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Why Katy Perry’s new brand of “purposeful pop” has sparked such backlash

With her poorly received new album Witness, the singer went from bubblegum queen to pop’s dark horse.

Glastonbury Festival 2017 - Day 3
Katy Perry performs on day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival 2017
Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

No one makes a hit like Katy Perry. Since the release of 2008’s One of the Boys, the bubblegum-pink pop star has been bathed in the flattering magic-hour glow of public approval, basted every hour upon the hour with the glittering light of a beloved icon. With every album, she’s handed over another No. 1 banger (“I Kissed a Girl,” “Firework,” “Roar,” et al.), and her loyal subjects have blessed her for it. She became the first woman (and second artist ever) to snag five No. 1 hits on a single album, 2010’s Teenage Dream. Her concerts are always sold out, and for almost all of her career, her critical reception has been nearly as welcoming as her public one.

But somewhere between 2013’s Prism and the early-June release of Witness, the bottom dropped out of the bucket of Katy Perry adoration. It may be a simple matter of overexposure, or it may be something more nuanced, but whatever it is, the conversation around Witness has been decidedly lacking in excitement and heavy with criticism.

At the Washington Post, Chris Richards said of Witness, “Perry sounds like she’s trapped in a purgatory, pantomiming progress, giving an endless pep talk to her own reflection.” Rolling Stone wrote that the album causes her to blend in with everyone else on the radio. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote for the Ringer, “Perry has been faltering so publicly that she’s become an object of morbid fascination.”

No doubt about it, the tide seems to have turned on Perry in 2017, and the tone of the backlash surrounding her suggests why: We want our pop stars to be confident, distinctive, and powerful, not someone soul-searching on an arena tour. In 2017, Katy Perry no longer seems like a bubblegum-pop queen. She seems lost.

Perry’s Witness debuted at No. 1, but you wouldn’t guess it from the reviews

Katy Perry looks different in 2017. She has a drastic short blonde hairstyle that gives her an androgynous look, and she’s no longer surrounded by the glowing aura of critical praise. The pinnacle of this truth arrived in the wake of her May 20 Saturday Night Live appearance, where she performed two singles from her newest album: the Migos collaboration “Bon Appetit” and the diss track “Swish Swish,” featuring Nicki Minaj.

“What the hell happened to Katy Perry?” Keith Murphy wrote for BET, calling the performance “cringe-worthy” and arguing that Perry’s blatant co-opting of black culture made it “hard to believe you were witnessing the same woman whose brazenly feel-good music once compelled a bar filled with Black folks to sing along to her anthemic fist pump of a hit ‘Roar.’”

Murphy isn’t alone in his distaste for Perry’s most recent incarnation. The critical response to Witness has been overwhelmingly negative; on the review aggregator Metacritic, the album has a paltry 52/100 rating. Every single Perry has released from Witness has been met with hesitation and a raised eyebrow by critics and casual fans alike.

Written by pop music giants Max Martin, Ali Payami, and Sia Furler, the album’s first single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” is a dancehall-disco hybrid that debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. But it quickly fell from the chart. The second single, “Bon Appetit,” was met with immediate criticism: Chris Willman at Variety called it “bubble-smut” and said it was so likely to make listeners gag, it “should come with its own Heimlich maneuver, just in case.” Anna Gaca at Spin called it an “infuriating kitsch concoction,” and Jon Caramanica at the New York Times said it was Perry “in her least convincing mode — dance-floor diva.”

The album’s most recent single, “Swish Swish,” was almost completely ignored critically while headlines focused on the track’s reference to the ongoing feud between Perry and Taylor Swift. The feud, it seems, is the only thing interesting enough to maintain public interest in this album, which, more than any ranking system, is evidence that the public is no longer on Perry’s team. This became increasingly evident when Swift returned her catalog to streaming services on the exact same day as Perry’s album release, diverting attention away from her work and toward their feud, purposely or not.

None of these songs, to be clear, are awful. “Chained to the Rhythm” is a bit slower than Perry’s more massive hits like “Roar” and “Teenage Dream,” but it’s still a banger that could slot in on any club playlist and could have gotten massive radio play. Even the weakest of the three singles, “Bon Appetit,” is no more garish or loaded with sexual innuendos than older hits like “Peacock” or “California Gurls.”

But even in the midst of all this critical backlash, the album is performing fairly well. “Swish Swish” is still on the Billboard Hot 100, though not in the Top 40, and Witness debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 with 180,000 album units. That gives Perry her third No. 1 album and the biggest debut from a female artist since Lady Gaga’s Joanne on November 12, 2016. Critical drubbing or no, star power still sells albums, and Katy Perry has plenty of it.

But there’s more at work here than a shifting critical consensus. The larger cultural exhaustion over Katy Perry seems to be less about her music and more about how she’s chosen to present herself and the album in 2017.

The backlash to Witness begins with Perry herself

Katy Perry speaks at a Hillary Clinton event
Perry on the Clinton campaign trail in 2016.
Noam Galai/FilmMagic

At the 2017 Grammys, Perry said that her fifth album was “definitely a new era for me,” characterizing its arrival as “an era of purposeful pop.”

This wasn’t a single statement made on a red carpet; it was the beginning of a campaign. The entire promotional agenda around the album was centered on its place in the political conversation. For 96 hours, Perry broadcast herself live in her apartment on YouTube, performing an essentially nonstop filibuster sprinkled with phrases like “safe space,” “rebirth,” and “unity and communication.”

“I feel very empowered,” she says in a profile titled, pointedly, “Katy Perry Woke Up. She Wants To Tell You All About It” in the New York Times. “[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.”

The publicity around Witness positioned it as a political album in an era when everything is politicized, and suggested a kind of radicalism that’s frankly missing on the album. This disconnect between Perry’s perception of her career and album — or at least how she chose to hype them — and those of fans and critics seems to be at the root of the Perry backlash. Katy Perry proclaimed herself a warrior for political change and purposeful social action, but then didn’t deliver on that.

There were hints of that broken promise before Witness even came out, going back to the February release of “Chained to the Rhythm,” which Perry characterized as the outgrowth of her dismay over the 2016 presidential election.

“This was after the election and I was kind of depressed and, you know, I definitely didn't want to write a club banger,” Perry said. “The more you dive into it, it has a different subtext."

That statement was an open invitation to read into that subtext, and “Chained to the Rhythm” did not live up to the scrutiny. In a piece titled “Katy Perry’s Failed Journey to Wokeness” for Complex, Maria Sherman argues that Perry’s fluffy song combined with her promise that it is, in fact, more than that, makes the whole song feel disingenuous. “At no point does she direct her frustrations anywhere specifically — there’s nothing concrete in the language,” Sherman writes. “To create purposeful music, you need to state a purpose.”

Perry’s disingenuousness extends into even murkier territory. Throughout her career, Perry has ignored the line between appreciation and appropriation consistently enough to get her dubbed the “Queen of Cultural Appropriation” by the Root back in 2014. She wore dreadlocks in the video for “This is How We Do,” she did a geisha performance to “Unconditionally,” and she was criticized for her depictions of Egyptian culture in “Dark Horse” — all of which came roaring back into the conversation around her in the midst of the “purposeful music” campaign for Witness.

Cultural appropriation isn’t a new fad in pop music. Madonna, who has undergone far more reinventions than Perry and survived, has been culturally appropriating her entire career. So has Gwen Stefani, and dozens more. But in the context of Perry’s “purposeful music” statement, it feels even more galling, and harder to ignore. In characterizing herself and her album as political agents for change, Perry has opened herself up to more scrutiny, which she’s struggled to live up to.

In the publicity for Witness, she’s tried to confront these criticisms of herself. On the latest episode of civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson’s podcast Pod Save the People, Perry apologized for her appropriative behavior throughout her career, and claimed oblivion. “I didn't know that I did it wrong until I heard people saying I did it wrong,” she said.

Somewhere along the way, she changed her tune from effortless oblivion to conscious revolutionary, changed her Twitter bio to “activist,” and suddenly seemed to be begging to be taken seriously, setting the stage for Witness’s difficult entry into the world. A lack of awareness is passable when you’re trying to create bubblegum anthemic pop, but when you’re trying to create “purposeful pop,” it just doesn’t fit.

Encapsulating all of this is the larger problem that Perry’s songs about feuds between billionaires and watered-down social statements squished next to praises of cunnilingus just don’t feel relevant to the realm of popular music right now. They aren’t personal enough or honest enough to become emotional tsunamis like Lorde’s Melodrama (which supplanted Witness at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart) or Frank Ocean’s Blonde. They aren’t political enough to raise consciousness like Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Instead of functioning as a “defining era,” Witness reveals confusion on Perry’s part about what exactly she’s trying to do.

Perhaps if Witness had been all bubblegum pop and catchy bangers, or if Perry had slipped political and social comments into her songs without hanging her marketing campaign on them, both the album and Perry herself may have come out looking better. It might have made her seem outdated or out of touch, but at least she wouldn’t seem so lost.

Despite the backlash, Perry is still one of the biggest pop stars in the world

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Katy Perry hasn’t left the spotlight almost since her debut. Even though it’s been four years since her last album, Perry didn’t take much of a break. The Prismatic World Tour didn’t end until October 2015. In the middle of that, Perry performed at the Super Bowl, turning dumb sharks and corny, ridiculous props into one of the most memorable halftime shows of all time. She released a single for the 2016 Olympics, “Rise,” a track Jason Lipshutz at Billboard called a “stopgap single ... undercooked as a radio song and a motivational tool.” She declared her support of Hillary Clinton for president way back in June 2014, offering to write a campaign theme song. Most of 2016 she spent on the campaign trail.

There’s a theory that pop stars’ popularity works in cycles: In order to be cherished on the scale of the biggest stars, a pop star needs to be missed by her fans. We’ve seen this most recently with Taylor Swift’s vow to disappear for a bit before her next album. It’s a well-known and studied publicity phenomenon that any famous woman (the trend doesn’t really apply to men) who spends too long in the spotlight will have the public turn on her at some point.

Being missed does wonders for an artist, and Katy Perry hasn’t given the culture a chance to miss her. A fan base more excited for the long-awaited return of Katy Perry probably would have received Witness better. That’s not to say it’s a great album, but neither was Prism, which was also criticized heavily (Metacritic: 61/100). Prism, though, had two No. 1 singles, “Dark Horse” and “Roar,” and sold 100,000 more copies in its first week than Witness.

But while Perry’s cultural omnipresence might be part of the reason this album is underperforming by Perry’s historic standards, it doesn’t by any means mean that she’s doomed. Ultimately, critical perception doesn’t matter at all to Katy Perry, who, as one of the world’s biggest pop stars, can tour and make a gazillion dollars regardless of how people feel about her new album. As a point of comparison, Lady Gaga’s Artpop — which was met with fatigue and criticized harshly in retrospect — still toured for an estimated gross of $83 million.

Both Gaga and Perry are right on the heels of a reinvention album. Following her country-inspired Joanne, Gaga will have to pick a direction for her next album, just as Perry will have to decide whether to stay “purposeful” or retreat back to bubblegum when the time comes to follow up Witness. Ironically, this album, as the Ringer’s Zoladz wrote, might be what transforms Katy Perry into the dark horse she’s always seen herself as, positioning her for a comeback of sorts.

Maybe it’s overexposure that’s induced the Katy Perry fatigue, maybe it’s the veil of sincerity she’s brought to her music and persona, or maybe it’s just that America doesn’t want her songs right now. But Perry and her album aren’t flopping in terms beyond critical perspective and public fatigue. Witness is still among Billboard’s Top 40 albums, Perry’s still pulling in massive sales certifications and plotting a nearly year-long world tour, and she recently signed a $25 million contract to be a judge on the reincarnated American Idol. Katy Perry likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Put out enough bangers and America can forgive all sins.

Like many celebrities who suffer a career misstep, Perry will probably return to public favor in due time — she’s still too much of a cultural force not to. She promises as much on “Swish Swish” saying, “Imma stick around / for more than a minute / get used to it.”

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