In December 2013, a month after Katy Perry became the world’s most-followed person on Twitter, she released a single called, of all things, “Dark Horse.” It checks a lot of her signature boxes: a late embrace of a once-niche trend (in this case, trap music), a video and televised performance that drew criticism for cultural appropriation, and a hook so mindlessly enjoyable that it hypnotized millions of people into overlooking the aforementioned sins and propelling it to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Like superheroes, the biggest pop stars take the shape of archetypes — stories and ideas that they purport to stand for, scaled up to the size of modern myth. The story that Katy Perry sells has changed a few times over the past decade, but throughout the time of her greatest global success, it has had something to do with the come-from-behind win of the underdog — the dark horse’s supposedly unexpected triumph. “Keep calm, honey, I’ma stick around,” she promises on her latest single, “Swish Swish,” and though few people were doubting that, contractually speaking, it is true: The same month it was released, news broke that she would be a judge on the forthcoming reboot of American Idol and would receive one of the largest salaries in the franchise’s history.
Katy Perry has become the person you call when you want to sell inspiration in bulk. In the past few years, she’s performed at the Super Bowl halftime show, recorded the official song of the Summer Olympics, and opened for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. Many of her biggest hits — like “Firework” and “Roar” — are about summoning an inner power to triumph over an adversity defined loosely enough to appeal to a large number of people. This strategy has so far worked wonders: Her blockbuster 2010 album, Teenage Dream, made her only the second artist in history to score five no. 1 singles off a single record. The only other artist to do this was Michael Jackson (Bad).
Lately, though, Perry has been faltering so publicly that she’s become an object of morbid fascination. The trouble started for her when, perhaps stunned by Clinton’s loss, she began promising that her next album would be full of “purposeful pop.” In February she released “Chained to the Rhythm,” an entrancing but relatively empty song about the obliviousness of the “bubbles” we all live in. The song was not nearly as radical as Perry thought it was: With its party-ready chorus, one did not have to squint that hard to hear it as a celebration of the things it claimed to be critiquing (“Stumbling around like a wasted zombie / Yeah! We think we’re free / Drink! This one’s on me”). The particulars of what Perry wants to free us from remain unclear. She may have been painting a different word this time — “ACTIVISM” instead of, say, “EMPOWERMENT” or “CALIFORNIA” — but still using the same wide-swathed brush.
We are no longer living in a moment when inspiration or empowerment can be sold or bought in bulk; to be effective these things must be vivid, barbed, specific to our times. Right now Katy Perry seems to be realizing this a little too late, though the recent steps she’s taken toward course correction are oddly riveting. On the night that her new album, Witness, was released, Perry began livestreaming her entire weekend from an apartment outfitted with dozens of cameras. It played out like a cross between Big Brother and Pee-wee’s Playhouse: a disarmingly charismatic host welcoming a random cadre of guests (chef Gordon Ramsay, activist DeRay Mckesson, meditation instructor Tara Brach) into her technicolor abode for an interminable amount of time. I watched her sleep, brush her teeth, apply makeup, chat with an assortment of interestingly dressed friends, and, perhaps most frequently, sing along to songs from Witness that seemed to omnipresently pump through the apartment’s stereo. On Saturday evening, about 28 hours into the broadcast, I watched her give a phone interview to a radio personality named Romeo. She lounged on an expensive-looking couch and ate an aspirationally healthy snack from a bowl. Romeo asked her prepared questions in a rat-a-tat, no-dead-air rhythm that suggested he was not really listening to her answers.
“Has there been a single moment so far when you’ve forgotten you’re on camera?” he asked Katy. She paused for a moment to give it some actual thought. Then she said, “No.”
One of the most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a music documentary occurs, almost accidentally, in Katy Perry’s 2012 tour movie, Part of Me. She is a little more than halfway through her 11-month, 127-date California Dreams Tour, preparing to perform for her largest crowd yet, in São Paulo, Brazil. Professionally speaking, this should be the pinnacle of Katy Perry’s life. The news that Teenage Dream had tied Bad arrived about six weeks earlier. And yet, at the height of her success (and quite possibly due to the grueling schedule its maintenance demands), she and her husband, Russell Brand, decided, via text message, to divorce. The cameras capture this unexpected twist in intimate detail, and what began as a glossy, surface-level, MTV-produced tour doc transforms into something that cuts closer to the bone.
The show begins each night with Perry emerging from a compartment in the stage floor, in a Bettie Page wig and a dress with spinning, motorized peppermint candies over her boobs. Ideally, when she rises up from the floor, she’s supposed to be smiling. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I still think of that image all the time: Katy Perry beneath the floorboards that night in São Paulo, trying with every ounce of her being to lacquer a confectionary smile on her face. It is such a haunting, potent reminder that the moments of a person’s greatest public success can also be their most overwhelming moments of personal pain.
The livestream was seldom revealing, but it had a few moments that remind me of that deeply humanizing image from 2012. Perry broadcast a therapy session in which she spoke about depression with admirable candor; she called out several of her exes by name. One of the marathon’s most captivating segments, though, was Perry’s conversation with DeRay Mckesson, during which she attempted to have an open, honest dialogue about cultural appropriation. It was astonishing to hear how little she — the world’s most followed person on Twitter — has had to say, though it’s somewhat refreshing to hear how open she is to admitting that. Whether this acknowledgement of ignorance is a passing phase is yet to be determined. “I’ve got a massive crush on Socrates!” she gushed a few days ago in an interview. She updated her Twitter bio to pay homage to her new philosophical bae, quoting a variation on the Socratic paradox: “I know nothing.”
The actual music on Witness is not a disaster, and that is a small miracle: The singles she released after “Chained to the Rhythm” gave us reason to fear the worst. The wannabe-jock-jam “Swish Swish” is somehow both sparse and overstuffed, its buoyant beat weighed down by the on-trend, try-hard clutter of its lyrics (“Karma’s not a liar / She keeps receipts”). But heaven help us all if this year brings a worse pop single than “Bon Appétit,” Perry’s overcooked collaboration with Migos. It would be interesting to see if Katy Perry — the artist behind numbers like “Peacock” and “Birthday” — is capable of writing a song without a winking metaphor or double entendre. I doubt it. “So you want some more,” goes the profoundly unsexy “Bon Appétit,” “well I’m open 24 / Wanna keep you satisfied / Customer’s always right.” Perry’s lyrics have an antic maximalism about them, at their worst reading like a loosely connected collection of words tethered to a single topic, a brainstorm web that’s still one step away from developing into actual song lyrics.
Perry has always been a singles artist, so the fact that the singles sucked gave every reason to assume the album would follow suit. Witness is far (far) from a masterpiece, but it has a surprisingly cohesive sound and a few songs that rank among her best. The opening title track acts as a reliable mood board (mildly melancholy ’90s throwback vibes with a few requisite digital flourishes) but Witness hits its most interesting stretch in the middle, beginning with “Power,” a midtempo declaration of strength made unique by its aqueous, shape-shifting production from the British artist Jack Garratt. Witness’s best song, though, is “Miss You More,” a soaring, unapologetically anthemic ballad cowritten with and produced by the electro-pop duo Purity Ring. The chorus is a hell of a pop lyric: “I miss you more than I loved you”; the arrangement luxuriates in its wallowing. Coming after this highlight, “Chained in the Rhythm” is more enjoyable in the context of the album, but it still underscores the fact that the best songs on Witness center around the personal, not the political.
There’s a reason Perry has been considered a singles artist: A casual listener is not likely to make it to the surprisingly strong tracks eight songs deep into a Katy Perry record. She is operating on a level of pop stardom on which The Album is merely one aspect of the Katy Perry Experience, among many other things (like the tour, the award-show performances, and the juiciness of the gossip she reveals in her promotional interviews). Perhaps the most difficult and thus important thing for a pop artist to control these days is her narrative: Think of the tight grasp someone like Beyoncé or Drake exerts over every aspect of their self-presentation. Perry lost hold of her own narrative the second she promised something she couldn’t quite deliver: “purposeful pop.”
Witness was never going to top the career peak of Teenage Dream — what, other than Bad, possibly could? — but it wouldn’t have become a punch line had it not purported so loudly to Mean Something. Even in such a fraught cultural moment, not every single utterance by a celebrity needs to be a political statement. Sometimes a song is just a song.
Another similarity between pop stars and superheroes: They need nemeses. For the past few years, Perry has found a fitting one in Taylor Swift, and vice versa. The rivalry began in 2014 for quite possibly the most rich-person reason of all time, when Swift alleged that Perry “stole” some of her backup dancers for her latest arena tour. A year later, Swift assembled a squad of ridiculously famous people and released the video for “Bad Blood,” a vicious friend-breakup song that she’s all but admitted is about Perry (“She basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour,” Swift said in a Rolling Stone cover story; somewhere someone played the world’s most expensive violin.) Perry, in turn, brought the feud back up when it was promotionally advantageous for her, around the time “Swish Swish” came out. “[S]he writes a song about me and I’m like, ‘OK, cool, cool, cool, that’s how you want to deal with it?’” she told James Corden last month on “Carpool Karaoke.” “Now, there is a law of cause and effect. You do something, there’s going to be a reaction. And trust me, Daddy, there’s going to be a reaction.”
Katy Perry and Taylor Swift are more alike than either would like to believe. They’re both talented if relatively conventional songwriters, they’re both kind of petty, and although they are two of the most famous and successful women in the world, they’ve crafted personas based on the same underdog concept. Until this past week, it was easy to call their feud a draw. But then Swift went full Regina George: On the day that Witness was slated for release, Swift made her entire discography available on all major streaming services.
It might seem like an act of out-and-out villainy, but it’s actually the most benevolent gift that Taylor Swift could give Katy Perry: In triumphing over her, Swift has given one of the most popular people in the world something to come back from. She’s fulfilled Katy Perry’s creation myth in the way that Perry had secretly always longed for: She’s turned her into the dark horse.