Review: Katy Perry’s new album Witness takes a stand, but ultimately doesn’t deliver
On album that’s supposed to be about self-empowerment, Perry gets you on her side with the honesty of Bigger Than Me, the humour of Bon Appetit - soundtrack of the summer - and the sass of Swish Swish, then lets us all down
It’s a challenging time for pop stars: they’re saddled with the conundrum of remaining relevant and socially aware, yet fear alienating themselves from the charts with party-stopping talk of politics. When big-label names go on the hunt for wokeness, many fall back on the same stodgy tropes.
Much has been made of Katy Perry’s refreshed world view on her latest album, Witness, on which the 32-year-old star finally takes a stand against vague societal issues. Under the cover of self-empowerment, she spends much of the album preoccupied with her own PR: trumpeting her own superiority and implying we’re finally seeing behind the cupcake bra to glimpse the real K Pez.
The candy-coated guitar pop on her previous three albums may have rocketed Perry to stardom, but on Witness she takes the lead from the edgier, synth-driven sound of Grimes, Banks and Carly Rae Jepsen.
Empowerment isn’t a new theme for Perry, who rose to fame on the feminist power pop of I Kissed A Girl, Firework and Roar, but Witness is supposedly about enlightenment and holding the patriarchy to account. However, in lashing out at misogynists, Perry’s lyrics have a tendency to oversimplify things and distract with unnecessary drama.
On Hey Hey Hey, she describes herself as “Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck … karate chopping the clichés and norms” over chasms of low, pulsing bass. Her promise to make “purposeful pop” comes with a catty caveat: she has a few petty beefs to settle along the way.
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The sassy Swish Swish, a colossal diss track reportedly targeted at Taylor Swift, has Perry hissing her hatred of a “calculated” nemesis and asserting her dominance as a “courtside killer queen” (cleverly name-dropping her own perfume brand in the process) over springy house beats and sparse, Chainsmokers-style piano chords.
The “swish” reference is supposed to conjure the idea of Perry dunking balls on the basketball court, but its savage delivery paints the singer as more of a Marie Antoinette type, swinging her executioner’s axe and watching the heads stack up in the basket.
The thrillingly venomous tag team take-down is completed by a snarling verse from rapper Nicki Minaj, another pop A-lister known to have feuded with Swift.
However, there are still moments to applaud: the uplifting, reggae-disco Chained to the Rhythm (featuring Bob Marley’s grandson, Skip Marley) subtly bemoans an apathetic, distorted culture of fake news. Perry doesn’t drop the T-word, but it’s clear where she stands.
Tracks such as Save As Draft and Roulette drop technological references to feel relatable, providing a nod to a generation whose relationships and world view are filtered through smartphones.
It’s hard not to chuckle along to the raunchy, innuendo-laden Bon Appetit, which packs in awkward metaphors over subaquatic bass and tropical synths. Expect it to be a mainstay on every beach and boat party soundtrack this summer.
She rides the same beat into Bigger Than Me, one of Witness’ more confessional tracks, which sees Perry contemplating her place in the world: “If I’m not evolving, I’m just another robot taking up oxygen.” It could be another diss, but its honesty and humility gets us on her side.
After the dance-floor-driven sass of the first half of Witness, the slower, more contemplative ballads towards the end feel redundant and, at times, tedious. The record should have signed off with the infectious euphoria of Pendulum, but instead we’re left with the piano melodrama of Into Me You See, a last-ditch attempt to make us see her for who she really is.
Perry’s road to self-enlightenment may be scattered with a few bangers, but Witness feels like a missed opportunity to take a stand, and more of an excuse to get one in over other women.