On the bold ‘Witness’, today’s more experimental Katy Perry abandoned the charm offensive that made her name and turned to more “purposeful pop”.
The ongoing political shockwaves around the world have created many casualties. Among the lost lies one Katy Perry – the much-loved, multi-platinum pop princess who once teased and flirted so efficiently, blinding all with a familiar megawatt smile.
Of course, there’s a different Katy Perry with us now.
On the bold and sometimes belligerent Witness, her 2017 album, a more experimental Katy Perry abandoned the relentless charm offensive that made her name. The familiar themes of empowerment and positivity remained – how could someone so defined by the hypnotic call-to-arms of anthems such as ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’ completely abandon that manifesto? But, instead, there was a questioning – and sometimes challenging – tone to Katy’s work that added predictable gravitas, but also a vulnerability surprising in someone so clearly at the peak of her professional power.
The signs, of course, were long in evidence that her pop persona was proving uncomfortable. Born on 25 October 1984, a religious upbringing with Pentecostal pastor parents appears to have embedded problems, and Katy says she has attended therapy with her family to try to resolve them. “I went to a dark place that I had been avoiding and I dug out the mould,” she told The New York Times in 2017. “It was not fun… but I am still doing that.”
If the playful tease of ‘I Kissed A Girl’, her international 2008 breakthrough, trod that familiar flash-your-teeth-and-knickers path that Madonna perfected decades earlier, the similarities between the artists remain obvious today. Both women were initially shaped by difficult family dynamics and both found an early fluency in the power of cheesy flirtation.
Teenage Dream, Katy’s most successful album to date, was a commercial juggernaut that created five Billboard chart-toppers from its six singles, and its central message was one of fun, fearlessness and, yes, more of that sexuality – the humour making her more suggestive work safe for a fanbase that spans generations. But if the smile was dazzling, the energy required to maintain it was draining, and Katy couldn’t match Madonna’s phenomenal skills of discipline and survival.
The enormous world tours that supported Teenage Dream and that album’s 2013 follow-up, Prism, were epic. Multiple dates across the world led to staggering box-office returns – and a cinema documentary to chronicle it – but it was clear the pressure was taking its toll. The long-running dispute with fellow chart goliath Taylor Swift erupted over the booking of supporting dancers, and a marriage to Russell Brand flatlined over conflicting schedules forced on the couple by demanding, parallel careers. If Katy ever came close to truly cracking, she hid it well, but her determination to stay on the ride was wearing thin and she did what anyone sensible would as soon as she could: she took a break.
For the best part of three years, appearances were rare (aside from the constant, unwelcome attention from the tabloids) and work was limited to charity projects and a 2016 single to mark that year’s Olympics, ‘Rise’. It was clearly a time for reflection.
The 2016 presidential election appeared to lure the star back towards the spotlight, and her support for Hillary Clinton was loud and atmospheric. Katy was devastated and, like so many, shocked at Hillary’s defeat that November. She shouldn’t have been – the world lies at a particularly volatile junction right now and politics is throwing us these showpiece surprises with alarming predictably.
How much of that night truly created the narrative and tone of Witness, and how much was already in play, only Katy can know, but it’s certain that American politics offered a timely tableau for her to experiment with. She is still asked fans to party, but also to reflect on the issues of our time. Ditching many of her former collaborators – though hit-maker Max Martin stays – Katy worked with acts such as Sia to shape a starker, more mature album. Its first single, ‘Chained To The Rhythm’, was among her catchiest yet, but its melodic pop carried a sting in its tail with a biting commentary on the dangers of society’s collective inertia.
This exposure, revealing a very different and vulnerable core, is, of course, familiar terrain for many artists as they mature, but Katy protests that what came before was no façade. “I’m not a con artist,” she insists. “That was just me. And this is me now. I didn’t kill her, because I love her. She is exactly what I had to do then.”
In rebooting her bulletproof hit formula, Katy Perry recognised that, to continue, she has to change: reshape her message and hope her fans follow. Evolution, certainly; revolution, maybe – but it’s clear she means business. She may not change the world, but she is going to give it a damn good try.