It’s strange to think that Katy Perry’s career as a major pop superstar could be over.
Between 2008 and 2016, Perry released three multi-platinum albums and amassed 18 Top 30 singles as a lead artist, including nine #1 hits. Her 2010 album, Teenage Dream, produced a record-tying 5 number one singles (only Michael Jackson’s Bad has managed to match that). She’s been credited with selling 143 million records worldwide, putting her ahead of Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Lady Gaga, Adele, Britney Spears and many others.
That track record of sustained success should have protected her career from being completely derailed by one flop. And yet, plenty of critics and observers wrote her off after 2017’s Witness, with some even wondering if her decline marked the end of an era in pop music. Perry’s career choices since then have only seemed to confirm that her best days are behind her. In 2018, she went to the place where many music careers go when they’re on life support — the judge’s table at American Idol. Then, she did what a lot of over-the-hill pop stars do when they start to transition to being a nostalgic act: she announced a Las Vegas residency, which is scheduled to begin in December. Meanwhile, her 2020 album, Smile, landed without much fanfare and became her worst-selling record since her 2001 self-titled Christian music debut, when she was still known as Katy Hudson.
So what happened?
Several musical careers have come to an end on the Saturday Night Live stage. Ashlee Simpson was never the same after being caught lip-syncing. Sinead O’Connor became music industry poison after ripping up a picture of then-Pope John Paul II (although given the scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church since then, maybe she deserves an apology).
And on May 20, 2017, during an episode hosted by ratings-magnet Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Katy Perry sang two songs off her upcoming album, Witness. As she is wont to do, her performances were pure spectacle: She laid down on a banquet table, danced with drag queens, featured a kid who went viral for popularizing “the floss dance” that everyone started doing afterwards, and awkwardly shrugged while featured guest Migos started rapping, as if she had no idea what to do at that moment, before executing the worst dab known to mankind.
This time, instead of being provocative, titillating or even entertaining, she came across as awkward and cringe-inducing and was widely lampooned on social media. She had long been known as a savvy performer who, with a wink and a smile, skillfully exploited pop music and pop cultural tropes by yielding her confident sexuality, manufactured vapidity and whimsical superficiality to create a persona well-suited for mass popularity. In a few short moments, however, she went from being in-on-the-joke to the butt of it and we went from laughing with her to at her. And she hasn’t been the same since.
Her disastrous SNL turn also had the effect of undermining her album and her attempts to reinvent and modernize her sound and image. For her fourth album (fifth, if you include her Katy Hudson album), Perry made a big deal about wanting to be taken more seriously as an artist and pursuing what she called “purposeful pop.” The days of singing exploitative songs like “I Kissed a Girl” or shooting fireworks or whipped cream out of her breasts were seemingly behind her. She even cut her trademark dark hair, going for a bleached blonde pixie cut instead. “I’ve seen behind the curtain and I can’t go back,” she told Vogue in April 2017, two months before Witness was released. “I used to be the queen of innuendo, everything done with a wink. Now I want to be the queen of subtext—which is a cousin to innuendo, but it’s got more purpose.”
She also started becoming more outspoken with her political beliefs. At first glance, that seemed to be a bad fit for Perry, given long-standing accusations of cultural appropriation, LGBTQ animus and then opportunism, and her historical lack of demonstrable interest in politics. Nevertheless, Vogue detailed her work for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the disappointment she felt when Donald Trump was elected. In a New York Times profile, she talked about how woke she had become. “[I feel] extremely liberated, liberated from the conditioning of the way I used to think, spiritually liberated, politically liberated, sexually liberated, liberated from things that don’t serve me.”
Witness was all about giving the new, woke Perry a voice and platform. The track “Bigger than Me” summed up what was on her mind at the time:
I’m kicking and screaming
‘Cause it won’t be easy
To break all the patterns
If I’m not evolving
I’m just another robot
Taking up oxygen
It’s something bigger than me
I can feel it beginning
Something bigger than me
Yeah, I can feel it opening
Tried to ignore it
But it keeps on growing
Out of control
It’s something bigger than me
And I can feel it happening
So I’ll speak my truth though my voice shakes (I can see it)Katy Perry, “Bigger than Me“
Try to summon the strength to look fear in the face
Lead single “Chained to the Rhythm” got most of the attention for its politically-charged lyrics. “So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble/ So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble/ Aren’t you lonely/ Up there in utopia” — those lines rather accurately summed up how stunned and shocked people were when Trump won.
It also stood for an interesting supposition: Does the vapidity of most pop music play a role in forcing people into their various bubbles, thereby preventing them from thinking critically? Of course, Perry doesn’t examine her role in getting us to that point. Nor does she deviate from the musical formula that made her famous. Like most of her big hits, “Chained to the Rhythm” is co-written by hit-making kingpin Max Martin, and his tropes are here in full force: repeatedly going from the 5th note of the tonic scale to the 3rd note, common time signature, C major key signature, etc. The only thing that stands out musically is the offbeat cadence at the end of chorus (right where she sings “to the rhythm” over and over, which makes for a cool irony). Otherwise this song, with different lyrics, could have been given to any of the likes of Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, Ellie Goulding or Ariana Grande.
In fact, despite her great awakening, Witness doesn’t deviate too much from her other stuff. Musically, it’s a bit more house and electronic-influenced than her prior pop records, but otherwise, it’s a perfectly cromulent Katy Perry album. Many of her songs focus on self-empowerment, but that’s not a new area for her. “You can’t clip my wings, can’t wilt my flowers/ Stole my time, but I’ll make up the hours/ ‘Cause I’m a goddess and you know it,” she sings on “Power.” “A big beautiful brain with a pretty face, yeah/ A babydoll with a briefcase, yeah/ A hot little hurricane, ha!/ ‘Cause I’m feminine and soft, but I’m still a boss, yeah,” she declares on “Hey Hey Hey.” “So, don’t try and reinvent your wheel/ ‘Cause you’re too original/ Baby, just stay classic/ Ain’t broke, ain’t broke, don’t fix it/ Your highs, your lows, just ride it,” she advises on “Pendulum.”
Other parts stick with tried-and-true Katy Perry topics: sex and love. There are songs about past lovers and wanting to spend one more night with them to see where things go (“Roulette”) or seeing their photographs and being overcome with emotion (“Miss You More”). For what it’s worth, she had broken up with Orlando Bloom while recording this record, although others have speculated that “Miss You More” is actually about another ex: John Mayer. “Tsunami” is about what you think it is, while the aforementioned “Bon Appétit” is her self-proclaimed sexual liberation song (it’s all about eating – get it?).
But then, she undermines her whole mission to pursue “purposeful pop” by recording a song like “Swish Swish.” Widely interpreted as a diss track towards Taylor Swift (“Your game is tired/ You should retire/ You’re ’bout as cute as/ An old coupon expired”), “Swish Swish” was instantly the most scrutinized and publicized song from Witness. Worse, the video sees her trying to have her cake and eat it too. Rather than do what Swift did on “Bad Blood” and film a video of her going on a rampage and getting even with her enemies (or strike a defiant tone towards all of her perceived detractors like what she did on “Look What You Made Me Do“), Perry delivers a goofy, whimsical cameo-heavy video that doesn’t relate to the song at all (except the “swish swish” part). By doing this, she undercuts her vengeful message, thereby insulating herself from criticism since she can point to the comedy and say that it’s all tongue-in-cheek. It’s a weak move in a weak feud that was covered, at the time, as the pop version of 2Pac vs. Biggie. In reality, it was more contrived than the Blur v. Oasis feud. I mean, how heated could Perry v. Swift have been, considering they each worked with Max Martin on their biggest hits?
Perhaps that’s why Witness flopped. Perry came across as a phony and no one bought her new “woke” persona. Say what you will about Swift, but she usually seems authentic in her songs (sometimes too much). Maybe that’s why her fans love her so much. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga, like Perry, was no stranger to spectacle. But it was never her entire identity, nor was it the most notable thing about her. And unlike Perry, she has always been an advocate for the LGBTQ community, and used her music to uplift and entertain them while promoting their causes. She didn’t come into it later in her career or exploit outdated and offensive tropes for entertainment or career advancement. That’s probably why Swift and Gaga were able to experiment with their sound and weather less-than-successful albums. They knew their fans would come with them, no matter what they did artistically.
Despite her chart success, Perry never seemed to have that strong a following (despite giving her fans a name: the Katy Cats). And considering her seemingly sudden downfall, it’s fair to ask if she had only been popular because she had been popular. Her songs are catchy and likable but easily forgotten about or confused for other people’s songs (I mixed up “Roar” and Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” for the longest time, and I know wasn’t the only one). To put it another way, Katy Perry songs are perfect for parties to get everyone going. But you’re probably not going to spend a lot of time listening to her albums at home, by yourself, hoping to pick up some nuances you missed before. What you hear is what you get.
So when she decided to stop the party (or, at least, upgrade from raging kegger to refined cocktail reception), she ended up hurting her brand. After debuting at #1 on the Billboard charts, Witness quickly lost momentum. It was Perry’s first album not to go platinum since her Katy Hudson debut and her worst selling album as Katy Perry until her next one.
Perhaps more importantly, it was the first Katy Perry album not to have a #1 single. “Chained to the Rhythm” managed to hit #4 on the Billboard charts, but follow-up singles “Swish Swish” and “Bon Appétit” both missed the top 40. That may not be a big deal for other artists, but for someone like Perry, who had been so successful and reliable, it was a disaster.
The Daily Beast said something fairly profound about her following the failure of Witness. “The interesting thing about Katy Perry as a pop music-producing entity is that her weaknesses are the same as her strengths,” Amy Zimmerman wrote. “Perry is a blank canvas, entirely open to new genres, career phases, and looks. Drastic changes in appearance aside, Perry’s mutability is more than just aesthetic—she will change her sound at the drop of a hat. Sincere singer-songwriter? Sure! Over-the-top pop? Definitely! Hip-hop? Why not!”
I agree with Zimmerman. Perry’s mistake was trying to reinvent herself as political — her inauthenticity and superficiality were always going to be exposed (just ask Justin Timberlake how it went for him). Moving forward, radically changing up her sound might be the way to go. While she might not want to go the folk route like Swift, Perry, with her deeper, sultrier voice, could easily make the transition to R&B or even rock music. Maybe she can ask Max Martin to write her some rockers a la “Since U Been Gone.” Or she can work with someone like William Orbit to freshen up her sound. It worked for Madonna.
Instead, it looks like she’s gone the sad clown route while still working with top pop producers (although, strangely, Max Martin is absent from her latest album, the ironically titled Smile – then again, Martin always knew when to get out). I guess she hasn’t woken up to the possibility of completely reinventing her sound just yet.