Some might think that pop’s raison d’etre is to be mass-produced bubblegum with nothing to say. However, there have always been those ploughing that particular furrow with a wish to tear up the script such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood with ‘Two Tribes’ (who would have thought that the Cold War could be so funky?) or who could forget Lady Gaga’s LGBTQ anthem ‘Born this Way’? Pop can be populist and political (aren’t they the same thing these days I hear you cry) but can Katy Perry pull off the trick on her fifth album Witness?
The title track is a surprisingly low key opener and finds the singer in contemplative mood on love and life in general. It seems that modern pop believes that gravitas can be achieved by singing about isolation – “We’re all just looking for connection, Yeah, we all want to be seen’. Sometimes though you have to do more than look for the connection, you have to work for it.
‘Hey, Hey, Hey’ wears its feminism on its sleeve. ‘Cause I can be zen and I can be the storm, yeah I smell like a rose and I pierce like a thorn, yeah karate chopping, the clichés and norms, all in a dress”. Simone de Beauvoir it ain’t but, nonetheless, music with a message is never a bad thing and Perry’s younger listeners might just feel empowered. ‘Roulette’ keeps the album moving in the right direction as it mines a late 80’s synth vibe. It highlights that Perry knows how to manipulate a melody that gets into your head and refuses to leave. ‘Swish, Swish’ (feat: Nicki Minaj) continues the long running feud between the singer and Taylor Swift. A mock-heroic battle that seems to take up interminable column inches. However, all said, it is a pleasant enough ear-worm with enough groove to keep it altogether and a bit of feuding never hurt the brothers Gallagher.
‘Deja Vu’ is a rather forgettable tune as is ‘Power’ (even though it samples Smoky Robinson’s ‘Being with You’). ‘Mind Maze’ doesn’t lift the album out of the slump and, yet again, the lyrics are full of introspective doubt. ‘Miss You More’ is the big ballad moment but it doesn’t quite lift off. ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ (feat: Skip Marley) turns the gaze from the personal to the political. It is no secret that Perry backed Clinton in the presidential election and this is a clear shot across the bow about the apathy that saw Trump elected to the position of the president of the United States. It is a catchy tune and it would be easy to knock the message but at least pop music is attempting to engage with the world of politics. ‘Tsunami’ highlights the problem with Witness, namely that there is too much filler. Anytime you think the album is about to hit its stride a song comes along that halts any forward momentum.
‘Bon Appetite’ is a simple pop-dance song with a few sex/food metaphors thrown in for good measure but it works at that level. ‘Bigger than me’ and Save as Draft’ remind you that Perry has a strong singing voice; one that can get lost in the album production and in particular the overuse of reverb. ‘Pendulum’ makes use of a funky bass line and there is a confidence here that needed to be to much more the fore on the album. To hammer the point home ‘Into Me You See’ (yes a bad play on words) is a strong finisher as it lets the singers voice breath and an honesty and sincerity is revealed.
So, does Perry pull off the great political pop album? In a word: no, but at least she is willing to engage. However, the tunes have to stand up to carry a message and this is an album that doesn’t manage to do so.