Katy Perry has not built her extraordinarily successful pop career on serious social commentary. Subject matter on her nine No. 1 hits has oscillated between candy-coated confections ("I Kissed a Girl," "California Gurls," "Teenage Dream," and "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" and empowerment anthems ("Roar," "Firework"). Only a couple of her chart-toppers, the "alien" hook-up track "E.T." and the mournful breakup dirge "Part of Me," deviated much from that template.
On her latest effort, however, Perry seems determined to establish a new, more "woke" template. She calls Witness "purposeful pop." But this idiosyncratic, surprisingly un-catchy collection of songs hasn't resonated the way Perry likely hoped. Mainstream critics have derided it as "bizarre," "meandering," "chilly," "sluggish" and "kookier than ever." The Daily Beast's Amy Zimmerman characterizes it as "an album only Kitty Purry (Katy Perry's eponymous-ish cat) could love."
Is it really that bad? On an aesthetic level, perhaps it is, with a dearth of the kind of earworm hits Perry is famous for. On a philosophical and perhaps even spiritual level, though, Katy Perry's fourth album since leaving the CCM fold (where she recorded one album as Katy Hudson) offers an earnest-but-messy mash-up of political perspectives, confident independence, sexual recklessness and painful personal confessions.
"Witness" pines for a soul mate who'll commit to Perry, no matter what: "If I lost it all today, would you stay?" she wonders. She's also determined to make the most of the time she has: "I only got this life/And I ain't got the time, no/Not to get it right."
On "Hey Hey Hey," Perry insists she's fierce, not fragile: "You think that I'm fragile like a Fabergé/You think I am cracking, but you can't break me/ … Yeah, I bounce back like a pro, 'cause I'm so resilient." "Pendulum" swings through similar messages about perseverance.
Honest anguish about a relationship gone bad fills "Déjà Vu" ("I live off the echoes of your 'I love yous'"). Similarly, "Power" recognizes, in retrospect, a loss of identity in another unhealthy relationship ("I was fine before I met you/Truth is that I lost myself inside you"). After that intro, however, the balance of the song focuses on Perry rediscovering herself ("Reborn, and now I'm burning like a blue flame"). "Miss You More" asks an unnamed ex, "Do you ever wonder what we could have been?" after which Katy admits candidly, "I miss you more than I loved you." "Save as Draft" treads tenderly through similar themes of regret and grief after a romance ends. And "Into me You See" finds a vulnerable Perry expressing her desire to be more emotionally open in future relationships: "I pray that I can keep unfolding/Pray that I can just stay open."
"Mind Maze" wanders through romantic and/or personal disillusionment ("Seen behind the curtain/I'm disenchanted") which prompts spiritual questions ("Now I can barely wake me/I'm unresponsive/Will I find salvation?/Some kind of moderation? … So do I start over?"). "Bigger Than Me" longs for "a bigger mission I must embrace." "Chained to the Rhythm" finds Perry attempting social commentary. She says that those who are "trapped in our white picket fence" and "happily numb" are "living in a bubble, bubble" and "so comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble."
For all the lines that indicate Perry is growing personally, there are still a lot of problem areas on Witness. For starters, Perry regularly indulges harsh profanity, with six of 15 tracks including f-words and/or s-words.
Three songs focus almost exclusively on sex: "Roulette," "Tsunami" and "Bon Appetite," using (respectively) metaphors of a loaded gun, a big wave and a gourmet meal to represent physical intimacy.
"Roulette" throws caution to the wind regarding a passionate hookup: "Wanna close my eyes and roll it with you/Like roulette/Wanna lose control and forget with you." Later, Perry explicitly compares the encounter to the potentially deadly gun "game" of Russion roulette: "So tonight we test limits/Take the safety off for a minute/'Cause my love's a bullet with your name written on it/Just load it and spin it." Meanwhile, wave-filled imagery floods sensuality-saturated "Tsunami," as Perry suggestively coos lines such as, "Anchor in me/Get lost at sea/ … Make me ripple 'til I'm wavy/Don't be scared to dive in deep/And start a tsunami." And "Bon Appetit" employs all manner of naughty, suggestive and self-objectifying metaphors as Perry describes her body as a meal to be devoured.
A couple of tracks reference Eastern spirituality. On "Hey Hey Hey," we hear, "'Cause I can be Zen, and I can be the storm, yeah." (Perry also brags in that track about how much money she has in her "chubby little wallet," which doesn't seem like a particularly "Zen" thing to do.) And on "Swish Swish" (allegedly a diss track aimed at rival Taylor Swift), she sings, "and karma's not a liar." Elsewhere on that bravado-filled song, Perry sings, "And you will kiss the ring/You best believe." Guest contributor Nicki Minaj's verse in "Swish Swish" is rife with contempt ("I already despise you") and still more vulgarity ("a--," "b--ch," "d--n," "s---" and one misuse of God's name).
On "Power," Perry proclaims, "'Cause I'm a goddess, and you know it." And "Bigger Than Me" embraces subjective personal "truth": "So I'll speak my truth though my voice shakes." Finally, "Chained to the Rhythm" describes someone as "stumbling around like a wasted zombie."
Life can at times feel confusing and complicated, disorienting and disillusioning. Celebrities may have more fame, money and shoes in their closets than most of us do, but those assets don't grant them special immunity from life's mundane pains.
Witness often bears witness to Katy Perry's struggles with disappointment and hurt. There's a surprising amount of honesty and soul-baring here. At times she longs for meaning and answers, for lasting intimacy, for a purpose bigger than just being a pretty pop star.
Alas, Perry built her career on being a pretty pop star, the kind who willingly dishes up lurid lyrical fantasies and serves them like a gourmet dish. And just when you think Perry has perhaps turned a real corner, she reverts to form with a song like "Bon Appetit," in which she puts her body on a metaphorical platter to be gobbled up by a hungry man (which is pretty much what happens in the song's seriously loopy video, I might add).
Those moments, as well as others mingling narcissism, anger and profanity, ultimately undermine the kind of "witness" Katy Perry sometimes longs—genuinely, it seems—to be.