Many people assume that Lady Gaga is the 21st century heir to Madonna’s throne of mutating pop mystique, but Katy Perry would be a solid runner-up.
Everyone’s favorite “California Gurl” has touched on practically every sub-genre of pop not between albums but DURING albums. She can go from 80s pop-funk (“Last Friday Night”) to 70s disco glam (“California Girls”) from track-to-track, then on the next album shifts between a powerful love ballad (“Unconditionally”) to a song about showing her boobs on a cute guy’s birthday (“Birthday”). It makes her one of pop’s most successful chameleons and incredibly impossible to take seriously. Even on the songs where she bears her soul, it’s hard not to imagine her singing it while frolocking in the whipped-cream bra and expecting her to follow it with “Peacock.” Perry is entertaining on occasion, but how far can that take her?
Not very far, according to her fifth studio album Witness. Perry’s certainly got a stacked cast behind her with the likes of DJ Mustard, Hot Chip, Max Martin, Migos, and Nicki Minaj.
At nearly an hour in 15 tracks, Witness seems to poise itself as the club-ready album of the summer while also being chock full of empowerment anthems. The title track, “Hey Hey Hey,” and “Roulette” are all low-key club jams that mix 80s synth-pop, bits of goth, and female power ballads. Singles “Swish Swish” and “Bon Appétit” are Perry’s usual grabs for what the modern pop sound is, with the latter going for the light-dancehall groove a la “One Dance.”
The problem is, Perry seems to bring nothing else to the table nor does she elevate the energy of the album. None of the tracks here go beyond mid-tempo ballads or pop songs that’d fit as elevator music. There’s also confusing sound choices, like her overuse of Auto-Tune on “Mind Maze,” the off-putting, low-hanging bass on “Tsunami,” or the pseudo-disco of “Chained to the Rhythm.”
Lyrically, Witness has bright spots when it allows Perry to sing more personal lyrics. “Déjà Vu” is Perry’s take on a continuous bad relationship that starts off with a modern parable that doesn’t sound too corny (“I live off the echoes of your ‘I love you’s’/But I still feel the blows from all your ‘don’t want to’s’). “Power” is one of the few, if only, ballad that works to show Perry’s vulnerability when she uses her strong vocals to charge through the chorus (“‘Cause I’m a goddess and you know it/Some respect, you better show it/I’m done with you siphoning my power”).
For the rest of the album though, there are some rather embarrassing moments. Take “Save As Draft,” where Perry again flexes her strong vocals but has to use it for words like “Sometimes I swear I pass your SUV on Sunset Boulevard/I don’t f*ck with change, but lately I’ve been flipping coins a lot”). “Chained to the Rhythm” might be the most embarrassing of all, a confused, fake-woke socially conscious club anthem that uses outdated metaphors (“Trapped in our white picket fence/Like ornaments”) and almost entirely contradicts itself by being exactly the song it’s rallying against.
That’s actually an appropriate way to describe Witness. Katy Perry is trying to be both the colorful goofball and in-touch balladeer, but the balance still seems off. She’s trying to take herself a bit more seriously, which is fine, but she needs to come up with something new to say or a new way to say it or else her presence will become stale.
Pop music changes so fast and so frequently that it’s more unique when stars go outside the norm. Take Lady Gaga, who just last year, in the midst of the club pop overload, put out a country album. The question is, can Katy take that kind of risk?