5 Reasons Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm” is Problematic

Katy Perry in “Chained to the Rhythm” directed by Matthew Cullen // Image via The Hollywood Reporter.

1. The song and music video pay lip service to leftist ideology in order to make a profit.

One might be tempted to excuse Katy Perry’s latest single because, obviously, “Chained to the Rhythm” isn’t the first song to market itself on (supposedly) progressive ideas (nor is it the first pop song whose authorship was outsourced to Sweden to sell as a product). However, in our charged political climate, the shallow effort stands out. The song doesn’t really take risks on its own terms as a piece of music, nor does it deliver on its promise of political efficacy or resonance. A song’s status as pop-commodity doesn’t 100% cancel out its potential to be intelligent commentary, but “Chained to the Rhythm” proves to be nothing more than an ultimately hollow interpretation of “wokeness.”

The lyrics conflate the problem of living under a totalitarian state with the always important issue of, you guessed it, partying:

Turn it up, it’s your favorite song
Dance, dance, dance to the distortion
Come on, turn it up, keep it on repeat
Stumbling around like a wasted zombie
Yeah, we think we’re free
Drink, this one is on me
We’re all chained to the rhythm
To the rhythm
To the rhythm

The message is at best cloudy, and at worst, mired in escapism. We’re supposed to acknowledge that we’re living in a “bubble” and that we are living our lives like “zombies,” but the ultimate solution to this is… keep dancing, presumably to Katy Perry records?

The irony here reminds me of Theodor Adorno and his critique of popular culture as escapist fantasy whose sole object is to soothe the consumer in order to prepare them for more work. “Chained to the Rhythm” is even worse than mere escapism because not only does it offer a fantasy, it allows the viewer to feel absolved of any real complicity in the problems it names. In other words, you listen to Katy Perry sing, you feel like you participated in fighting the regime or whatever, and then you ultimately go back to your place in said regime.

Essentially, it’s the “safety pin” of songs.

2. The music video overly aestheticizes its dystopian setting and reveals its white nostalgic vision.

The song muddles through a slick veneer that fails to bridge the popular music genre with its supposedly loftier political aims, but the video sins further: its dystopian setting is a pastiche of various sci-fi looks from the 1950s, where Katy Perry is “a mixture of Jane and Judy Jetson,” as Clover Hope writes. This glossy, bubble-gummified 1950s sci-fi aesthetic doesn’t work as a model for a dystopian allegory. Not only is it too damn pretty (a safe spectacle in order to lull its viewer and yield a profit), it fails to comment on, or even look at, the ugliness of real inequality that a dystopian text (be it a story, song, or film) attempts to criticize. The closest this video comes to depicting any sort of violence is when one of the rides catapults people out of the amusement park. But even that moment is cartoonish, removed, impersonal. The video ends up reinforcing what the lyrics point to as our big problem:

Happily numb
So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble

The video’s imagery does nothing to burst this “bubble,” nor anything to discomfort its viewer in any real way. The video points to other texts that do more work in this way (most obviously, the shot of a zombified audience watching a screen is an allusion to 1984), but fails to go the distance in its own right. Just compare it to the dystopian film series Hunger Games. While these films are also popular commodities sold for profit, and have their own politically polarizing messages, at least they offer images of unjust state violence that motivate the actions of the rebellious protagonist. If you think it’s unfair to compare a music video to a feature-length film, fine. Compare it to a politically-charged music video from 2016: Beyoncé’s “Formation.”

“Formation” does not purport to be a dystopian allegory, and Beyoncé has been criticized for capitalizing on images of New Orleans and police violence, in addition to charges of colorism. It isn’t perfect, okay. BUT, as a piece of music it “slays” (don’t @ me), and as a political message the video does a TON of work with its visual material in pointing out the real, urgent inequality and ensuing state violence, most often committed against black and brown bodies, which is endemic to our society. “Formation” asserts its relevance and message through its specific, purposeful visuals, whereas those in “Chained to the Rhythm” are so far removed from our contemporary political situation as to not only be irrelevant, but damaging. Why is it that everything this past year has to be ruined by white nostalgia — even the visual rhetoric used to criticize it?

3. The song offers no real solution or call to action.

The closest thing to a call to action in the song comes not from Katy Perry, but from Skip Marley’s verses in the bridge:

It is my desire
 Break down the walls to connect, inspire
 Ay, up in your high place, liars
 Time is ticking for the empire
 The truth they feed is feeble
 As so many times before
 They greed over the people
 They stumbling and fumbling
 And we’re about to riot
 They woke up, they woke up the lions
 (Woo!)

Marley’s lyrics are undercut by his presence in the video as another instance of the perennially problematic trope of the “magical negro.” It isn’t really the magic of his stepping out of the movie screen, but more the fact that here is a black man putting in time and effort to guide and save a white person, or offer them a sense of enlightenment. It’s a dynamic that emphasizes only the concerns, the humanity, of the white person, while relegating the black person to the realm of abstract functionality. Plus, there is a history of black men saving or defending white women, and this video, while not promoting this idea exactly, still employs the relationship uncritically.

All Katy leaves us with is a general summary of our problems, our living in a “bubble,” being “zombies,” seeing life through a “lens.” The song, and the video, dwell in the problem without offering any semblance of a solution. Compare this, again, to Beyoncé’s electric call for black female empowerment: “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation.”

4. The lyrics are not only banal, but singing of “chains” seems like an iffy metaphor for a privileged white woman.

Remember the hullabaloo over those tee-shirts promoting Suffragette? Not saying “Chained to the Rhythm” is nearly as bad as white women comparing themselves or their White Feminist struggles to slavery, but it’s important to always consider context. Not only is it good to question the impact of our metaphors, but it’s worthwhile to consider: What could this song have become if sung not by a white woman, but by a woman of color? What if the music video had been helmed by a woman of color? I can’t help thinking that it would have been less intent on its own twee-ness and more interested in forming a cogent political message.

5. “Chained to the Rhythm” further celebrates the mediocrity of white women instead of the excellent art created by black women and women of color.

In the year Beyoncé lost to Adele, and Emma Stone won an Oscar for Best Actress at the tender age of 28 (after a career including hard hitters such as Easy A, The Help, and Aloha, where she white-washes her role as a supposedly Asian woman) for her performance in La La Land, a film that screams white nostalgia and mediocrity — whereas excellent black artists work for YEARS in order to earn “supporting” honors (see: Viola Davis, Mahershala Ali) — it seems inexcusable to praise Katy Perry’s poor effort.

Especially when 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump.

As a white woman, I don’t want to sit back and act like rampant white-washing and White Feminism isn’t happening. We have to be our own worst critics. White women, especially economically or otherwise more privileged white women (THAT’S YOU, KATY), please: get your shit together.


Originally published at lizmeley.tumblr.com.