The Week In Pop

Watching Katy Perry Struggle For Relevance This Year Has Been Painful

Katy Perry opens her new album by singing, “Can I get a witness?” Her promotional tactics for Witness have communicated a similar sentiment, albeit more intense: “Please look at me!” This is the singer known for spraying whipped cream from her cupcake bra, so it’s not like she’s ever been a master of understatement. But in the absence of the monumental jams we’ve come to expect from her, all her overzealous attention-seeking and foot-in-mouth blunders look more like desperation.

Perry has been on a slow decline since her Teenage Dream heyday, but where can you go except down after an album that huge? Teenage Dream produced five #1 singles — “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Firework,” “E.T.,” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” — only the second album to ever accomplish such a feat following Michael Jackson’s Bad. A sixth single, “The One That Got Away,” made it all the way to #3. The deluxe edition tacked on another #1, “Part Of Me,” plus the #2-peaking “Wide Awake.” Given that absurdly consistent success rate, it probably goes without saying that Teenage Dream debuted at #1 in 2010 and ended up triple-platinum.

It was one of the most successful albums in history, and deservedly so. Perry and a fleet of the industry’s best songwriters and producers carved out the sonic equivalent of sparkling jewels, singles so sleek and impeccably catchy that they might have been smash hits for anyone. And Perry wasn’t just anyone. Her powerful, church-trained voice sold the songs, and her outsized drama-club personality helped elevate the project’s many colorful music videos. She became a bona fide superstar and the undisputed queen of the pop charts — not bad for a former aspiring Christian rocker who landed on most people’s radar thanks to the gimmicky “I Kissed A Girl.”

The same shameless, over-the-top ethos that helped Perry cement her celebrity naturally made her a polarizing figure, and backlash always follows success. So by the time Prism emerged in 2013, the idea that she was past her prime was already gaining traction. The album seemed to quietly affirm the notion that her days of top-40 radio supremacy were numbered, hinting at a future pivot from youth-oriented pop toward a more adult contemporary sound by padding out the tracklist with mushy ballads. Rolling Stone pegged it as a “darker, moodier” collection more akin to Lykke Li, while The A.V. Club noted Perry seemed to be veering toward “inspirational” music.

That more “mature” version of Perry didn’t really connect with the masses: One such track, the sentimental would-be showstopper “Unconditionally,” more or less flatlined as the album’s second single. Even some of Prism’s more playful offerings bottomed out well before scraping the top 10, specifically “Birthday” and “This Is How We Do,” despite both arriving with Perry’s usual live-action cartoon music videos. Meanwhile Perry faced allegations of appropriation for rocking grills and cornrows in her videos and dressing up like a geisha at the AMAs. Prism had hits, though: Both “Roar” and “Dark Horse” went to #1 and were as inescapable as that designation implies. The album debuted at #1 with Perry’s best sales week ever, and the accompanying Prismatic World Tour was the second highest grossing concert tour of 2014, so it’s hard to see Prism as anything but a success.

It wasn’t until Perry began rolling out Witness the her opportunistic try-hard tendencies began to drown out the music. That’s partially because she has seemed especially desperate this go-round but mostly because the music has been bad.

Lead single “Chained To The Rhythm,” I would argue, is actually dope — Max Martin and Sia’s idea of vaporwave, presented as a comment on pop culture as a mindless escape from reality. The song itself suggested a new dimension of self-awareness from Perry: Here was a hyper-catchy critique of the very thing she made her fortune on, perhaps inspired by her political activism as a surrogate for the Clinton campaign last year. But self-aggrandizing comments about her move toward “purposeful pop,” as if socially conscious pop music was some new concept she was spearheading, indicated she was more oblivious than revolutionary. The song debuted at #4, and its video has been viewed more than 270 million times, which makes it a hit by any measure. Still, rather than ascend to #1 like the lead singles from Perry’s last three albums, “Chained To The Rhythm” quickly plummeted out of the top 10, rendering it a failure by her standards.

Her next single was even more catastrophic, and not just because it made her talk about “purposeful pop” feel especially hollow, as if wokeness was just another element to appropriate. “Bon Appétit” marked a return to the barely shrouded sexual metaphors that have previously popped up in Perry’s music. Whereas “Birthday” found her promising to “show you my big balloons,” this time she beckoned Migos to dig into “the world’s best cherry pie.” Her vocals sliced across the skittering club beat like lightsabers, but the hook they were pushing was not particularly appealing — a real drag considering it’s another Martin co-write — and the wink-wink nudge-nudge symbolism was extreme even by Perry’s standards. Thus, “Bon Appétit” tanked in spectacular fashion, topping out at #59 even after Perry and Migos went on Saturday Night Live to promote it.

Also performed on SNL was “Swish Swish,” a Nicki Minaj collaboration built around Minaj’s Maya Jane Coles-sampling “Truffle Butter” beat that just makes me wish I was listening to “Truffle Butter” instead. Like “Bon Appétit” before it, “Swish Swish” was tuneless dance music that did not play to Perry’s strengths, buoyed only by some furious rapping from Minaj. If it’s supposed to be Perry’s response to Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” we can safely declare Swift the winner of that exchange. At least Swift never sang, “A tiger don’t lose no sleep/ Don’t need opinions from a shellfish or a sheep.”

Speaking of questionable “Swish Swish” lyrics, there was great irony in Perry singing, “Your game is tired/ You should retire,” on a song that seemed to affirm her new album would be a flop — a suspicion first stoked by the worldwide disco ball listening sessions that no one showed up to, her racially insensitive remark comparing her haircut to Barack Obama (which dredged up old reports of Perry casually using the N-word), and the ridiculous eyeball album cover. Witness is still one day away from release, and it already feels like a disaster to be moved on from. The only factors that could feasibly save it are brand loyalty and a late-breaking hit or two.

So, does this album have any more hits in it? It gets started on the right note with a triad of Martin productions that show how dance music can work in Perry’s favor. In the case of the title track, that means bright, bold melodies and exultant shades of gospel and house, Perry adapting the language of the church to her search for a life partner. “Witness” is golden. It’s the best song on the album and probably should have been one of the advance singles. It’s followed by the Sia co-write “Hey Hey Hey,” a lurching electronic beast topped off by empowerment one-liners such as “You think that I am cracking, but you can’t break me!” and “LOL at all your limits!” That one and the subsequent synth-pop jam “Roulette” are both respectable if not essential, and they firm up the Katy-at-the-club theme established by those early singles.

So does “Deja Vu,” produced by Australian house producer Hayden James. “Power,” a collaboration with UK electro-rock sensation Jack Garratt, boasts some sick drum fills and does darkness better than Prism ever did. Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick is the brains behind “Mind Maze,” an intriguing experiment on which Perry sings through a vocoder about her need to get out of her own way. Roddick sticks around for “Miss You More,” the album’s first ballad, on which Perry emotes about one of her ex-lovers with a chorus that absolutely glides atop the weepy production (“I miss you more than I loved you”) and some genuinely tearjerking lyrics (“So strange that you know all my secrets/ Please keep them safe/ And darling, you know that I’ll do the same”). It’s the first time a Katy Perry slow jam has ever clicked for me, and it works way better than Roddick’s third contribution, the faceless “Bigger Than Me.”

Other big-name producers from outside Perry’s usual stable who had a hand in Witness: Mike Will Made-It comes through with breathy new wave trap music on the winsome “Tsunami.” DJ Mustard strays from his trademark snaps and bounces for “Save As Draft,” which sounds like one of those goopy Timbaland solo tracks á la “Apologize.” Jeff Bhasker helps her tap into electronic gospel sounds typical of Kanye West’s Graduation on “Pendulum,” and the results aren’t half bad. And Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard chip in on closer “Into Me You See,” a weepy piano lament that again touches on the end of a meaningful romance, this time bogged down somewhat by clumsier wordplay along the lines of, “You broke me wide open, open sesame.”

Not many of these songs strike me as compulsively listenable surefire hits, and a few are actively bad. Disgraced writer and producer Lukas “Dr. Luke” Gottwald was involved in pretty much all of Perry’s biggest hits from “I Kissed A Girl” forward, and his absence here — due to rape and abuse allegations that have made him a leper among pop A-listers — is definitely felt in Witness’ lack of undeniable bangers. But the album is solid enough that I’m confused why highlights such as “Witness” and “Tsunami” were not prioritized in the rollout. The only reason I can surmise is that Perry and her team picked the singles based on what kind of tweets and thinkpieces they might elicit — the woke one, the outrageous one, the Taylor Swift clapback — rather than choosing the best songs. This is pure speculation, of course, but if I’m right, it represents a massive miscalculation on their part. Perry’s exploits might be what helped her stay in the headlines over the years, but killer pop songs are what always kept her atop the charts.

CHART WATCH

R&B hitmaker Bryson Tiller nabs his first career #1 album this week with True To Self, which notched 107,000 equivalent units and 47,000 in traditional album sales. After Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. at #2, the Beatles’ former 15-week #1 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band shoots back up to #3 with 75,000 units/71,000 in sales thanks to its 50th anniversary reissue; per Billboard, it’s the Beatles’ highest chart performance since the hits album 1 in 2001, way back when George Harrison was still alive.

Drake’s More Life follows at #4, and then it’s the #5 debut of Lil Yachty’s Teenage Emotions with 46,000 units and 20,000 sales. Ed Sheeran’s ÷, Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, and Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 are at 6-7-8. At #9 with 37,000 units is the Summer Latin Hits 2017 compilation, largely on the strength of Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s multi-week #1 hit “Despacito.” And Harry Styles’ self-titled album closes out the top 10.

Speaking of “Despacito,” it rules the Hot 100 for a fourth straight week, followed once again by Bruno Mars’ former #1 “That’s What I Like” at #2 and DJ Khaled’s former #1 “I’m The One” (featuring Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne) at #3, Kendrick Lamar’s former #1 “HUMBLE.” at #4, and Ed Sheeran’s former #1 “Shape Of You” at #5. Numbers 6-9 remain the same this week, too — Future’s “Mask Off,” Zedd and Alessia Cara’s “Stay,” the Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This,” and Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3″ — and Billboard notes that the top nine haven’t stayed locked in place since the 8/24/13 chart, on which the top 11 held steady. Our one new addition to the top 10 is “Congratulations,” the first career top-10 hit for Post Malone and the third solo top-10 for Migos leader Quavo.

POP FIVE

Julia Michaels – “Uh Huh”
Here is what I wrote about “Uh Huh” last Friday, words I still fervently stand by a whole six days later: “Like ‘Issues,’ this latest track is minimal yet propulsive, a lovestruck vocal fluttering atop a snappy acoustic riff and, eventually, a tight synth groove. It reminds me a bit of Weezer’s ‘Say It Ain’t So’ as reimagined by Spoon, except it’s way more of a pop song than a rock song.” It’s reason to double down on my impression that Michaels is really good.

Fifth Harmony – “Down” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
I liked Fifth Harmony with Camila Cabello in the group, and based on this song, I like them without Cabello too. What I don’t like is them continuing to use five-oriented terminology as a four-piece. Maybe Gucci can join full-time as Cabello’s replacement to re-establish consistency with the nomenclature?

Sia – “Free Me”
Yep, this sure is a Sia song!

Machine Gun Kelly – “Trap Paris” (Feat Quavo & Ty Dolla $ign)
MGK has gone all-in on pop crossovers like “Bad Things,” and “Trap Paris” appears to be his attempt to keep one foot in the rap mainstream, albeit with a couple guys who’ve made their own forays into the pop world lately. As usual, MGK is the worst part of his own song.

Hey Violet – “O.D.D.”
If you were wondering who this pop-minded rock band is appealing to, consider the following: “I’m the girl in the back of the class/ Pink hair, but I’m wearing all black.” I’m still trying to figure out which acoustic hit this song is ripping off — maybe Everlast’s “What It’s Like”?

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Diplo says he has new songs with Katy Perry and Julia Michaels. [Twitter]
  • Diplo also shared a new Bieberless version of his new song “Bank Roll” (also featuring Rich The Kid, Rich Chigga, & Young Thug) because “other artists made SoundCloud take down the Justin Beiber version because they had exclusives with him.” [SoundCloud]
  • Speaking of Bieber, here’s a preview of his new David Guetta collab “2U” (out tomorrow) in a video featuring model Sara Sampaio. [Twitter]
  • Sam Smith is back in the studio. [Instagram]
  • It appears that Justin Timberlake is back in the studio, too. [Twitter]
  • Rihanna shot a video with DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller in Miami. [Instagram]
  • As part of his partnership with Nike, Tiller returned to his Louisville hometown yesterday to present a fully refurbished basketball court in Wyandotte Park. [Facebook]
  • Ed Sheeran did a Carpool Karaoke. [YouTube]
  • Charli XCX launched a contest with Microsoft to cast fans in her new video. [Facebook]
  • Snoop Dogg thinks One Direction should reunite soon: “”That’s the smart thing to do. They got to do it while they are still young, nobody wants to see a boy band have a comeback in their forties. If they do it in the next year or two, they are still at a level where they can make another 20 or 30 million dollars each.” [Metro]
  • Halsey partnered with Amazon to hand-deliver some copies of her album purchased on the site. Then she went to Target and bought her album for fans there. [Twitter]
  • The Weeknd donated $100k to a health center in Uganda. [E!]
  • Clean Bandit’s Grace Chatto’s shirt was blurred during One Love Manchester coverage because it said CORBYN with a Nike swoosh, and the BBC is supposed to remain politically impartial. [NME]
  • Jason Derulo performed with Luke Bryan at the CMT Music Awards. [CMT]
  • Kelly Clarkson teased a new album that’s “hands down my favorite project I’ve ever been a part of.” [Kelly Clarkson]
  • Capitol Music Group has appointed No I.D. as Executive Vice President. [Billboard]
  • Ariana Grande has released her “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” cover from One Love Manchester as a charity single for victims of the terrorist attack. [Spotify]
  • In a SiriusXM Hits 1 interview Selena Gomez revealed “Bad Liar” was written over a year ago. [YouTube]
  • Camilla Cabello talked to Elvis Duran about her demo for Chainsmokers’ “Closer” and why she ultimately turned the song down. [YouTube]
  • DJ Demi Lovato led an a cappella singalong of Paramore’s “Misery Business” when the gear malfunctioned at Emo Nite LA. [TMZ]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME