“Bon Appétit” is one of the worst songs on Katy Perry’s new album Witness, which is saying something, because Witness is not otherwise an album of good songs. It’s not just because “Bon Appétit” is a messy takeout sack of dubious food-as-sex metaphors, which—long before Warrant in 1990 preceded Perry in making cherry pie sound gross on the pop charts—has been a quick shortcut to winning the Bad Sex writing award.
No, its supersize badness only becomes obvious when you watch the distressingly literal video for “Bon Appétit,” in which Perry herself plays not the lascivious chef but the cuisine itself, kneaded, stretched, simmered, sautéed, and served. It’s meant to be campy, of course, but it keeps tipping over the edge into Cronenbergian body horror. “Bon Appétit” renders Katy Perry as one of those autocannibalistic chickens or pigs in BBQ roadhouse signs and other food ads, found on a grill grinning gamely through the flames or brandishing a cleaver to chop themselves up for dinner.
The cheap anti–pop music joke, of course, would be to use this as a symbol of Perry’s entire career of offering up her body and soul on the pyre of mass consumption. But in the past Perry was always out ahead of that sourness, in on the joke more than anyone, as she dressed herself up as candies and cupcakes and shot jets of whipped cream out of her bra into the crowds. It’s hard not to play armchair psychiatrist and read the way that shtick turns creepy in “Bon Appétit” as a symptom that Perry herself no longer feels so comfortable with and in control of those contradictions.
Luckily, I don’t have to, because in her “Witness Worldwide” 72-hour livestream on YouTube this weekend, Perry brought in an actual shrink—or at least a somewhat smarmy TV therapist—to lay out her own case study. In an hourlong, tear-smeared session, Perry talked about not wanting to be the constructed character “Katy Perry” anymore but to find space for Katheryn Hudson. (Perry is her mother’s maiden name.) She admitted to depression and even past suicidal thoughts, issues with alcohol, and other familiar fallout of superstardom.
In other portions of this marathon one-woman Real World/Big Brother exercise, Perry brought in groups of friends, acquaintances, and celebrities to school her about social issues—which seemed one part sincere self-improvement and another part damage control for the various gaffes she’s made since politicizing herself in support of the Hillary Clinton campaign and declaring a new era of “Purposeful Pop.” She also declared an armistice in her tired beef with Taylor Swift (immortalized in song by Swift’s “Bad Blood” and one of Witness’ more passable tunes, “Swish Swish”), which Perry has been milking for the few drops it’s worth through this album-release cycle. Of course her short-order seminars in wokeness were accompanied by spankin’ new gaffes, such as when she met with the veteran drag entertainer and activist RuPaul, declaring she wanted to be a good LGBTQ ally during Pride. Then she beamed and said that of course RuPaul is a great “ally,” too.
Several observers have mentioned that, given the bright rouge walls of the apartment Perry was hanging out in, tuning into Witness Worldwide felt like watching the Red Room on Twin Peaks. True, except that instead of backward talking, all the lost souls there were speaking the stilted sideways language of celebrity scented-candle enlightenment. Most times I opened the feed, I just found Perry putting on makeup or having makeup put on her for long minutes at a time, which offered intimacy in an affectless Warhol screen-test kind of way, until I learned that the stream’s sponsor, CoverGirl, is currently on a campaign for “Public Displays of Application.”
The problem isn’t that Perry’s being inauthentic. Inauthenticity is what we’ve always gone to Katy Perry for. The singer of “Teenage Dream” and “Firework” and (to a smaller extent) “Roar” threw herself into fairy-tale, dress-up scenes with such gusto and wonder that, for four-minute bursts, she makes made-up dreamy nonsense seem like the most lovable and real consolation the world has to offer. Unlike with many pop stars, even the most accurate political critiques of her many cultural appropriations felt hard to get worked up about, because she treated her own culture and persona just as cartoonishly. Then, offstage, she had her hard-working, goofy, regular-girl personality, so likable in her 2012 tour documentary Part of Me that even a casual listener’s heart broke with hers as she coped with the collapse of her short marriage to British actor-comedian/walking-ego Russell Brand.
Of the mega-pop divas of the past decade, most have had symbolic narratives: Lady Gaga (and, in another mode, Perry’s friend Kesha) stands for embracing one’s inner freak, Taylor Swift for assertive introspection, Miley Cyrus for experimental self-reinvention, Kelly Clarkson for overcoming misperceptions, and Beyoncé for Beyoncé-ness. But Katy Perry represented purely pop. Hardcore fans might call it living your dreams, or others might call it the pleasure principle, but to me it’s diminished by being put into any other words than just pop—or maybe William Carlos Williams’ modern-poetry maxim, “no ideas but in things.”
Not that I think Perry should be confined to that. Of course she has ideas. Every young artist grows up. Perry is now 32, and like all her peers, she needs her image and her music to grow along with her. Her previous album, 2013’s Prism, was patchy musically, but it coherently expressed what she was going through after her marriage and seemed like the beginning of another phase. Then four years went by, and, between her public appearances and Witness, that coherence seems to have come unglued. Perry is left straining for the kind of secondhand authenticity that’s generally on offer in celebrity land, the sort most likely to cross the sightline of the world’s most-followed Twitter user—someone “living in a bubble, bubble,” as she sings in her actually quite astute social/self-critique “Chained to the Rhythm,” the album’s first single and still my favorite song on it.
Most of Witness finds Perry dabbling in various ideas and styles so tentatively that it all washes out to a diffuse anxiety wrestling with a will to empowerment, or rather to Top 40–style anthemic empowerment, which isn’t the same thing. Most of her producers provide her with some variation on early-1990s house music, without the splash of rock that used to set apart tracks Perry wrote with Max Martin and the now-disgraced Dr. Luke from what they wrote for other artists. (Perry has often said that Queen is her favorite band.) And on Witness she is working less with Martin (the Swedish godhead of Top 40 hits for two decades now) than with members of Martin’s backup team.
Lyrically, Witness feels like an end-of-term essay by a middling student in Clichés as a Second Language. Critics are already rightfully singling out lines such as “Why do you keep me at the end of a rope that just keeps getting shorter?,” which mangles multiple idioms simultaneously. It’s a record that ends with a song titled “Into Me You See,” so just extrapolate from there. There are exceptions, not only in “Chained to the Rhythm,” but in, for example, the breakup ballad “Miss You More” (purportedly about Perry’s ex, John Mayer, but who cares) whose chorus is the simple yet subtle, “I miss you more than I loved you.” There we discover a grown-up thought.
It was my mistake to hear Witness first on headphones, which left me boggling at the mixed metaphors and the fact that her vocals often seem so excessively comped (cut-and-pasted together from different takes) that it sounds as if she’s reading them phonetically in four-syllable fragments from flashcards. When I put the album on the stereo, those elements receded into the beats and hooks—i.e., became easier to ignore—and it all began sounding much catchier.
In the approximate vicinity of bangers, I would count “Chained to the Rhythm,” the section of “Swish Swish” where Nicki Minaj takes over, “Roulette,” perhaps the title track, and “Pendulum,” a piano-, drum-, and gospel choir–propelled tune co-created by Jeff Bhasker, a frequent Kanye West collaborator who recently helped guide the musical reinvention of One Direction’s Harry Styles. “Mind Maze,” co-written with and produced by Alberta electronic duo Purity Ring, is a pings-and-blips splatter painting that’s either a creative abstraction or annoying mush—I haven’t yet settled on which. Nothing, meanwhile, can rescue “Save as Draft” from the ranks of insta-dated tech-jargon songs that include Britney Spears’ “E-mail My Heart” and Prince’s “My Computer.”
Still, consider how difficult it is for someone like Harry Styles, still in his early 20s, to reboot his career after a patch of years with a boy band. How much harder must it be for cupcakes-and-cream Katy Perry, the mega-queen of mega-pop who’s set chart records only equaled by Michael Jackson, to find another path without being afraid of risking all she’s accomplished? This isn’t her first rebirth, after all. That came when Katheryn Hudson left behind her Pentecostal preaching family and her Christian-music career and set out with a lot of nothing in Los Angeles. She gravitated to Alanis Morissette angst and Warped Tour mall punk before she cracked open her cocoon as the pop princess and the world fell head over kitten heels.
To me, the most telling, and chilling, moment in her Witness Worldwide pseudo-therapy session came when the quasi-doctor asked Perry how “old” she thinks her Katheryn Hudson side is today. Somewhere between 11 and 13, Perry answered, her age when she started pursuing a music career. And before that, as she’s said in other interviews, Hudson and her siblings were moved from place to place on a preacher’s itinerary and sent to Christian schools that weren’t far removed from home schooling. Perry’s frenemy Swift started young, too, of course, but not with such cultural deficits.
Perry’s obviously a gifted musician, performer, businesswoman, and team manager. But given where she’s come from, how is it any surprise she’s not sophisticated about social justice or halfway adroit at articulating herself philosophically, whether in conversation or in song? Or that in her early 30s, it keeps her up at night, sometimes on round-the-clock surveillance cameras, wondering what kind of adult she ought to be? For counsel, those closest by are bound to be other celebrities, stylists, agents, and self-styled lifestyle gurus. One can only wish some Twin Peaks–like mutant insect or ghost of a slain prom queen would come gliding into Perry’s Red Room and backward-whisper a better alternative. When she sings that she’s “looking for a witness,” you can understand why: It looks awfully lonely in there.