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WPGM Commentary: Katy Perry’s Witness – Revisiting A Pop Casualty

Witness was supposed to be the return of Katy Perry, one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Rumours were circulating and the hype was building. You wouldn’t expect anything less when a juggernaut was about to re-enter the game. There was tension surrounding the wait, especially after Lady Gaga’s somewhat lukewarm return with Joanne. Despite the tension, anticipation and swirling commotion, Perry entered the ring with a bang…

Only it wasn’t the sound of a knock-out punch, rather it was Perry receiving the knock-out blow, hitting the deck with a crushing thud. Perry’s return was muddled from the beginning, as her first single failed to build momentum. “Chained To The Rhythm” ushered in a messy album campaign and after two singles, it appeared that Perry may have lost it.

After “Chained…” came “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish”. The former received a collective screwed face and the Migos feature fell flat. People were seriously scratching their heads at how the woman who was capable of hits such as “Dark Horse” and “ET” was a) struggling so hard and b) chose a poor cut for a cliche rap feature.

Luckily, the latter was a mild success, resonating far more with her audience and the general public as a whole. “Swish Swish” has a bombastic, bass-heavy, deep beat. It’s tirelessly catchy and Perry croons over the track with ease. Her melodies are luscious, slicing through the sounds like a hot knife. Nicki Minaj adds to the the track, delivering a well-rounded verse to the meaty foray.

After this, there seemed to be some hope for Witness. However, once it was released to the world, that hope was quickly vaporised, being replaced by bitter disappointment. Critics, who were never in the Katy Perry fan club, and fans alike were puzzled and unimpressed by Perry’s attempt of delivering a more self aware, social commentary focused brand of ‘woke’ pop.

The social commentary aspect of the album is severely undercooked and because of that, it failed to have an impact. It fails to resonate due to Perry’s vagueness and lack of committing to the agenda. Despite this, she’s fairly introspective on Witness. Perry manages to pick apart her own brain, which in turn makes for engaging content.

The overall consensus is that Witness is a hodgepodge of undercooked ideas with plenty of fingers in different pies. Initially, I, myself found Witness to be disappointing and I’m not even a Katy Perry fan. Whilst I appreciate her knack for killer singles, I’ve always found her albums to be shallow and at times, cringe-worthy.

For some reason I decided to re-visit Witness and after coming at it from a different perspective, it’s far more enjoyable. I’ve come to the conclusion that Witness is a misjudged (kind of) body of work. The crucial element to enjoying the album is to drop any expectations or notion that this is going to change the game or switch up the pop formula.

As a pop album, in its rawest form, it’s a digestible, consumer friendly experience. From a critical stand-point, it’s a fairly well-rounded release. Its strengths lie heavily within the production, as it’s fantastic. Witness encapsulates the super layered, space-age sounding electro-pop that’s storming the genre at the moment. Regardless of their substance, every song is sonically dense, being filled with plenty of intricacies.

The achilles heel of this project however, is the songwriting. For many people, Katy Perry’s writing credentials took a massive hit on this project. It was also my biggest complaint after my initial listens. I found myself enjoying certain songs but then I’d hear a line and I’d want to vomit. Moreover, the statement of intent outlined in the first two singles, is no-where to be found. This album was touted as ‘Perry goes political’, yet that never was the case.

This time, I’ve dropped the ideas of Witness is, and in doing so, the lyricism no longer becomes a deal-breaker. Even now, I am left wondering as to why people were shocked by the lyrical quality of this project. Perry has always and only existed in a certain lyrical space. Her songwriting ability is limited. She’s known for catchy, at time humorous content but ultimately vapid, sugary pop hits.

Whilst she may delve into that ‘personal’ space on every album, her attempts of being personal is often clunky and far too ‘on the nose’. However, as previously mentioned with Witness, she manages to straddle the line better than before. A more refined personal perspective is on display throughout, being executed in an engaging way. Although her personality shines through in a direct, less obtuse way, she hasn’t completely shook the lyrical missteps.

Examples of lyrical faux pas:

Texting me a little bubble of trouble / I’ve tried to ignore these thoughts that rumble” (Roulette) – A 21st century cliche.

Your words are like Chinese water torture” (Deja Vu) – This one left me speechless.

Saw a balloon floating away / I thought did someone let go or did they lose it?” (Miss You More) – Yeah…No.

Overall the lyricism on Witness isn’t ‘apocalyptic’ bad but it can leave you with a sour taste. Whilst it has blunders, it’s a fairly average affair and is standard Top 40 pop content. It’s neither groundbreaking or ‘let’s turn this off…’ It simply exists in a space that will sometimes benefit the track, make you choke on your saliva or add nothing at all.

Sometimes, the lack of lyrical oomph is far more frustrating than the missteps, because it’s expected with Katy. However, it isn’t all shades of grey and beige, there are moments where Perry nails more personal renditions and the strongest tool in her songwriting kit is her ability to create great melodies. Again, if you drop any preconception of what you’re going to get lyrically, it’ll benefit the listening experience greatly. You’ll find yourself (hopefully) enjoying the album more.

It’s an unfortunate tactic that’s necessary for Witness. The fact that I had to (and would advise to) lower expectations and switch-off, in order to enjoy it more is the saddest criticism.

Pop albums used to be low-brow enjoyment but in this decade, we’ve been spoiled with so many well-written, next level pop that lower expectations et al, aren’t good enough. If you manage to dial down, all the offenders that wound up myself, fans and critics alike become less offensive. You can actually bob your head with dizzying glee.

With a different approach, “Chained To The Rhythm” is far less clunky when you’re not over-analysing the failed social commentary. If anything, Witness is woke pop-lite, kind of like a Diet Coke or Coke Zero version of pop music. It’s empty calories encased in a pretty soundscape and package.

The initial backlash to Witness was because everybody got so worked up over a couple of points. Point A: Katy banging her own drum and being the victim of her own hype. This album fails to achieve what she thought it would, and her fans bought into what she’d hoped and believed; leading to their expectations not being met.

From the get go, the message was ‘Katy Perry’s Awoken’ with fervour around the prospect of a political, super-charged feminist version of herself. Frustratingly, when the singles arrived, there was cause for concern. Once the album was released, it failed to deliver in a fully-realised way. The result? People were pissed.

If you look at the second single, “Bon Appetit”, it’s another example of misdirection. It was portrayed as a clever, self-aware pop hit. In essence, it’s about sexism in the music industry. To start with, the message was derivative due to cliche lyricism. When you add Migos into the equation, you have anything but clever or self-aware. They’re not exactly known for being pro-women as their music is a shade of misogynistic (like most rap artists).

In reality, “Bon Appetit” is a bouncy bop and nothing more. If you can accept the song for what it is and appreciate that it’s the best Perry can deliver in terms of her views on sexism in the industry; then everything is all sunshine and no showers. However, should we accept it for what it is, or should we be demanding more? That’s a question for Pop music lovers to answer, if there ever was one.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of Witness’ roll-out and release was tarnished by preconceived ideas and expectations. To me, it completely killed the project because it’s unfeasible to expect Perry to deliver on what people were expecting. She’s never been about the ‘social commentary’ and high-brow substance. She’s always been the sweet as candy, flirty girl next door, who has a penchant for empowerment by being unabashedly herself.

Even when she delivered a modern pop smash that is “Swish Swish”, she suffered. The buzz surrounding its content, and who it was aimed at, took away from its quality. Taylor Swift became the focus, not the fact that Perry had delivered a banger, that was received well. It wasn’t appreciated as a well-penned pop smash, it was labelled as ‘Katy Perry’s diss track’.

At every hurdle she faced an expectation, disappointment or eye-roll. This led to a fountain of negativity. Whilst you could argue that it’s *kind* of justified, let’s face it, she was never going to win. Witness was and still is, an uphill battle. The approach was all wrong and it harmed her chances of success.

If you step back from the scrutiny and take Witness at face value, then the album itself is a pretty good pop record. It’s about a low 7 out of 10. Why? Well, it does everything that a modern pop album should. It ticks all the boxes and it never goes drastically wrong.

Whilst there’s moments that I think to myself, ‘I’m gonna skip’, it’s generally a fun listen. In retrospect, I feel bad that I received the album in the way I did. I didn’t give it a chance and I couldn’t shrug of the feeling of what I thought and what I wanted it to be. When in reality, it was never about that.

Witness is a grand, luxurious attempt at emotional pop and that’s all it should be considered as. For it to be effective, it needs to be consumed in a way that you can truly appreciate its sound and scope. It sounds fantastic blasting in the car as the production comes to life on a bigger soundstage.

Even in the confines of your eardrums, it’ll hit the sweet spots causing you to wiggle your limbs. It never, ever, was going to be a spear-head for woke pop. There was no indication that it was going to impact the pop landscape that way either, only assumption.

Witness is a victim of expectations and it isn’t the fans or critics fault for expecting what they were both told and assuming to get. The roll-out enabled the message to be misconstrued and Katy fell on her sword. The marketing wounded Katy, whilst the album itself, left her for dead. The damage was irreparable and any idea of success was sorely hurt. People were asking ‘how’s the album campaign going to recover?’ and the answer is, it never did.

The negativity brought on by the mishaps it encountered from the get-go led to a downfall of a beloved pop icon. Katy Perry may be huge but she isn’t big enough to stop the train from derailing. To her credit she rode it out and although the reviews were damning alongside mediocre sales, she’s continued the journey and probably swallowed her shattered vision of her new era.

Let this be a lesson learned to temper expectations. Sometimes albums are one-dimensional, despite what we’d like to believe. Guess what? One dimensional can be perfectly ok, if it’s done well. In this case, it’s done well. Perhaps one day, a discussion about whether there’s a place for one dimensional pop, if delivered in a flashy, well-executed fashion can exist alongside stronger peers without being overshadowed and judged. Alas, today isn’t the day for that.

All-in-all, Katy Perry’s Witness is wall-to-wall fun and the production value alone is a reason to give it a spin. Drop the preconceived ideas of what this album was or is trying to be and just accept it as a colourful, at times, mainstream-meaningful pop record with enough flare to keep it in rotation. Maybe next time we’ll witness Katy Perry’s pop revolution, until then, ‘swish swish, bish’.

Katy Perry’s Witness is out now via Capitol Records, stream it on Spotify here, and download it on iTunes here.

Words by Jake Gould

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