Nowadays, there exists a strange and somewhat twisted expectation for popstars to use their platform to promote particular sociopolitical ideas relating to populism and equality, to the point wherein the act of choosing to remain apolitical, even briefly, can see a pop artist receive an aggressive backlash, as was the case amidst the aftermath of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance from earlier this year, when outraged fans took to their keyboards to berate the pop priestess simply for not passing comment on the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Indeed, this presupposition also tends to be directed more commonly at female artists and their representation of women’s empowerment, with Katy Perry often having been the target of criticism, specifically relating to accusations of cultural appropriation due to certain lyrical and visual themes present in her artistry, for which she has since apologised, most notably in a recent interview conducted by Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson. Despite being one to fully embrace political commentary in music, I cannot say that this assumption that all popstars should use their notoriety to promote a specific worldview is a notion I support. I could go into detail on countless reasons as to why I view this expectation of popular artists as ludicrous and counterproductive, but there is one specific basis for this that is often overlooked, that being the fact that tackling such issues requires a degree of nuance and focus that certain singers just aren’t capable of harnessing. If anything, with the appeal of particular strands of pop music being vapid and mindless fun by nature, anticipating any degree of substance or specificity in socially and politically conscious lyrical themes is likely expecting far too much from some artists. It’s for these reasons that the idea of Katy Perry pursuing some more socially aware sensibilities on her newest record, Witness, struck me as a questionable move.
Given that Perry is perhaps the pop paradigm of a singles artist, with the singer having released too many hits to name that still frequent mainstream radio airwaves even years after their initial release, it’s surely fair to say that the primary point of appeal of a Katy Perry song is its senseless catchiness, which has traditionally been aided by Dr. Luke’s keen ear for an infectious melody. Indeed, it can’t really be said that Perry has ever strived for, or at least successfully conveyed, any particular degree of depth in her lyricism, as, if anything, this would work against her core charm. Thus, the prospect of such a drastic lyrical tone shift on Witness is a shaky one, which is only made all the more unstable by the other points of experimentation for Perry over the course of her new album. Not only is Dr. Luke’s name nowhere to be found in the record’s production credits for the first time on a Katy Perry album, but the singer employs a surprisingly eclectic array of producers, covering ground that reaches from the hip hop and trap production of DJ Mustard and Mike WiLL Made-It to the indietronica and synthpop stylings of Hot Chip and Purity Ring. Although sacrificing the assistance of Dr. Luke on Witness is an audacious decision, it’s one that could pay off fantastically well, should the producers that Perry enlists in his place step up to the plate in creating what could potentially be her most diverse and colourful album thus far. As for the end product, Witness is indeed diverse, but not necessarily for the best reasons. In fact, the record is a mixed bag in just about every regard, with some of the album’s producers being used effectively, whilst others are completely squandered. Similarly, the supposedly experimental veneer of Witness is counteracted by many of the usual clichés to have bogged down previous Katy Perry records. The album’s jumbled nature, however, also leads to a variance in the overall song quality across the course of the tracklisting, with certain cuts striking some surprisingly impressive high points in which Perry’s vision comes close to actualisation. The end product, therefore, is an almost jarringly inconsistent listen, during which some surprisingly well-rounded ideas surface, even if the album, as a cohesive project, struggles to remain on course in any convincing fashion.
Whilst there has existed a semblance of a unifying thread that strings much of Perry’s past work together, it can’t be said to have been a particularly deeply ingrained one, given that it pertains largely to the singer’s association with chart-topping anthems that offer little substance beyond being superficially jubilant as to be able to project this motivational sensation on as wide a demographic of people as possible. Of course, this is by no means a bad thing considering Perry’s status as a singles artist who plays towards a mostly middle-of-the-road territory. On Witness, however, the pop songstress is seemingly attempting to make a definitive departure from this bearing of triteness, instead opting for a comparatively experimental electropop sound that makes for what is, by Katy Perry’s standards, a somewhat challenging listen, although largely not for the reasons that the artist intended. That’s not to say that the album doesn’t have its moments, however, even if its highlights counteract the supposedly adventurous nature of Witness to an extent. As an example, there is most definitely an infectious swagger to Swish Swish, as the song bounces between the piano-driven, anthemic quality of the verses and the hollow taps of the house-infused EDM instrumental during the chorus, whilst the guest verse from Nicki Minaj towards the backend of the cut ties up its braggadocious themes nicely, even if both Perry and Minaj’s bars regarding their ongoing feuds with Taylor Swift and Remy Ma respectively are relatively feeble and uninspired. Likewise, there are numerous tracks wherein the production strikes some impressive and, at the best of times, dazzling counterpoint with Perry’s singing, bolstering some of the most markedly well-written vocal melodies from the artist over the course of the tracklisting. The buoyant, wobbly melodies of Déjà Vu capture a spacious sound that plays to the strengths of Perry’s wistful vocal delivery and occasional use of falsetto, whilst the punchy piano chords, glossy synth stabs and choral vocals and handclaps that hark back to the singer’s gospel days on Pendulum elevate perhaps Perry’s most contagious and well-written refrain on the entire record to truly triumphant heights. The throbbing, watery bass and sparse percussion of Power and the bouncy synth bass and glistening, glitchy electronics of Tsunami complement Perry’s vocal melodies in a similarly compelling fashion, with these instrumentals coming across almost like mid-tempo electro-funk tunes. Undoubtedly, when it comes down to the more successful songs from Witness, the vast majority of them hardly push the boat out at all for the singer in any structural or stylistic sense, but instead they simply display the songwriting fundamentals, potent performances and vibrant timbre that one would look for in a sweet, three-to-four minute chart tune from a pop powerhouse like Katy Perry.
With many of the most enjoyable cuts from Witness being characteristically straightforward in their appeal, the more outlandish tracks that exhibit some undeniably questionable ideas can feel all the more out of place and even unnecessary at points. Whilst a significant portion of this off-putting inconsistency arises from the fact that, from a technical standpoint, Perry is far from a flawless singer and she pushes herself to attempt techniques that she simply can’t entirely pull off, as well as the disparity between the outward tone and actual substance of her lyrical ventures across the album, an even greater deal of this issue circles back to the assortment of producers brought into the fold on Witness and the ways in which they are put to use. The fact that Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard of the peppy synthpop group Hot Chip are assigned to the closing piano ballad, Into Me You See, exemplifies just how confusing the allocation and usage of many of these producers can be. As a result, even some of the more viable points of experimentation throughout the tracklisting leave a lot to be desired in their execution, with the opening title track being a prime example. The idea of utilising some cavernous ambiance of mild electronic distortion to build suspense as the instrumentation crescendoes towards the release in the form of the chorus could have been employed for a truly striking effect, but instead, the implementation of this technique generates a blaring wall of messy, indecipherable noise that overpowers Perry’s vocals in the mix. On the other side of the spectrum, the intermittent application of auto-tune on a cut like Mind Maze — outside of being completely unnecessary, given that its usage is arbitrarily forced onto Perry’s voice at the end of a phrase — juts out as conflicting with the entire point of Witness, that being for the artist to disassociate herself with the pristine sterility of her previous material and seek a sound that tests the room for experimentation within mainstream pop music. This apparent discrepancy in the record’s desired temperament is perhaps most obviously elucidated on Hey Hey Hey. Although the buzzing and squawking of the instrumentation plays more towards the type of adventurous tone that Witness seemed likely to pursue, Perry’s rudimentary pop vocals and their occasional whiffs of auto-tune feel far too phoned in, which is only worsened by the cursory nature of the artist’s lyrics. Honestly, most of the lyrical themes across Witness are too jejune to warrant an entire paragraph dissecting them, but Perry’s superficial and vapid portrayal of female empowerment on Hey Hey Hey, which simply sees the singer place a traditionally feminine trope and a traditionally masculine trope next to one another during each line, is almost amusing in just how unsubtle and vacuous it is. What this alludes to on a larger scale, however, is just how oddly inconsistent the overall tenor of Witness is, with the supposed “new era” of “purposeful pop” it marks in Perry’s career, as claimed by the musicians herself, being compromised by many of the banalities to have pervaded her work previously.
In spite of how straightforward Katy Perry’s songs have usually been throughout her career, it can often take a while for it to hit me just how much I actually appreciate their mindless catchiness, so it was after quite a significant amount of listens that I began to thoroughly enjoy the handful of vividly playful pop songs featured across Witness, which is why it took me longer than usual to get around to reviewing this album. However, with the album’s most potent moments adhering to a perfectly direct mainstream pop formula, the various ill-conceived decisions made throughout the course of the tracklisting under the guise of the establishment of a new, experimental era in Perry’s career only become more and more baffling. Both lyrically and sonically, it’s highly unlikely that the singer will, or even could, ever fully commit herself to the profundity or depth required in order to actualise such a transformative endeavour, leaving the tentative experimentation across her newest record quite clearly lacking in forethought and vigour. As much as she may not like it, Perry’s position as a shining example of the power of the singles artist proves that her strengths lend themselves most effectively towards crafting some dumb, fun pop songs that care only about lodging themselves in the listener’s ear, rather than the stilted pretence of experimentation across much of this album. If anything, Witness proves more than ever before just how well suited Katy Perry is to senseless, sugary pop songs, wherein a lack of depth is entirely part of their appeal.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10