Can I Get a Witness?: Reviewing the “Purposeful Pop” of Katy Perry’s Witness

I remember watching an interview Oprah was giving forever ago. As background on a question she was about to answer, Oprah talked about Michael Jackson and Thriller. Until that point, there really hadn’t been many albums like Thriller, where every single note was on purpose and perfect. I suppose this interview happened after Michael’s death, because she said, “The mistake that Michael Jackson made is that he didn’t recognize that Thriller was a phenomenon and he spent the rest of his life trying to chase the phenomenon.”

And while she mentioned that most of Michael’s albums went on to do very well, he’d see them as failures because they never seemed to reach the heights that Thriller did. Not so much a fluke as a convergence of the right time and right place, a wink from the pop gods and goddesses on high.

Enter Katy Perry. Katy Perry did something magnificent and rare with Teenage Dream. Like Thriller, and I don’t say this lightly or to have a Hot Take, Teenage Dream was a perfect album. From the pop chart sensations of “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” and “Last Friday Night”; to the silly and weird “Peacock” and “E.T.”; to the rueful “Who Am I Living For?” and “Circle the Drain”; to the tender “Not Like the Movies” and “Firework,” every single beat was amazing. In terms of iconic pop albums, Teenage Dream was right up there with Thriller. And from that album on, I have followed Katy Perry as a kind of pop culture anthropologist, pouring over her work to find that same magic.

Witness is not that album.

This is a Statement™, I guess.

After she announced that she was going to focus on making “purposeful pop,” I knew that the days of blue wig Katy Perry were truly over. (I know she burned the wig in a video forever ago. It haunts me to this day.)

With multi-album pop stars, it’s easy to classify everything as an “era.” Perhaps that’s why Prism suffered to gain the reception that Teenage Dream did; it was not easy to collect each aesthetic turn of the album into an “era.” It was sometimes reminiscent of ’90s house music, sometimes the bubblegum stuff she was known for, and sometimes coffeehouse acoustic. Teenage Dream had a specific sound and feel that Prism could never capture.

It’s not fair to compare Witness to Teenage Dream or even the slightly disappointing follow-up, Prism, but it’s hard not to compare everything she does to Teenage Dream. I keep hoping that one day she’ll get back there, but that era is long gone.

I suppose Witness is a return to the kind of “manufacturing” that served Teenage Dream so well, but it never quite gets there. Witness is ultimately an album full of boring songs that sound like last summer’s Olympics’ anthem “Rise.” The album is overwhelmingly tracked with songs that focus on being underestimated, either by other people or by yourself. I personally don’t need a full album of the “Though she be but little, she is fierce” sentiment, but that is the kind of easy-to-swallow self-centered feminism that sells records. But maybe they mean something to some teenage girl who doesn’t believe in herself, who hasn’t had the kind of access we do to feminist works. Maybe that’s who Witness is for. All the better, then. For me, it’s an album to listen to at work, or maybe to enjoy with a glass of red wine when I’m moody.

Witness, like Katy’s blue wig, feels like something she can try on for a little bit to separate her from the other pop stars. I’m not sure that it works here. If anything, she feels more removed than she ever has. Still, I like that she’s always trying to experiment with her sound and her presentation. Swingin’ for the fences. Sometimes, they’re failures (her slicked down baby hairs and braids were an appropriative misstep, as was her geisha-inspired live performance at the American Music Awards). There are a lot of reasons to mistrust Perry, or to dismiss her. I wouldn’t judge you for that. But there is something interesting about seeing a woman having to learn as she goes what is acceptable and what isn’t. Learning by pop cultural litmus test. Maybe that sounds too dismissive of the harm she has done, so I’ll shut up. Just know that I agree with you.

In the end, I continue to love Katy Perry. Even when she’s embarrassing and messy, there’s something I love about her that I can’t articulate without sounding a little naive. Maybe because I saw her perform when I was living alone in France, when I was in the lowest valley of my depression, her relentless sparkle saved me somehow. I still cry when I hear “Part of Me” or watch her documentary. I know if she means that much to me, there’s someone out there who needs her and needs Witness. Godspeed to the girl.

Now, my favorite tracks from Witness and some inarticulate feelings journalism:

  • Hey Hey Hey: Feminism filtered through the lens of pop music is always a little embarrassing, but “Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck” is still a wonderful lyric and so very Katy.
  • Roulette: Do you remember the Kelly Osborne track “One Word?” I think that’s what this song sounds like. Very fun synth. Probably about Orlando Bloom, which is also fun. (I read every pop song as a blind item.)
  • Swish Swish: When this song came out, I listened to it 15 times in a row. I love when messy women can be angry, irrationally or not. And boy, do I love a good feud. As a society, we don’t take feuds between female artists as seriously as we do the feuds between men like Gallagher brothers or McCartney and Lennon. We should change that, because this feud is fuel. Taylor is more of a business-minded woman than Katy. This song is like Katy came to a gun fight with a knife. Katy literally showed up to the feud three years late with Starbucks with this song. At midnight, Taylor put her music back up on streaming services. Katy just can’t get a win! That line in Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan is so true: “Feuds aren’t about hatred. Feuds are about pain.” I love a good feud, but if this all ends with them both releasing a “we’re friends again” song, I’ll feel too played to carry on.
  • Déjà Vu: This song exists in the same mood as Teenage Dream’s “Who Am I Living For?” I love a “I’m in love with you / but the vibe is wrong” song from Katy and I’m a sucker for this one too.
  • Miss You More: THIS SONG IS ABOUT RUSSELL BRAND. THIS SONG IS ABOUT RUSSELL BRAND. THIS SONG IS ABOUT RUSSELL BRAND. This is low key my FAVORITE song on the album. It feels sincere in a way that the some of her other songs don’t. “I miss you more than I loved you” is a killer chorus, and I’m not gonna lie, I teared up when I heard it in the car. He knows all her secrets! And she knows all his! This is the strongest song on the album.
  • Chained to the Rhythm: *Reads Baudrillard once* or *Mary’s senior year at Agnes in a song*
  • Tsunami: She references Teenage Dreams’s “Pearl” for the Katy Kats! There’s something wonderful about the heavy synthy bass here that is just so delightful. Honestly, there are so few upbeat songs on this album that this song is a RELIEF.
  • Bon Appétit: Let Katy be Corny 2kForever.
  • Save as Draft: Thankful that Katy made a song for me to listen to when I feel like texting my ex. My ex (like most exes generally) is my John Mayer, but with none of the talent. Like Katy, we’ll both be good if we just move the fuck on. “What good would it do / to reopen the wound / I take a deep breath / and I save as draft.” (Are you subtweeting your ex, Katheryn? Because, me too.)
  • Pendulum: Oh, now you bring out the most fun song on the album at the end???? (the penultimate song. I see you, KATHERYN! ELIZABETH! HUDSON!) It’s Peak Katy: a song about lovin’ yourself over fun, driving piano and synth. I am most excited to see this song performed live. This is a closer if I’ve ever heard one.