Katy Perry famously won the war against Lady Gaga when they both released singles on the same day back in 2013. But judging by the pre-release spiel of fifth studio effort, Witness, the former still appears to have unwisely taken a few tips from the latter’s accompanying album campaign.
Just like Gaga promised a ‘reverse Warholian expedition’ with ARTPOP, only to serve up a generic EDM/dubstep-infused affair that hopelessly failed to live up to such a boundary-pushing claim, Perry has claimed her new record is ushering in an ‘era of purposeful pop.’
Quite where second single “Bon Appetit,” a straight-up party jam featuring hip-hop trio Migos stuffed with the kind of double entendres that would even put AC/DC to shame (“hope you’ve got some room/for the world’s best cherry pie/gonna hit that sweet tooth, boy”) fits into this narrative remains to be seen.
Likewise, Nicki Minaj collaboration “Swish Swish,” a Duke Dumont-produced and Fatboy Slim-sampling early ’90s house throwback which perhaps deservedly gives alleged arch nemesis Taylor Swift a taste of her own medicine for once (“your game is tired/you should retire/you’re ‘bout as cute as/an old coupon expired”).
But put the misguided ‘woke pop star’ hype to one side and Witness is still a curious new bold direction for an artist, who, despite shooting whipped cream out of her breasts, entering into a war with America’s national sweetheart and marrying Russell Brand, is still regarded as ‘basic’ compared to the rest of the decade’s pop queens.
Indeed, you only have to look at the list of production credits to realize that the bleached blonde buzz cut she sports on the album’s cover isn’t the only notable difference about Katy Perry circa 2017.
Purity Ring lend some of their signature dreamlike melodies and warped synths to the haunting dark pop of “Mind Maze.” The fingerprints of last year’s underperforming next big thing Jack Garratt are all over the moody bass wobbles and skittering beats of “Power.” And even though there’s little evidence of Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor’s trademark playful electronica with Hot Chip on closer “Into Me You See,” its subtle melancholy is still a marked departure from the usual bombast of her ballads.
Of course, Witness isn’t without its big pop moments either, although they largely suffer in comparison to its more adventurous. Indeed, super-dependable hitmakers Max Martin and Sia could quite easily have knocked out the title track and “Hey Hey Hey” respectively in their sleep, while the overblown heartbreak anthem “Save as Draft” doesn’t quite live up to the intrigue of its title.
However, lead single “Chained to the Rhythm” – one of the few tracks which does reflect Perry’s new socially-conscious persona – may just be her most addictive hit in years. An urgent rally cry designed to pop the utopia bubble, its message may be relatively ‘beginners guide.’ But by shrouding it in such an effortlessly infectious dancehall-tinged sound, it’s the kind of protest song that could get even the most politically apathetic soon marching on the streets with a placard.
The slightly haphazard nature of the Witness album campaign – the mixed messages of its three singles, the flop chart positions, the slightly messy live performances – suggests that Perry’s imperial phase is now over. But while she may have slipped down the pecking order, Witness proves she’s still a more interesting pop star than she’s often given credit for.