Her contributions to both the pop music canon and societal views of female sexual agency notwithstanding, Madonna’s biggest impact on pop culture may be the idea that, for a woman, professional longevity is a party trick best achieved by perpetual reinvention. What most of the pop princesses who’ve followed in her reign don’t seem to realize, however, is that while Madonna may have changed her hair color like clockwork, her creative trajectory was largely the result of an organic evolution, and not about leaping arbitrarily from one trend to the next.
That’s something the newly bottle-blond Katy Perry seems to understand—perhaps too well. Her 2013 album Prism was billed as a darker, more serious effort, but the tweaks to the singer’s pop template were just that. Perry’s follow-up, Witness, similarly finds her merely inching toward maturity. The 32-year-old Perry’s teenage dreams have turned into nightmares—and with good reason. She stumped enthusiastically for Hillary Clinton last year and, like the rest of us, had to recalibrate her understanding of the world after the Democratic frontrunner’s unexpected defeat.
The album’s lead single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop, particularly for a superstar whose last album dropped nearly a whole presidential election cycle ago. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, a summer song with such long legs that Perry’s label dared to release it in February, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan.
Perry has coined the song “purposeful pop,” but as the purveyor of some of the millennium’s guiltiest pleasures, she should know full well that even the emptiest of pop music can serve a purpose. Which is something many of Witness’s other purportedly “woke” tracks fail to do. If “Chained to the Rhythm” serves its lowercase-liberal message with a poolside tropical cocktail, that kind of thoughtful calibration results in toothless inspirational memes on tracks like “Bigger Than Me,” whose nebulous lyrics the listener can simply project themselves onto: “My intuition says there’s a bigger mission I must embrace/So I’m pushing my thoughts to a new place.”
That’s an ironic development given the specificity with which Perry sings about technological innovation—from texting to subtweeting to pinning her location—and its effect on her personal life. Her political broad strokes may very well have been considered a feature and not a bug if she hadn’t already claimed on the standout “Roulette” that she’s “bored of being so careful.” When Perry employs her motivational missives for female empowerment, she’s possibly at her most effective and comfortable: “I ain’t got no strings/I’m no one’s little puppet,” she declares on the rock-tinged “Hey Hey Hey.” And the exhilarating “Power” is an electro-R&B feminist treatise that finds Perry bearing her teeth in ways her hit “Roar” only hinted at.
Witness’s roster of collaborators—from Purity Ring to Hot Chip—proves that Perry isn’t content to simply spin her wheels, though the latter’s synth-pop skills are oddly squandered on the pensive album closer “Into Me You See.” She convincingly dabbles in house (the shade track “Swish Swish”), R&B (the smooth “Tsunami”), and gospel-lite (“Pendulum,” on which she delivers a surprisingly soulful vocal). Unfortunately, Witness lacks both the big hooks that propelled Perry’s past hits up the charts and the conceptual and sonic focus to give her pop real purpose.