Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Witness | Katy Perry

Pop music often shapes culture without much of a thought given to its implications; sex, love, and drugs sell, so it's sex, love, and drugs that we most often get from the biggest names in music. Accompanying the subjects are high-gloss electronics, a belting vocalist, and a melody so infectious that the whole country ignites with the song's chorus at every moment for three months, chanting some drivel adorned with ear candy. And on most days, we're fine with that.

But in the past decade, a new form of pop music has begun to rear its head – one that values album-wide story arcs and attempts a voyeuristic, third-party view on popular culture, as if it were immune to affecting or being affected by the society in which it exists. These projects often take the form of overwrought, outlandish concept albums, but it seems that the albums that try to do the most end up stumbling over the false expectations of its results. The ones without distinct means and ends, existing only as the product of a focused vision rather than the cramped showcase for an overarching, ill-executed artistic vision, are the ones that prove pop music can be much more than frivolous entertainment.

After having spent three album cycles with her head caught in clouds of cartoon fruit and cotton candy clouds, Katy Perry seemed like an unlikely candidate to pull out an over-calculated era of social consciousness. But it shouldn't be so hard to imagine that one of the biggest contributors to the media noise could try to elevate herself above it – many pop stars have a "come to Jesus" moment in their careers during which they realize their platforms can be used to incite change, then overcompensate for past sins. It is strange, however, to see a woman traditionally known for wild success fall so hard during her awaited moment.

When "Chained to the Rhythm" was unleashed at the nose of this album cycle, the new Katy Perry was impressively posed and self-aware. Utilizing a popular ironic approach to social commentary, it hypnotizes listeners with a looped neo-disco sample, despite its own warnings against the attraction to an arbitrary beat. Nevertheless, conscious lyrics stacked with a complementary music video and televised live performance strengthened her case and projected a positive trajectory for Perry's newest chapter. Her "woke pop" was slowly solidifying itself into what could have been the best move of her career.

But before the concept could be concreted, too many hands were given security clearance to the cranial controls and her ego got in the way, shifting the focal point of Perry's third eye. Instead of looking outwards on Witness as she promised, she shrinks her world, becoming more focused on herself. Just three single releases in, for example, Perry entangled herself in a feud with Taylor Swift that most everybody thought was over two years ago. And by the time the full album is halfway through, it becomes quite apparent that what was supposed to be her era of "purposeful pop" has been clouded with out-and-proud reminders that she still wants to reign supreme as a pop star, no more and no less.

There are times when these hyperartistic passion projects are adorned with lyrical themes and album-wide concepts that are too complex to be pushed to a mass market – Lady Gaga's unloved stepchild, ARTPOP, comes to mind. Not many people, especially in the radio-listening pool toward which big names in music traditionally cater, want to be required to complete hours of research and lyrical analysis to understand pop tracks. But other times, their creators are too protected to be told that they're a bit more ignorant, and a little less elegantly spoken, than they believe they are. Perry is one of those artists. We're forced to chain ourselves to the rhythms here, because grasping onto the lyrics results in a fistful of "Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck," "Make me ripple 'til I'm wavy," and "You don't have to subtweet me."

To fill the voids of the the album's lyrics, Perry padded the album with supercharged production talent. Dr. Luke is absent for obvious reasons and longtime collaborator Bonnie McKee unexpectedly sits this one out, but the remaining members of the army (the foolproof dream team of Max Martin and Ali Payami, Mike WiLL Made-It, and strangely enough, electronic duo Purity Ring) drown Perry in a glimmering pool of dance-pop, influenced in part by vintage gay nightclub bangers ("Swish Swish," "Déjà Vu") and in another part by visions of futuristic mid-tempo house ("Mind Maze," "Tsunami"). The glossy beats make for alluring distractions from an album that was supposed to focus on substance – but they're distractions nonetheless.

The album's armor of production shields its weak lyrics and presents the front of a standard pop album, and if the album's main selling point had been its sonic evolution, the output wouldn't have been put under the microscope. But Perry's false projection of a revolutionary take on pop music renders Witness an ignorant, disappointing statement, and it's a shame, because she very well could have pulled it off – even with her level of grace in lyrical presence. Of all tracks, even "Bon Appetit," had it been marketed as such, could have been passed off as a cheesy revelation of the status quo for females' radical body standards and sexualization in the media. Instead, Katy Perry did exactly what she aimed not to do this time around: She made a Katy Perry record, a senseless noisemaker and certified guilty pleasure.

Witness is available now under Capitol Records.

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