With 'Chained To The Rhythm,' Katy Perry Embraces Her Wokeness -- And It Works
The pop star's new single hints at a politically charged next era, making Katy's return to the mainstream all the more interesting.
That's what "Chained To The Rhythm" -- her highly anticipated new single released on Friday (Feb. 10), to be performed at the 59th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night -- aims to declare with undisguised pride. Along with the shimmering production, slap bass and spikes of electric guitar, the single is built around lyrics chastising us for being "happily numb" and "tone deaf," and tries to gently puncture the bubble that we create when we drown out the world's issues and "dance dance dance to the distortion." Then Skip Marley (Bob Marley's grandson!) slides in and is even more explicit with his rhetoric: "Up in your high place -- liars / Time is ticking for the empire / The truth they feed is feeble." The overall point seems to be: Wake up, sheeple! Set down your earbuds (after you finish listening to this track) and make a difference!
Of course, Perry has been a political pop star outside of her music for years, serving as the most visible musical artist to stump for Hillary Clinton during last year's campaign. And she's hardly the only pop artist making these types of politically charged statements -- Beyonce's Lemonade era has been a clenched fist for feminism and Black Lives Matter, while Lady Gaga just used the Super Bowl halftime show to subtly support pro-LGBTQ and anti-immigration ban agendas. "Chained To The Rhythm" is unique, though, for doing two things: striking the first anti-Donald Trump blow since the man actually became president, and amplifying Perry's new musical agenda at a time when she needed one.
Look, "Chained To The Rhythm" is not YG's "FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)." There are no razor-edged turns of phrase, and nothing that will make Top 40 stations in red states think twice about hitting play. Yet Perry's statement is clearly one of disillusionment, with lyrics like "Thought we can do better than that/ I hope we can…" referencing both Trump's election win and the collective anxiety at the thought of battling his agenda for four years. Max Martin adds his streamlined hooks and Sia helps co-write another springy chorus (that includes a nod to the drunken stupor of her "Chandelier" protagonist), but gone are the Rocky-biting inspiration of "Roar," the wistful romance of "Teenage Dream" or the cheeky lust of "Dark Horse."
In their place: a slower tempo, a heavier synth line and a more contemplative vocal delivery from Perry, whose typically declarative presence is pulled back to underline her worry and frustration. “Chained To The Rhythm” is well outside the orbit of past lead singles like “I Kissed a Girl” and “California Gurls”; Perry has dived headfirst into the pro-liberal statements she's been making outside of the studio for the past year, and the song plays out like a tweet comparing the Trump administration to George Orwell's 1984, in music form.
For Perry, the pivot makes sense. After two albums of candy-colored pop -- the latter of which, 2010's Teenage Dream, included a record-tying five No. 1 singles and made Perry an international superstar -- she transitioned to a post-breakup album, Prism, that hit the right notes as a singles compilation but collected disco, pop-rock and trap in a way that sounds aimless in hindsight. "Rise," a stopgap single in support of the 2016 Olympic games, was undercooked as a radio song and a motivational tool. With her fourth album approaching, would Perry continue to feel her way toward adulthood, or double back on the sugary songwriting of her commercial zenith?
Perry tweeted last night that "Chained To The Rhythm" was the start of her "purposeful pop" era, which suggests that her fourth album will be centered around political and social change (it's no coincidence that her Twitter bio currently reads "Artist. Activist. Conscious."). Yet Perry's musical woke-ness also gives her career a renewed purpose. Fighting Trump's America, calling out elitist policy and working to inspire young listeners is not only admirable, it's a winning move for keeping a superstar on top -- especially one who had been an open Democrat for years and does not risk alienating a large number of unwitting listeners. Suddenly, Perry's fourth album now carries more intrigue: How barbed will the anti-Trump takes get on the album cuts? What type of protesting will be intertwined with this album rollout? And how big of a Donald effigy are we going to get on the follow-up to the Prismatic tour?
When an artist with a platform as big as Perry's speaks out about real-world issues and bringing about positive change, the move is often commendable and sometimes bold. For Katy, "Chained To The Rhythm" can be viewed in that lens -- as well as in the context of an incredible commercial run that she wants to keep humming. This is not a call-to-arms, but a soft reminder of the world outside the radio, delivered in a heavier sonic package and with a gently admonishing tone that makes sense for what Perry wants to accomplish in her next era. Perry was a political pop star before "Chained To The Rhythm"; now, those politics will be front and center, and one of music's biggest stars is once again dominating conversations.