Can we just let Katy Perry live?
Katy Perry slept well the night that her new album, Witness, was released. We know this because we watched her live on a YouTube stream. Sure, it all could've been a ruse — she could have been pretending to be dozing. But given the toil it takes to make a pop record, you'd imagine Perry would be too tired to fake it at this stage in the promotion cycle. As the rest of the world awoke on Friday morning to hangovers and confusion (#Comey, #HungParliament, etc.), Perry was blissfully in dreamland, sleeping next to her pooch Nugget in a Los Angeles compound, surrounded by 24/7 video cameras and a team of security guards.
The 32-year-old singer had sealed herself in a Big Brother-style house for 72 hours with no phone, just an iPad — a fact I was told on Friday evening when I first popped by the premises myself to see the whole set-up (more on that later). A cunning eyeball reminiscent of the long-running reality TV series' logo decorated the stream. When Perry eventually stirred, she told her fans she was having a casual dream about Selena Gomez. Just try and imagine being so famous that potentially millions of people care enough to hear what you dreamt about last night.
Privilege is likely why so many have relegated Witness to the dumpster before even hearing the record. The fifth full-length album of her career (and the fourth attributed to her Katy Perry stage name), it was initially set up to make a grandiose statement on the wider status quo. On Feb. 10, she tweeted, "We gonna call this era Purposeful Pop." That aspiration has subjected Perry to an extra level of impossible scrutiny during a commercial era where big statements are being prioritized over sex-sells tactics.
Seeing this erratic album campaign unfold has been as pleasurable as watching a goldfish be plucked from a bowl and tossed on the floor, its fins flapping helplessly. Lead single "Chained to the Rhythm" seemed to introduce the record as a continuation of Perry's newly politicized stance — she was a very outspoken Hillary Clinton supporter — only a month after the Women's March and Trump's inauguration. But then she side-stepped to the sexual gratification of "Bon Appétit" before surging ahead with "Swish Swish," which offered yet another clap back in Perry's tiresome feud with Taylor Swift. The segues between singles were about as seamless as Jeremy Corbyn high-fiving Emily Thornberry in the breast, then failing to style it out.
Listening to Witness now that it's finally here, it's clear that it's about as political as the '90s house music which seems to have inspired tracks like "Bon Appétit," "Bigger Than Me" and "Roulette." Back in that genre's heyday, rave anthems like Corona's "Rhythm of the Night" or Livin' Joy's "Dreamer" provided a safe space for pill-popping youths to dance away their anxieties, but they didn't offer any wisdom on, say, the impact of the Gulf War. Beyond the house genre, the singles are ripe with R&B influence and there's a Hot Chip-produced ballad that closes the entire set called "Into Me You See." There are also some futuristic downtempo tracks — "Mind Maze" and "Miss You More," both of which are collaborations with Purity Ring — that wouldn't sound out of place on an indie-electro album from the likes of Sylvan Esso. Sonically, Witness is concerned with the afterparty, the comedown for the resistance movement, not the protest itself.
And given that Swift and Perry continue to exacerbate their beef, it's worth drawing a parallel there: Witness is no more political than Swift's 1989, which similarly came with a sales tactic of newfound self-discovery, with Swift opting to lean on a feminism pitch where Perry widened her focus to "wokeness." Swift's most recent full-length chose not to include the singer's theories on Simone de Beauvoir or the fight for equal pay, and nobody seemed to mind. Maybe Swift's just a more precise and less clumsy business strategist when it comes to nailing a narrative. But watching Perry perform at the One Love Manchester benefit concert on June 4 reminded me that pop really doesn't have to have Nietzsche or Marxism running through it to empower its audience. It can be silly and wondrous and more powerful than world leaders — hi, Donald — in uniting people against the fear and hatred we seek an escape from.
Anyway, Witness' apparent lack of through-line has given room for endless online tittle-tattle for months ahead of its release, including a few well-argued takes, most notably a Vulture piece that argued that Perry hasn't yet worked out who she is, so it's impossible to know her. True, save for the more extensive traditional press around Witness, there's been little opportunity for her to be challenged on her current headspace. Perhaps that might have abated the level of hostility towards her, which has been palpable. Of course, Perry's long string of unfortunate gaffes might also be fueling the backlash. Her racially insensitive performance at the 2013 American Music Awards and video for 2014's "This Is How We Do" won't be forgotten anytime soon, nor will the time when she said she wasn't a feminist while accepting Billboard's Woman of the Year award in 2012. It's understandable if those incidents and others like them leave some feeling skeptical about Perry "opening up to consciousness."
Whatever the reason, critics and consumers have been willing her to suffer, barely leaving any bandwidth left for Witness' eventual release. In May, Complex published "Katy Perry's Failed Journey To Wokeness." When "Swish Swish" dropped, Spin declared "Katy Perry's 'Swish Swish' Is Another Single That Makes Little Sense." Following the album release, Spin was particularly quick to punish with their proper review: "Katy Perry's Witness Has the Inherent Appeal of Spectacular Failure." From the Daily Beast: "Purposeless pop at its worst." Cosmopolitan chimed in with "12 Katy Perry Lyrics from Witness That Will Leave You Utterly Confused."
At the 11th hour, Swift also appeared to jump in the fray by re-releasing her entire back catalogue on Spotify in celebration of a new sales landmark: 10 million global sales of her album 1989 and moving 100 million song units. Swift's return to the streaming giant was conveniently timed to coincide with the launch of Witness at midnight. Perhaps it was a callous move from Swift, or maybe part of a grander marketing scheme by Universal Music Group, which houses all of Perry and Swift's music combined. To the Twitter-stalking, popcorn-grabbing pop junkie, it felt like the final nail in Witness' coffin before there was even a body to bury.
Onto the record's accompanying weekend-long livestream: Critics have refocused themselves on Perry's switch from not digging deep enough to now overexposing herself. As pop stars increasingly claim "authenticity" as part of their artistry (see: Lady Gaga's pared-down Joanne or Haim's in-studio promo clips, directed by big-screen auteur Paul Thomas Anderson), Perry's play has been to show herself, warts and all. She's hiding little on the livestream, except for when she uses the restroom and showers — activities she's allowed to perform off-camera. The album artwork portrays an eyes-covered Perry with an open third eye in her mouth, as if to say: "Here I am, voicing what I see, uncensored."
And what does she see? The songs feel more like haikus and less like absolutist missives. "I'm just looking for a witness in all of this," she sings on the title track, asking for connection. "I can be zen and I can be the storm," she offers on "Hey Hey Hey." On "Mind Maze," she's constantly perplexed: "Caught in a cage, a complex cage/ Am I a car on fire? Will I be devoured?/ I gotta free myself and get out of my own way." (Side note: I interviewed Perry's most recent ex, Orlando Bloom, days after their split. He also seemed to be caught between his tween pin-up roles and serious grown-up acting and compared fame to "getting inside a burning car.") Listeners who came to Witness for fully realized conclusions on the world at large or on Perry herself should beware: This is not the album for them.
Witness is a search party for the multiple personalities of Perry, most of which we've met before: the reckless temptress of "Roulette," the conflicted religious child of "Power" and the forlorn lover of "Miss You More". But this time they're offered up as part of a greater whole, as Perry struggles to graduate from her commercial beginnings as a 20-something to a more artistically liberated woman now in her 30s. "Bigger Than Me" contains the line, "My intuition says there's a bigger mission I must embrace/ So I'm, I'm pushing my thoughts to a new place." It's tough being a superstar at the height of your field for almost ten years, and then having to learn what comes after teenage crushes, confetti parties and dancing sharks — particularly when your audience would like you to stay the mental age of 18 for the rest of your creative life. Her days on the Witness livestream will lead up to a live performance Monday, once Perry leaves the compound. This 72-hour experiment likely won't offer any grand conclusion, but theoretically it is geared — like the songs — toward some enlightenment as Perry continues to lean into her existence under the microscope.
As part of Friday's action, Perry had live therapy on camera for an hour — an act that was hugely polarizing, with some viewers finding it "stunningly real" and others, such as the New Yorker's Amanda Petrusich, finding it "plainly staged." (To be fair, there have been a few moments during the livestream where album buzzwords or key lyrics seem conveniently dropped into the discussions.) Was the therapy session normalizing discussions of mental health? Was it capitalizing on them? Was it more selfless or self-involved? Wherever you fall, the session undeniably made for fascinating viewing. Given that aforementioned lack of traditional press, a session in which Perry cried about her family dynamic and admitted that she's only recently learned how to hug people provided a far more intriguing album story than anything any journalist could have uncovered. As Perry sat opposite a therapist, with her "truths" pouring out of her, the point seemed to be that Witness is intended to unfold as conversations do. Hot takes and clickbait headlines are not friends to Witness. It feels like it'll reward listens over time. It's unafraid to admit that it's a work in progress, just like its creator.
On Friday night, I — ahem — witnessed that progress for the first time. I went to said top secret compound in L.A. and was a fly on the wall, hidden out of sight with YouTube's production team. I pushed my face against the one-way glass and looked down on the dining table where Perry was entertaining some guests. Nothing makes you reconsider your views on the deeply strange concept of voyeuristic entertainment quite like peeping into a stranger's party. It's far less comfortable than being on a couch in front of a TV or laptop. Perry's self-imposed Truman Show is a compelling idea. On the one hand, she's taking control of her own story. On the other, she's risking that, upon showing people who she is, they may decide that there's not much there. At the very least, she's opening up the floor to questions.
And therein lies the rub. During Friday's dinner conversation between Perry and her guests (Sia, Anna Kendrick, Dita Von Teese and a perplexed superfan among them), Perry stated that we no longer know how to communicate with each other. Witness has shown us up more than it's shown up Perry. It reveals an insecure, self-important online community who no longer have the patience to listen before imposing conclusions. "I know nothing," says Perry's new Twitter bio — perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reaction to her lack of success in locating the answers to the big questions.
At one point during the weekend's livestream, Perry had a conversation with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson and admitted past fault in her cultural appropriation and her comments on feminism. "I've made several mistakes," she told Mckesson. "I listened and I heard and I didn't know. I won't ever understand some of those things because of who I am, but I can educate myself and that's what I'm trying to do along the way." Maybe it is all just a savvy way to dress up promotion as realness. But what would we rather have? A risk-taking pop star who preaches the importance of having your eyes wide open and of asking questions, or a star who plays it safe and pretends to be superhuman?
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