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Katy Perry's 'Witness' Live Stream Had No Business Working -- But It Did

Katy Perry peforms at YouTube #Brandcast presented by Google at Javits Center North on May 4, 2017 in New York City.
Noam Galai/FilmMagic for YouTube

Katy Perry peforms at YouTube #Brandcast presented by Google at Javits Center North on May 4, 2017 in New York City.

Going into the launch of her fifth album Witness, Katy Perry had an air of desperation the world hadn't yet seen from her.

Though 2013’s Prism didn't quite achieve the monstrous success of its predecessor, 2010’s Teenage Dream, it still cemented her reign as one of pop’s queens, sending two of her singles -- “Roar” and “Dark Horse” -- to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But in the lead-up to Witness, Perry faltered, for the first consistent time in her career. “Chained to the Rhythm” featuring Skip Marley bowed at No. 4 and continued to slip, despite the fact that it marked the highest-debuting song by a female artist since Adele’s “Hello” landed at No. 1 in its first week.

What makes Perry such an enigmatic pop star is that she doesn't seem to try so hard, even when it’s clear she is. In the months that followed the release of “Chained to the Rhythm,” Perry seemed to be trying too hard to recapture past attention. “Bon Appétit” was largely derided as the antithesis to Perry’s declaration that Witness was a work of “purposeful pop,” and it largely slumped on the charts, topping out at No. 59 on the Hot 100 -- one of her lowest showings yet. “Swish Swish” featuring Nicki Minaj soon followed, stoking speculation that Perry was sub-writing a diss toward Taylor Swift, something she finally addressed during a ride-along with James Corden in his Carpool Karaoke segment. It all seemed too conveniently timed, as if it were a ploy to get people to buy her CD.

It’s why the strategy surrounding the release of Witness, which dropped Friday, came off as a last-ditch effort to reclaim her star. Perry announced she would stage Witness World Wide, a 24-hour YouTube stream where she would live in a house and broadcast almost every second of her day (“potty breaks,” as she consistently referred to them, were off-camera, as was changing into different outfits, sometimes more than five times a day). It was the living version of The Truman Show, a callback to Courtney Love’s incredibly messy "24 Hours of Love" where the Hole frontwoman took over the MTV airwaves for a day in 2002, and the ultimate social media stunt from the most-followed person on Twitter.

Part of what feeds into the allure and mystique of pop stars is what you don’t see. When an artist is in between cycles, staying out of the public eye can often ramp up anticipation for their grand return. It’s a sort of old-school concept where not everything has to be broadcast for the world to experience, especially in an age where you can do so in real time. And for Perry, who was filmed sleeping for eight or nine hours every night during the broadcast, showing the world who she is and what she does when she’s in her everyday life could be giving the world too much of a glimpse and make her seem like less of an untouchable pop icon.

But it had the opposite effect. Over the course of four days, Perry presented herself as humble and gracious, amiable and endearing, the type of person who says “please” and “thank you” to everyone she comes across. As a carousel of guests spanning Kacey Musgraves and Caitlyn Jenner to RuPaul and Margaret Cho came and went, she showed the type of person she truly is, flaws and all, in a way that was so public that it almost felt brave, to know that your every move is being tracked by thousands of people across the world at any given moment.

It was those humanizing moments that made the stream such a compelling view. As a viewer, you felt like you were in the room with her when she was watching back on her old music videos with her stylist Johnny Wujek, jewelry designer Markus Molinari and YouTube star Liza Koshy. You felt compelled to laugh when they did. It was an inviting moment filled with little tidbits -- that Kesha starred in her video for “I Kissed a Girl,” that she barely remembered the video for “E.T.” and forgot that Kanye West even had a second verse on the song. It was like having Perry reminisce along with you.

Then there were moments that could have gone awry or be embarrassing, but ended up being emotional without coming off as too earnest. At one point during the live stream, Perry invited a therapist for a session, which is an experience that many viewers may not have had. To witness someone so strong become so vulnerable as she talked about her struggles -- not wanting to be Katy Perry sometimes, suicidal thoughts, a battle with alcohol -- was so grounding and cathartic that it felt inspiring, sharing parts of her life that many pop stars would conceal from the public.

And there was her sit-down with activist Deray McKesson, where she addressed issues of her cultural appropriation, like when she appeared inspired by a geisha look during a performance at the 2013 AMAs or when she wore her hair in cornrows and ate watermelon in the video for “This Is How We Do.” Of the latter, Perry recalled a friend pulling her aside to address what had been perceived as appropriation. “She told me about the power in black women’s hair and how beautiful it is and the struggle. I didn't know that I did it wrong until I heard people saying that I did it wrong. It takes someone to say, out of compassion, out of love, ‘Hey, this is what the origin is.’”

At times, the live stream was boring and slow, but so is life. It was tedious to watch Perry and her friends work out to her own music, or sit through a quick 10-minute meditation to revive her. (Or, of course, to watch her sleep, which was creepy in itself.) Perry has spent almost a decade creating this powerful, unbreakable public entity matched by fun, unassailable pop anthems, the type of music that populates Witness, a flawed album with some excellent songs. For four days, we got to see Katheryn Hudson, a peek from behind the curtain. It’s in hopes that she doesn't stay away for long.