You know an album's bad when you start desperately listening for hints that a song might be about John Mayer.
Katy Perry's caddish former beau is one of three specters who presumably haunt the singer's new album, Witness. He's the assumed target of any breakup barbs, just as onetime Perry pal Taylor Swift, she of the feud-stoking “Bad Blood,” materializes in a listener's mind whenever Katy berates the petty haters who seek to obstruct our heroine from achieving her preordained goal of becoming the most absolutely Katiest and Perriest of all living beings. The third is none other than Hillary Clinton, who Perry endorsed last year and apparently planted the seed for one of the most unlikely and fruitless political awakenings in modern pop.
Taylor's the unconfirmed, all-but-titular target of “Swish Swish,” an airball of a house track that jacks an old Fatboy Slim vocal sample and mistakes “Your game is tired/ You should retire/ You're 'bout as cute as/ An old coupon expired” for effective trash talk. Perry's sensitively voiced concern trolling of Mayer on “Miss You More” -- “Your face has changed/ The lines are sinking in” -- is a little more fun, though a certain someone else already wrote a much better song about dumping that same doofus eight years ago, when she was still a teen. What a drag it must be to realize you're not even as good at breaking up with John Mayer as Taylor Swift is.
At this point, though, we need to pause and ask an important question: Who fucking cares?
This is excruciatingly trivial even by the standards of celebrity gossip, after all, as irrelevant as a casual high school acquaintance's nasty vaguebooks about his ex-wife. And Witness is just as slight musically. Production duties are mostly divided between Swedish superproducer Max Martin, who reminds us that he's fallible by apparently entrusting much of the work to second-stringer Ali Payami, and indie-poppers Purity Ring, who are too subtle for the task at hand. Unless you are already intimately invested in how Katy Perry's career arc and saga of personal growth will turn out, rarely does a beat, a hook, an instrumental fillip, or a turn of phrase here register.
That includes Perry's calls to #resist. In 2016, to her credit, the pop star went all in for Clinton, but watching her deliver the turgid dirge of self-determination “Rise” at the Democratic National Convention, it was hard to believe this is what organizers had hoped Katy Perry would bring to the party. Surely they anticipated something more like (trigger warning) Rachel Platten's fizzy “Fight Song,” not a famous person dramatizing her epic personal battle between self-esteem and doubt center stage. The Witness ballad “Bigger Than Me,” supposedly inspired by the recent political events, is similarly less about the need to engage and organize and more about Katy Perry making A Very Big Decision. Rarely has the political sounded more personal.
No more effective -- but at least much weirder -- is the album's first single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” a comfortable liberal's attempt at protest song. The song's of its moment, no doubt, as reactionary power looms so darkly that even centrists feel compelled to adopt the language of radical dissent. But the result is a puritanical dance-pop hit, too strident to be ironic, like one of those Twitter feeds that claims whatever you're paying attention to today is just a distraction from the real story. “Chained to the Rhythm” sounds, sadly, like it comes from an honest place -- if Perry didn't really mean it, would she hire a Marley to provide auxilliary righteousness? But a cynical attempt to cash in on the new political mood might have hit harder. Pop's funny that way.
Perry's embrace of politics has inspired some inane blogging. The existence of one Daily Beast story last October, “How Katy Perry checkmated Taylor Swift” (by endorsing Clinton while Swift remained non-partisan), suggested that there really was nothing left to write about American politics, popular culture, or maybe even humanity itself. And this spring brought CNN's "7 ways Katy Perry is the Hillary Clinton of pop." I'll spare you the link, but I will say that Katy Perry is the pop star most likely to have sung something as awkward as "I don't know who created Pokémon Go, but I want to figure out how to get them to have Pokémon Go to the polls." Bad things happen to language in Katy's vicinity. The song “Déjà Vu” starts out with the perfectly acceptable “I live off the echoes of your 'I love you's” then by the chorus moves on to “So tell me something new/ Figure out the Rubik’s Cube.”
On Witness the lyrics stagger between outright cliché and mangled wordplay, between phrases people have already said too often and phrases no one would ever say in the first place. It's like someone dropped a cartoon anvil on Diane Warren and she woke up thinking she was Elvis Costello – or worse still, vice versa. Maybe you can let slide "I don't fuck with change/ But lately I've been flipping coins a lot" or "You think I'm fragile like a Faberge." But the closer, “Into Me You See,” not only makes room for "you came in like a sailor with a heart that anchored me," but its chorus begins with the title phrase, passes through "You broke me wide open/ Open sesame," and ends with “Is this intimacy?”
Once upon a time, you didn't have to care about Katy Perry as a person. Whether you found “I Kissed a Girl” titillating or tawdry, whether “Firework” inspired or exhausted you, neither hit demanded to be heard as the latest chapter in the performer's narrative. In fact, the finest moment of Perry's career was her most anonymous. The verses of “Teenage Dream” effervesce with flirty vulnerability, the chorus slams with the thrill of finally getting down to business, and the enactment of desire and fulfillment is broad enough for anyone to recognize.
But Perry's brief marriage to Russell Brand endowed her with what every celebrity needs in the 21st century – a story. With her post-divorce anthem, “Part of Me,” she became Katy Perry the Survivor, a role she plays to this day. And who can blame her? This is an age where the glamor of the pop star seeks to eclipse the resonance of the pop song. Fandoms transform idols into superheroes till pop becomes a kind of spectator sport, where rather than searching for our feelings and experiences in a song, we wach our champions battle and compile their statistics. That's not all bad: This is how Beyoncés are made after all. But it means the superstar's story must never end, and Katy Perry was not meant to compose a perpetual epic of her own heroic deeds.
Witness debuted at midnight. Simultaneously, and unexpectedly, Taylor Swift, who'd been keeping her music off streaming services, released her catalog to Spotify. There were, of course, gossipy inferences of Swiftian sabotage, but rather than upstaging Witness, Swift's move cross-promoted her foe's latest. Because man oh man does Katy Perry need all the feuds she can get right now.