I don’t know who Katy Perry is. Scratch that: I don’t know who this era of Katy Perry is. Pop music in its most mainstream Top 40 form thrives off of easily definable character traits: Lady Gaga as the avant-garde freaky art student turned good old American girl; Taylor Swift as the butter-wouldn’t-melt romantic and perpetual victim of bad boyfriends; Rihanna as the carefree island girl who doesn’t care what the world thinks of her; and the perfection of Beyoncé (or certainly the intricately crafted illusion of untouchable flawlessness). For most of her career, Katy Perry was easy to nail down: Bubblegum pop art meets earnest camp, a saucy edge with a dollop of earnestness. It’s the image that allowed her to go from shooting whipped cream out of her bra in a candy-land battle with Snoop Dogg to belting out an empowerment ballad to disenfranchised teens. Frivolous and formulaic it may have been, but you know that image when you see it, and it was an easy sell to millions of eager pop fans. Those earworm pop ditties and that lollipop darling persona have made Perry one of the biggest selling music artists of all time - her sales outrank those of Beyoncé, Adele, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.
Yet now we are into a new era of Perry, one that has been partly baffling and partly cringe-worthy, but mostly thematically incomprehensible. After originally proclaiming her newfound era of “purposeful pop”, she released Chained to the Rhythm, a decent pop number that hints at a wider political message but is too constrained by the frivolity of her own style to truly embrace it (ironic for a song all about escaping the bubble of false comforts). Live performances of the song included a projection of the Declaration of Independence and a giant puppet dance with Donald Trump and Theresa May, for those who needed assistance in helping the message land. While it was certainly more overtly message driven than many of her songs - and fell in line with her own pro-Democrat politics - the punch of this purposeful pop didn’t quite land. It didn’t hit the top spot on the charts either, making it to number four before dropping off quicker than expected.
The good thing with pop personas is they can easily be disposed if audiences don’t take to them, so rabblerousing politico Katy quickly made way for double-entendre gasping trap queen Katy. Bon Appetit is… Well, it’s hard to say. I can’t decide if it’s absolutely hysterical or vomit-inducing. The sexy food puns elicit nothing but groans, some metaphors are confusing (is “sweet potato pie” a stand-in for pussy?), and the accompanying video is like David Cronenberg by way of Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz era. It’ll take a while for viewers to forget the image of a flour-laden Perry being kneaded like bread dough, then basted in a giant boiling pot. It is Cyrus’s twerking era that comes to mind first with this bizarre single: The deliberate appropriation of black music (the song features a verse by Migos) coupled with the equation of a white woman’s sexual liberation with tropes of cultural blackness. Perry is no stranger to cultural appropriation - indeed, she seems to have made a career from it - but to watch her recent SNL/em> performances was to watch a performer with absolutely no idea of who she was or what she was doing.
The newest song from the Witness era, Swish Swish, was similarly incoherent, only this time the hook was the promise of Perry’s side of the story regarding her supposed feud with former friend Taylor Swift. After remaining mostly silent on the issue, even as Swift weaponised female friendship to score petty points and illustrate a terrible song, so Perry is overdue a few shots at pop’s biggest tool in the victim/whore complex. To its credit, Swish Swish is at least more interesting than Bad Blood, as Perry positions herself on the high-ground peering down at the unworthy and unnamed. The SNL performance had its charms, as some of New York’s greatest drag icons took to the stage for a ball that evoked Paris is Burning (unfortunately, some queens were cut from the live show due to Migos’s homophobic nonsense), but Perry’s pseudo-gangsta posturing made things too awkward. Three songs into the Witness era and there’s a new persona for every song.
It’s tiring to watch this version of Perry struggle to find a definable brand to sell, but it also raises questions as to why we expect so many pop stars to completely overhaul their image with each album. Artistic growth is good - look at Beyoncé’s Lemonade and everything it signifies, and let’s not forget the entirety of David Bowie’s career - but in this current era of pop, the need for pop stars (particularly female ones) to constantly reinvent themselves and try to top the last outlandish outfit or public stunt can lead to simple musical experimentation becoming a cringe-inducing shtick. There’s a reason Lady Gaga’s Artpop era underperformed, even though the music was pretty good. Perry may have felt the need to mature beyond firework bras and gummi bear coloured wigs, but audiences aren’t seeing that. Sometimes we just want the music, no strings attached (Adele’s image remains the same), but with Perry, the tunes aren’t there either.
Perry’s next venture is as a judge on the revival of American Idol, allegedly pocketing a hefty $25m for the privilege. It’s striking that Perry’s new era includes a step back to TV judging, something often considered a last resort for careers on the wane. Even in its weaker latter years, American Idol was still drawing in millions of viewers, so the attraction to a star like Perry is understandable - all that free publicity, and the inevitability of contestants singing in a Katy Perry themed week. Yet it still feels like an admission of failure. Previously, Perry had reportedly been offered $20m to join the show when it was still on Fox, but turned it down. Why say yes now? Was the extra $5m really that crucial, or does this era of Perry have to work much harder to appeal to the masses?
Ultimately, the thing that may explain the direction of Perry’s future is her past. In the April edition of Vogue, Perry gave a candid interview in which she went into detail about her fundamentalist upbringing and how that affected her. She notes that “Education was not the first priority. My education started in my 20s, and there is so much to learn still”, which feels like a much-needed moment of growth from an artist who’s spent years indulging in appropriation, but this came out before Bon Appetit, which raises further questions. Her admission of the “trauma” of her childhood, rife with misogyny, rings loud in your ears, and you cannot help but think of the Hillary supporting popstar who sings about sex and acceptance living under the weight of an upbringing that sees her as fundamentally wrong. Perhaps it’s not so strange that a woman whose dad brags about using his own daughter’s fame as an excuse to preach to Hollywood superstars would want to reinvent herself now and then.