heyKaty Perry is currently in the middle of the European leg of her global-trotting Witness: The Tour and is set to conclude it in August later this year, so the era for her fourth major label studio album is technically not over yet.
Witness, which dropped today exactly a year ago, is probably the most arduous album yet for both listeners and her fans. So when the Witness: The Tour ends, it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anyone reminisce this era.
The album was a big decline in success for the 33-year old daughter of Pentecostal parents. A career-defining, record-breaking album and one fairly successful sequel later, Katy Perry had reached a point in her career where she could pretty much do anything, and she very well did, launching an album that had people’s heads cocking and brows raising for the wrong reasons.
But was there anything about Witness that could’ve been done differently to save what is now a misstep in Katy’s career? The only way to find out is to journey back to yesteryear.
When 2017 started, anticipation for new Katy Perry was high. She was still regarded as the new reigning queen of the Billboard Hot 100. She had amassed five chart-toppers at the start of the decade with the pop confection Teenage Dream, plucked another number-one with a re-issue (and a number-two), then scooped two more in 2013 with the post-divorce meditation Prism: the uplifting “Roar” and the trap-based “Dark Horse,” which was a strong contender at the Grammys.
It was a sure-thing that whatever song the “Roar” singer dropped was likely to top the charts, and when Katy eventually released “Chained to the Rhythm,” all eyes were watching.
The disco-pop lead single signified the commencement of Witness and was spearheaded by a guerrilla marketing campaign where Katy literally chained more than 20 disco balls in cities around the world to preview the song. Lyrically, the song was politically charged commentary on modern society, hot off the 2016 U.S. election in which Katy campaigned fervently for Hilary Clinton and devastatingly watched her defeat to Donald Trump. (Back at home, her conservative parents were rejoicing.)
“Are we crazy, living our lives through a lens, trapped in a white picket fence like ornaments?” Katy sings in the opening line, critical of the ignorance and tone-deafness that had arisen and bisected the United States along the political wings. “So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble. So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble.”
Its music video, which takes a leaf out of Black Mirror‘s pastel-toned Nosedive, takes place in fictitious amusement park Oblivia. A sociopolitical tirade in the form of various park attractions, Katy embarks on a heart-shaped rollercoaster symbolizing people’s obsession with social media validation, and eventually finds herself in a supposed 3-D movie screening where featured rapper Skip Marley emerges from the screen in the flesh.
Critics relished the socially-aware music video, and the song debuted at #4 on the charts and remained in the Top 20 for another seven weeks. In an interview, Katy described “Chained to the Rhythm” and the would-be-released Witness as an era of “meaningful pop”, opting for social responsibility in times dire for left-wing politics.
But albeit the acclaim to Katy’s first single since 2014’s “This Is How We Do” (please ignore that single put out for the Rio Olympics), the song was not a bonafide hit relative to Katy’s past efforts.
Her previous album jump-starters were major hits: “I Kissed A Girl” spent seven weeks at #1, “California Gurls” did six, and while “Roar” only stayed at the penthouse for two, it lingered on the charts the longest (35 weeks.) By contrast, “Chained to the Rhythm” was Katy’s first lead single to miss the #1 spot, and vanished after only 15 weeks on the Hot 100. The reigning queen on the Billboard Hot 100 was experiencing troubles with her throne.
If “Chained to the Rhythm” couldn’t lock in a chart-topper for the new album, then perhaps “Bon Appetit” would.
The food-themed urban pop song was issued as Witness‘ second single at the end of April, and explores culinary metaphors to slinky vocals and a trap beat (I’m a five-star Michelin, a Kobe flown in”). While the previous single was a “political liberation”, Katy described “Bon Appetit” as her “sexual liberation”, since after all, none of Katy’s past singles had been that sexually voracious.
It’s my favorite song on the album; in fact, my most-listened song of 2017, but virtually everyone else hated it. Some disliked the anticlimactic chorus and lack of hook, while others were offended by the song’s featured artist, the hip hop trio Migos. The rappers allegedly made homophobic comments at multiple instances throughout their career, and reportedly fused to perform the single alongside drag queens during Katy’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. How did they end up on a song with gay-loving “Firework”-breathing Katy?
Whatever the reason, “Bon Appetit” tanked on the charts, peaking at #59 and spending only six weeks on the Hot 100. By comparison, “Chained to the Rhythm” was a full-fledged winner.
I’ve never been convinced that Migos was the major cause of “Bon Appetit” going stale. Quavo, one of the trio’s members, topped the charts in May with DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One,” then enjoy a Top 10 with Liam Payne’s “Strip That Down” in September. Instead, people really started abandoning Katy because of her increasingly bizarre Miley Cyrus-like antics.
We all know Miley, who famously chopped off her hair and went blonde in 2013, and somehow, Katy decided that opting for the same pixie cut was what she needed as Witness’ release approached.
But in Katy Perry Live: Witness World Wide, an elaborate four-day YouTube livestream for Witness during its launch week in June, Katy shared that the change in hair was a necessary liberation for her.
In a teary conversation with therapist Siri Singh, Katy unveiled the suicidal thoughts that tested her albeit the phenomenal success in her career. In her eyes, Katy Perry had become a glitzy persona, and her hair change was her shedding that to unveil Katheryn “Katy” Hudson: her real name, sacrificed to avoid confusion with actress Kate Hudson.
And yet, the hairstyle didn’t resonate with the public, who also pounced on a couple odd interviews she did during the press tour for Witness.
The singer’s sense of humor had always been whimsical and sometimes snarky, but for the first time, public sentiment of Katy was that of annoyance. Just check the comments on her interview on Ellen: some viewers half-joked that she was high on drugs, while others even thought Ellen DeGeneres herself was annoyed at her.
Witness ultimately dropped on June 9, 2017 (one year ago today), and debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 with 162,000 copies (180k under Billboard’s streaming-factored methodology). It may have sold over a 100,000 copies less than Katy’s previous Prism, but considering the advent of streaming, Witness‘ first-week numbers were still good Furthermore, “Bon Appetit” was only one misfire. It would be unreasonable to consider Witness a flop in pop culture.
Unfortunately, the album’s next offering, “Swish Swish” hit the nail on the coffin.
The hip hop single was an answer song to then-nemesis Taylor Swift and her chart-topping “Bad Blood” two years prior. Katy sings “funny my name keeps coming out your mouth” and “don’t need opinions from a shellfish or a sheep”, a reference to a past jab at Taylor when Katy called her “Regina George in sheep’s clothing” on Twitter.
The single choice a smart move for marketing, yet it was incongruous with Katy’s rhetoric during the album’s promotional campaign. “When women unite, the world will heal,” she boldly declared in an interview that probed about her feud with Taylor. During her livestream, she even apologized on-camera “for anything [she] ever did.” I still wonder why she went ahead with the single.
But even after generating the gossipy headlines, putting Nicki Minaj as featured artist, filming a star-studded music video and performing the song at the MTV Video Music Awards in August (which Katy hosted last year) did nothing to propel the single. “Swish Swish” never did outdo its #46 debut.
With two misfires from the album, Witness was a lost cause for Katy. When the era started, hardcore fans were unsatisfied with “Chained to the Rhythm” peaking at #4. On hindsight, that song was Witness‘ saving grace.
Nothing subsequent to “Chained” could’ve really helped anyway. The album itself was a step down for Katy the pop singer. While she had described the album as “meaningful pop,” there was nothing particularly meaningful about any of the other songs on Witness.
Perhaps the songs were meaningful to the artist herself (by that, the few introspective ballads that must’ve been therapeutic to write), but thematically, nothing was particularly important or inventive to the public. Witness was essentially another Katy Perry album… though without the catchy radio staples.
Most tracks, such as “Deja Vu,” “Mind Maze” and “Bigger Than Me,” are snoozy fillers that would have never caught on on radio. One such song, “Hey Hey Hey”, got absurdly selected as the album’s fourth single at the start of 2018, and was deservingly ignored by the world along with its obnoxious Marie Antoinette-spoofing music video.
Meanwhile, excluding 2008’s “Thinking of You”, ballads have never been Katy’s strong suit: “Save As Draft” and “Into Me You See” were as forgettable as the mid-tempos on Prism.
I only have love for two entries: the title track “Witness” and the penultimate song, “Pendulum,” an uplifting pop number backed by a gospel choir. Also taking out the first two singles, everything else in Witness could pretty much burn at the stake as pop unnecessary for 2017.
So what could’ve acquitted Witness from its verdict as Katy’s first musical disaster? A better album, and better hair. By 2017, the dominance of female pop stars from the first half of the decade had very much ended, so an ordinarily crafted record like Witness was destined to disappoint if it wasn’t stimulating or inventive. “Chained to the Rhythm” was indeed the “meaningful pop” Katy wrongly claimed the entire album to be; it’s a pity there wasn’t more of it on Witness.
Today, I think of this album as Katy’s ARTPOP: an album in pop peer Lady Gaga’s discography that bears tremendous similarity in terms of career trajectory. After a majorly successful album (Teenage Dream and Gaga’s The Fame/Monster) and an adequate follow-up (Prism and Gaga’s Born This Way), whatever album came next was likely to have tanked owing to listener fatigue, thus presenting Witness (and for Gaga, ARTPOP.)
Coincidentally, both albums were released at a time when their public image was strangely bad. Both also produced only one Top 10 single which peaked at #4 (Gaga’s “Applause”, which hilariously had a hard time thanks in part to Katy’s “Roar”).
That said, Gaga turned things around moderately with her follow-up, Joanne. Hopefully Katy will do the same too with her next record, which is probably one or two more years away. She still has a tour to finish and some life to live.