to the beach. Summer is totally Katy's season, and I think the charts will reflect that.