What Katy Perry’s recent failures tell us about being a 2017 pop star
Katy Perry is in trouble.
Sure, not actual trouble. Whatever happens next, the multimillionaire pop star with global legions of loyal fans will be just fine. But in terms of sizzle for her next act, well, Perry has lost her sparkle.
There are likely some serious conversations happening at Katy Perry HQ right now.
The singer released her second single, “Bon Appetit,” off her forthcoming album on April 28, and instead of putting the singer back on the top of the charts, it’s already in free-fall mode, debuting at No. 76 on the Hot 100 chart (and that’s with ultra-cool Migos). That poor showing was even before the desperate cannibalism companion video that dropped Friday was met with simultaneous shrugs and disgust.
And that’s on top of comeback tune “Chained to the Rhythm” quickly disappearing from radio.
Yikes — quite a drop off from the woman whose Teenage Dream clocked five No. 1 singles and became one of the defining pop albums of the decade. In a sign of panic, there were reports over the weekend that Perry was talking with American Idol about joining the show as a judge — a move that would have been considered unthinkably beneath her a few years ago.
In her attempt to be more conscientious with her music and persona, Perry has walked into a maelstrom of outrage culture, people’s expectations of pop stars, and figuring out a next step that feels true to her changing self, gets fans excited, and is cognizant of our times.
How did she get here? Where did she go wrong?
Perry has always been known as our most carefree, frothy pop star — and we’ve loved that about her. Travel back in time with me to February 2015: Perry’s joyous Super Bowl halftime show was watched by a record 118 million people, Left Shark fever was a meme we could all get behind, and she had just concluded the Prismatic World Tour, which grossed over $200 million.
Forgotten from that Prism era, though, is a woman who seemed to be at a bit of a crossroads between the party bangers people expect from her (massive hits such as “Roar” and “Dark Horse”) and deeper songs that populated the back half of the album that didn’t appear to resonate as well.
Purposeful Pop and the New Era
Perry must have sensed that her routine needed to grow up a bit. Her Twitter at the time spotlighted a woman who was beginning to engage more with the world and problems around her (Perry has spoken often about her ultra-religious, very sheltered background).
After her post-tour break there was the forgettable 2016 summer Olympics pseudo-inspiring theme, “Rise.” Then came the important lead single for her Prism follow-up produced by Max Martin and Ali Payami, “Chained to the Rhythm.”
Dr. Luke, who produced much of her fire earlier work, was noticeably absent, presumably in the disturbing wake of Kesha’s sexual assault allegations against him. If Perry is choosing to not continue to work with Dr. Luke, that’s a great, impressive stand to take, but then she’s going to need to find new collaborators who can help her win.
A wannabe-woke pop song that positioned the singer as more socially conscious than some of her notably politically silent peers, Perry dubbed “Rhythm” and her next era as “purposeful pop.” An admirable goal to be sure, but it might have landed better if the singer wasn’t regularly getting herself into dumb controversies that can make even her most loyal fans groan.
Take just a few recent examples: the brouhaha when she gave the Kardashians credit for inspiring her “boxer braid” hairstyle, which was really cornrows that black women have worn for centuries; the totally unnecessary comments comparing people missing her old black hair to Barack Obama leaving the White House; and, of course, the constant eye roll-y, back-and-forth shade about Taylor Swift.
She’s also been knocked recently for cribbing Miley Cyrus’ look, and had regular charges that she’s borrowing heavily from Nicki Minaj, among others.
None of this endears her to anyone, and every one of these headlines during a time when she is trying to present herself as socially conscious and “purposeful” makes the already-jarring change from “Shooting Whipped Cream Out of Your Breasts Katy” seem very hollow and opportunistic, regardless of how sincerely she holds her personal convictions.
Monday morning, Perry finally announced that her album, Witness, will drop June 9. While it was likely too late to push the project back significantly, surely there are discussions happening about what songs to promote next. Obviously, the third single really needs to click on radio — if “Bon Appetit” continues to underperform, look for her team to rush the latest single next month. Whatever it is will signal what Perry sees as her future.
She’ll either double down on the purposeful stuff (the new album is said to have a song inspired by Hillary Clinton) or retreat back to the candy-colored world of her earlier, best-known stuff. After all, these days, a little bit of froth can be just as needed as ever.
How Perry navigates this dichotomy in these highly charged political times is worth watching. She certainly picked the right moment to attempt to begin to use her powerful voice, but we as a culture are not particularly tolerant of hypocrisy or insincerity. It’s a tightrope walk. Can Perry go back to “just” performing consequence-free party anthems? Does she even want to?
Of course, Perry really only needs one more smash to make a lot of this discussion moot. If Perry’s next tune is a carefree summer bop that catches fire, she’ll move on quickly from recent misfires. Look at what Lady Gaga did back in 2013 when Artpop was a critical and commercial disappointment. She took a step back, zigged (Tony Bennett duet album!) when we expected to her to zag, and got fans hungry for more — all of which culminated with a country-fied Joanne debuting at No. 1 and her snagging the Super Bowl halftime show earlier this year.
Which path does Perry intend to take? We’ll know more when we see her next move — and based on the diverse paths in front of her, that’s a choice worth watching.