Music before Politics: Katy Perry’s Witness

Witness Surprises Listeners!

Katy Perry’s new record is called Witness. The first things that many listeners will bear witness to is that this is not the album they thought was on the way. During the recent presidential election, Perry intervened very publicly on the side of Hilary Clinton and the Democrats. In interviews given in the run-up to the release of Witness, Perry characterized herself as an activist and advocate. These preliminaries led fans and pop commentators to expect that Witness would be a markedly political piece of work, one in which Perry might have been expected to foreground her opposition to the Trump administration. These expectations led in turn to some vociferous debate about how entitled Perry, as a fairly mainstream pop star, was to publicly disseminate her thoughts on such lofty matters as the state of the nation. Anyone who had doubts on this score didn’t need to lose any sleep, though; because Witness is a very different album from the politically engage collection we were promised.

Katy Perry twitter trump

How to be Popular AND Experimental

In her comments about the album prior to its release, Perry told us that Witness would not only engage with politics in the strict sense, but would also be liberating in intellectual, erotic and spiritual terms. That’s quite a lot of work for a collection of pop songs to accomplish! What Perry came up with instead is an album in which she adroitly borrows elements from edgier or more avant-garde styles of music and skillfully builds them into her own work without undermining its radio-friendly qualities or mass appeal. If that strikes you as an easy thing to do, think again! As a rule, the more innovative artists within the pop mainstream are not sufficiently recognized for their ability to bring aspects of more experimental music to a far larger audience.
Witness may play well in Middle America and on radio, but it also makes good use of its borrowings from spikier, more cutting-edge genres, like witch house and future pop. These borrowed elements are deftly combined with sounds that will be far more familiar to Perry’s fans. Remember too that many of these fans are probably not keen on downright experimentalism or dark musical styles. What they crave is Perry’s trademark breezy style of danceable pop. With Witness, they get all of that, together with sounds derived from edgier music styles.

Witness against the Prosecution

Certain critics have treated Witness harshly, solely on the grounds that it is not the collection they were anticipating. As these commentators see (or, rather, hear) it, Perry has produced nothing more interesting than the usual messy and introspective sort of album. This judgment is neither fair nor clever. The truth is that, when all of the negatives have been taken into account, Witness still turns out to be the bravest and most challenging collection that Perry has yet released. Perhaps the edginess that one can hear among the turbo-pop cuts and sharp exercises in R&B is also a product of Perry’s personal life. As one listens repeatedly to Witness, one becomes increasingly aware that the album is also marked by the recent break-up of Perry’s relationship with actor Orlando Bloom.

Ultimately, what we get for our money is a collection that succeeds in its own way, an album that blends pop thrills with carefully selected and integrated experimental elements. That sounds like a bargain to me!

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