When Katy Perry described her yet-to-be-titled Witness as “purposeful pop” on the 2017 Grammys red carpet — followed by a politicized live debut of its first single, “Chained To The Rhythm” — she may have shot herself in the foot somewhat. Following the description, listeners expected her upcoming set to be a politically charged record resisting the Trump administration: After all, Perry’s referring to herself as an “advocate” and “activist” — who very publicly sang and stumped for Hillary Clinton on the campaign grounds — only added to the speculation, with subsequent inquiries about whether or not she was the right messenger for such a statement understandably following from the peanut gallery.
Now, as the reviews continue to roll out for Witness, the problem at hand seems to be that the LP didn’t deliver on the content it promised. We’d already seen the signs that this would be the inevitable case: The puzzling release of “Bon Appétit” — a jumbled dance-pop ditty with no apparent political context, featuring a hip-hop trio in hot water over some seemingly homophobic comments — seemed to defeat everything “Chained” had worked for. Perry went from partying through political discourse to wanting to be “spread like a buffet”; meanwhile, follow up “Swish Swish” engaged in well-trodden pettiness instead of attempting to be universally uplifting.
All of this would have been fine if Katy Perry had not broadcast that Witness would be anything besides a chaotic, self-centered record where “no fux” were to be given — her first Parental Advisory sticker particularly driving the latter message home. This suggested move would have earned the entertainer more leniency leading up to the final unveiling of Witness. Instead, we witnessed a problematic individual trying to dress up her internal conflicts, past controversies, and borderline Britney ’07 behavior, by masking it all and assuming the role of a social commentator.
Except, in hindsight, Perry did clue us in on separate occasions as to her true intent with Witness, even telling Billboard that the album was her “mental liberation, sexual liberation, negative liberation, [and] spiritual liberation.” Still, much of the public continues to crave the windows-down, carefree pop a la Teenage Dream we used to from Katy, not ready to fully embrace changing times.
Every pop diva faces the crisis of wanting to offer something new artistically outside of their accepted public image — and most of the time, critics and customers aren’t immediately receptive. Back in April — during the beginning waves of please-explain-this-Katy — one Twitter user perfectly captured this sentiment: “Katy will be all right. It happened to Bey. It happened to Rih. It happened to Gaga. The fourth era is always the worst.” Looking back, he’s not wrong: The afrobeats and throwback ballads of Beyoncé’s 4 (2011), the explicit dub-pop of Rihanna’s Rated R (2009) and the singer-songwriter country swang of Lady Gaga’s Joanne (2016) were all dramatic, introspective transitions from the mass-oriented mega-pop of the artists’ past work — of the many combined singles from the three sets, only Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” (and its familiar dancehall sound) managed to return its maker to atop the Billboard Hot 100. Despite its projected debut at No. 1, Witness is already shaping to be that project for Perry, and her fourth era is just really beginning.
Taking all of this into consideration, Witness is Perry’s most intriguing, boldest, and controversial record to date. (And yes, it does contain bops — particularly the Avril Lavigne-esque “Hey Hey Hey” — whether we’d like to admit it or not.) This is also Perry’s most ambitious dive into her artistry; almost as if her sound is, well, purposefully rebelling against the charts. Sometimes, we as critics are guilty of failing to realize that pop’s forerunners, like Perry, often take on the responsibility of being the musical auteurs to break underground sounds to the mainstream — even if that means not matching or surpassing previous success. In 2017’s market, heavily dominated by trap-pop and Middle America-friendly pop-rock, Witness opts for shading borrowed from the barely recognized and much darker scenes of witch house and future pop — sounds that have been around for most of the decade, but rarely fully integrated into mainstream pop as Perry attempts here.
Judging by the album’s aesthetic and promotion — the spooky eye-in-mouth album cover most telling — Witness was supposed to provide pop music a new interpretation for what its future may have in store. Witch house and future pop are electronic-based subgenres that primarily focus on the moody, dark side of its artists, while also commenting on the dystopic states of present and future society. During Perry’s marketing roll out, her bizarre, I-could-crack-at-any-moment behavior seemed far from accidental: Being an eyewitness to her cherry pie giveaway in Times Square, Perry’s behavior read as a woman going mad while under surveillance. That perspective was writ large by the singer’s 72-hour Big Brother-style live stream on the album’s release week, an oft-riveting, borderline-uncomfortable experience that crossed boundaries rarely made flexible by pop stars of Perry’s level.
As for the musical composition of Witness, the disorienting sound effects laced throughout the album hold to these themes. The opening title track literally sees Perry literally crying out to be observed, pleading “can I get a witness?” before a peculiar but instantly mesmerizing syllable breakdown. An obvious choice for the album’s next single, “Witness” also sheds light on who Katheryn Hudson is (like the singer revealed it would) — recalling Perry’s former life as a gospel/christian rock singer under her legal name. Meanwhile, Perry utilizes the help of future pop band Purity Ring to craft the turbo-pop of the self-explanatory “Mind Maze” and the rave-worthy “Bigger Than Me,” and the production of “Roulette” hones in on the chopped-and-screwed, bewitching synth-punk usually the purview of underground electro-futurists like Crystal Castles.
It becomes clearer with each listen that Witness is a break-up album, fittingly coming off the heels of the singer’s split from Orlando Bloom. Her actor ex is far from the only thing she’s leaving behind, though — in a way, Witness does deliver on the various “liberations” she initially promised. “Tsunami” — a quiet-R&B turn for producer Mike Will Made-It — represents the sexual, equating Perry’s lovemaking and her “cherry pie” to a harbor wave. “Déjà Vu” explains the mental, the hook commenting “Cause every day’s the same/Definition of insane/I think we’re running on a loop” — matching the lyrical content of “Chained To The Rhythm”. Perry’s spiritual liberation comes via the a choir-backed “Pendulum,” the lead singer requiring for her fans to stay true to themselves: “So, don’t try and reinvent your wheel/’Cause you’re too original.” And indeed, the braggadocio in “Swish Swish” attempts the singer’s liberation from negativity, described by Perry as an anti-bullying anthem.
In the end, “purpose” does in fact hold its own on Witness — the true nature of the album’s intent just got lost in a vain translation from artist to audience. It might not be as conventionally #woke as initially broadcast, but Katy is still clearly more wide awake than ever, and looking towards the future like few of her peers are currently daring.