Other pop stars get more attention for their transformations, but Katy Perry has quietly covered quite a bit of ground. Her very first album is called Katy Hudson, because that was her name at the time. It’s a christian rock album, and 17-year-old Katy was the album’s primary songwriter. She doesn’t sound like Katy Perry; actually, she sounds a bit like Alanis Morissette. And what she sings about is faith.
Later, when she got her Columbia record deal, her songs dropped the faith and replaced it with sex. The rock star bangs were gone; she was recast as everybody’s favorite sorority girl, two drinks in and down for whatever. She worked with Max Martin’s songwriting crew alongside Dr. Luke and Shellback and launched her pop career with One of the Boys and the smash hit “I Kissed a Girl”. Her excellent sophomore album, Teenage Dream, went on to break a slew of records that hadn’t been touched since Michael Jackson.
She played the role well, but after a while, the role started to chafe. It’s fine to be a teenage dream when you’re only 26, but by the time you’re almost 30, you might get sick of everybody always staring at your breasts. She underwent another transition.
On Prism, she announced herself as a grown woman, and she brought her faith back into the foreground. “By the Grace of God”, written in the aftermath of her divorce, has become one of her signature songs. This wasn’t exactly an act of bravery — after all, Christianity remains by far the most commonly practiced faith in America — but it is unusual among her pop star peers. The album still featured sex, but Perry’s role had changed: She was no longer a sexual object to be admired; she was in control and doing the admiring.
Witness is her fifth album in total, her fourth as Katy Perry and her second as a woman in control. Once again, she’s teamed up with Max Martin and Co., and together they’ve found a spaced-out, hypnotic sound that will get heavy rotation wherever alcohol and dancing combine.
“Swish Swish” is the album’s standout song: A spunky, funky kiss-off track with a spellbinding beat by Duke Dumont. Perry is deadly with her put-downs, and on the hook she positively coos, “Swish swish bish.” Nicki Minaj is trotted out for punchline duty and punches gamely. She cites Eminem and pays homage to Biggy: “Da ha da ha/ They never thought the swish god would take it this far.”
The best songs showcase Perry’s confidence. On “Power”, when she roars, “I’m a goddess and you know it,” she is utterly convincing. “Deja Vu” is mesmerizing; Perry is even more interesting when she’s getting bored of a relationship than when she’s celebrating it. Altogether, it feels as if she’s more comfortable with who she is, and just to drive the point home, Perry keeps in some swearwords.
Not all of her experiments bear fruit. “Chained to the Rhythm” is an attempt to sneak some social satire into a club thumper. It’s a trick Beyoncé has perfected, but Beyoncé’s targets are hyper-specific. What does Perry have to say? That we’re all “trapped in our white picket fence/ Like ornaments.” Never mind that white picket fences are rarely seen today and went out of style long before Perry was born. She goes on:
Turn it up, keep it on repeat
Stumbling around like a wasted zombie
Yeah, we think we’re free
Drink, this one’s on me
We’re all chained to the rhythm
Beyoncé addresses police brutality, race relations, and women’s rights. Here, Katy Perry says, “You’re all a bunch of dance zombies” and considers it a job well done. Satire is not her strong suit.
Much of the rest of the album is spent on well-trodden roads. “Roulette” is a good song, and it was a good song the first 20 times Max Martin and Shellback slapped it together. The first ingredient is an exciting word (“Domino”, “Dynamite”), which is then whipped until sexy and stirred together with a soaring hook. Recipe reliably serves the Top 40.
The back end of the album allows Perry to show her detractors that she really can sing. “Save As Draft” is the best of these, a ballad that puts a 21st century spin on the old thinking-of-my-ex weeper. But these later tracks have a rather conventional sound that’s out of place with the space-age club jams that came before. The result is that Witness goes on too long and doesn’t feel as cohesive as it might’ve.
Witness has great singles, forgettable singles, forgettable filler, and songs that go clunk. As a vehicle for Billboard hits, it’s perfectly competent, but by the second listen, your finger might be itching for the skip button. There’s a spark missing from her Teenage Dream days, but maybe that’s to be expected. She’s an adult now, and adults are kind of boring.
Essential Tracks: “Swish Swish”, “Power”, and “Deja Vu”