On the second day of her four-day YouTube livestream, “Katy Perry Live: Witness World Wide,” the singer talked to therapist Dr. Siri Sat Nam Singh, who hosts therapy sessions with musicians on the Viceland channel. Perry admitted to suicidal thoughts and alcoholic tendencies (perhaps what made Perry’s talk with Singh work as a co-presentation with Vice) and touched on another dangerous urge. “I really want to be my authentic self, one hundred percent,” she said. Perry has reiterated this idea in interviews with the New York Times and Rolling Stone. This runs the risk of stranding the fan in a zero-sum game. Go along with Perry and there’s ten years of material suddenly under review. Stand back from her identity flux and you are abandoning the most-followed person on Twitter, who somehow seems like she needs you and you alone — not the 100 million others.
Identity might not be as much of a problem as the 21st century itself, and you can hear it on her fourth album as Katy Perry, Witness, and across her career. Katy Perry, the professional ID of Katheryn Hudson, launched in 2008 with One of the Boys, driven by a Pop Gone Wild bi-curious shamwow called “I Kissed a Girl.” Hit or no, Perry quickly ditched this of-the-moment corporate cosplay and went back in time for some peak 20th-century signage. Teenage Dream found Perry building her theme park — a construction project that took up more than a year of pop radio real estate — using design elements from the Eighties: “E.T.” flashed back to Spielberg suburbia years before Stranger Things got there; the teen-movie set design of “Last Friday Night” let millennial icons play dress-up in their parents’ clothes. Like almost every throwback, Perry’s 20th century is an easy-sipper, a near beer leached of the gender torque she was hinting at with the first singles. A bomber girl in an angora sweater with a pocketful of peppermints in her candy California car like a teenager forever.
She was building a good park. She is good at her job: great in a chair and on a red carpet. Plunk her down on a talk show next to a Hemsworth or a struggle rapper and she shines. Fast with reactions, jokes, and ad libs, Perry is the reason James Corden invented Carpool Karaoke. Perry has been — from the cheap seats — pretty genuine from day one. It was a kick to watch her move out of Peppermint Valley into the full-on Disney core of “Firework” and “Roar” because you couldn’t imagine her losing sleep over any of these set pieces. She is twentieth century in material and approach, an entertainer free of artsy angst. It was always Katy Perry, starring now in Teenage Dream, never Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream.
The theme park became complicated on November 8. The election was not a waterslide and Perry, to her credit, threw herself into the reality of the moment. Having put her money down on Hillary, and then having lost, her authentic self was in play. Downside: identity crisis. Upside: identity crisis. Downside: the album is lagging behind this crisis.
Look to “Swish Swish,” the perfectly OK third single from Witness, whose mangled Taylor Swift disses Perry is already walking back. “Swish” gets into one of the 21st-century things that keeps hanging Perry up: cultural appropriation. Perry has become so identified with this process that a recent Artforum roundtable on appropriation included a still of Perry in cornrows (from Joel Kefali’s 2014 video for “This Is How We Do”). “Swish Swish” has no official music video, so her SNL performance from May is doing the job. The bed of the song is a deft paraphrasing of Chicago house, and her onstage dancers were presenting ballroom drag culture, which is no more or less legitimate than Madonna’s “Vogue,” none of it actual ballroom culture. Add that to phrases like “my name keeps comin’ out your mouth” and an SNL performance featuring a dancing meme like Russell “Backpack Kid” Horning, and you’ve got a gift basket of various things with roots in black American culture.
But is appropriation the problem or simply not appropriating well? Before you can unpack that, you will hit the awkward lyrics that reviewers have harped on (and that it’s easy to imagine pop listeners breezing past). What is Perry’s opening shot at Taylor in “Swish Swish”? “A tiger don’t lose no sleep/Don’t need opinions from a shellfish or a sheep.” Taylor is a clam? A shrimp? Is this a New England thing?
The appropriation thing can be called up if you see photos of Perry dressed as a Geisha, or take stock of the various styles she dips into or hires. On Witness, an album that mostly wants to be dance music, Perry enlists Migos for “Bon Appétit,” in which a viable hook and beat both die on the hill of a sex-as-food metaphor that would have been tired on Laugh-In. (Migos just sound like they’re killing time until the pitch meeting ends.) This would be a legit Euro banger if it were just simpler and dumber. “Pendulum” lives on that fine line between appropriated and clumsy. Did Perry and Jeff Bhasker and Illangelo cook up a gospel pop song with a very Stevie bassline? Yes. Does it work? No, and unless this gets some kind of unexpected chart action, you won’t need to worry about Katy Perry calling Kirk Franklin and making everyone uncomfortable.
Yet if you don’t land on a duff lyric or hear the wrong song first, this album isn’t nearly as uneven as it’s been made out to be. The indie electropop duo Purity Ring produced and co-wrote a slow burner, “Miss You More,” and Max Martin works with his teammate Ali Payami on “Hey Hey Hey,” another equally strong number in the lower BPM range. The Mike Will Made-It co-production “Tsunami,” a grumbling bit of synthpop, has one foot in the 20th century and the other in the 21st.
Perry may find it disorienting to go back to being the Woman in the Katy Suit. She’s really good at that, and Witness proves she is still really good at finding songs to sell the hustle. But I can’t blame her for not finding a new hustle right away. Big machines build up momentum and stop slowly, even if you throw yourself in front of them.