Yet “Chained to the Rhythm,” the album’s lead single, turned out to be great: a sly condemnation of fake news that understands its own role in getting people to “dance to the distortion,” as she puts it over producer Max Martin’s shimmering disco groove. It was enough to make you want to hear the singer’s deepest thoughts on climate change — provided her attention span could sustain them. By April, though, Perry appeared to have lost interest in purposeful pop.
“Witness” feels like a slide backwards into adolescence, even if the album is filled with songs where Perry attempts to address big cultural issues while walking a musical cutting edge. These conflicting desires surface on a tune as effervescent as “Chained to the Rhythm” — the only track here that could be called that, although “Pendulum” comes close — and a song as somnolent as “Bigger Than Me,” the second of two ballads on the record and the one that addresses the fallout of the 2016 presidential election.
Not even three songs into “Witness,” you might be asking, Wasn’t this supposed to be Perry’s socially conscious album? “It’s a new era for me … of purposeful pop,” she recently promised, referencing the trauma of the 2016 election, which she’s said influenced her new music. And you do get a hint of that awareness or humility, eventually, in “Bigger Than Me.” It’s just slightly ironic that in the album’s first single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” she took some subtle digs at a narcotized population that just wanted to dance through the election, because for most of the rest of this album, she’s pretty chained to the rhythm herself.
Now, at 32, having divorced the British comedian Russell Brand and supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Perry is talking about wanting to make “purposeful pop” with her fourth (official) album. That clunky phrase suggests a push towards higher artistic ground but turns out to mean pop that isn’t really fit for the purpose.
Her dance-pop here is identical to everyone else’s, which leaves Perry clutching at the single-entendre raciness of “Bon Appetit” (“Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appetit, boy”) and curdled imagery like “my love’s the bullet with your name on it” to secure a soupcon of bogus outrage.