With a few consecutive flop singles and a new album met with more disdain than enthusiasm, Katy Perry is at the point in her career where she can’t win for losing, and a New York Times profile of the superstar that’s out today patiently examines why. Caryn Ganz’s writing is subtly, deliciously savage at times (“In our interview, she proclaimed herself devoted to dialogue but spoke in a near uninterrupted monologue”), but there’s nothing more damning in the piece than Perry’s own words. Here are some:
Referring to what she called “this strange race to be the most woke,” she added, “They want you to stand for something, but once you do, and if you don’t do it perfectly, they’re ready to take you right down.”
After spending years watching Twitter, I understand exactly what Katy means about this “strange race.” There’s often a detectable performance to what people say and do in public, and one can rarely be sure that someone is expressing something righteous for the sake of altruism more than for the sake of flattering themselves. Do they really mean the thing, or do they merely know the right words with which to impress people? You never know.
It seems, though, that out of all the people in the world we should be suspicious of for displaying their wokeness, it’s the pop star who has adopted it for her current album cycle (during which time, she is actively attempting to sell her product) as opposed to, I don’t know, some kid on Twitter who will maybe get some writing or consulting gigs as a result of their publicly expressed social consciousness. Katy referred to “Chained to the Rhythm,” the first single from her just-released Witness album, as “purposeful pop,” but “What’s Goin’ On” it ain’t. She sat down with DeRay McKesson to discuss cultural appropriation during her marathon livestream promo event this weekend, in which she played fish and invited the public to peer into her aquarium. (During the chat with DeRay, Katy became misty about her cultural misdeeds. Did she really mean the tears, or did she merely know the right sentiment with which to impress people? You never know.) Of her much-criticized SNL performance that incorporated drag queens and Migos, who were portrayed as homophobic in a recent Rolling Stone profile, Katy told the Times, “All I was trying to do is build a bridge.”
The modern conundrum that Katy Perry is embodying more infuriatingly than any loudmouth rando on Twitter is her conflation of branding with activism. In fact, the two practices are fundamentally at odds. If your angle is how good you are now, and you’re doing that for the sake of attention and money… how good are you? If one reads Katy Perry as cynically as she reads the rest of the world in its “strange race to be the most woke,” it may appear that she is, in fact, appropriating wokeness. Ganz engages with this idea toward the end of her profile:
Ms. Perry’s awakening has been tapped as a marketing strategy for Witness, and the live stream was selling her authenticity: If you dig hearing about her new perspective, maybe you’ll enjoy her song “Power.” While there are still plenty of relationship songs on “Witness” that will have fans wondering which of her beaus she misses more than she loved, seven tracks deal plainly with her new mind-set. The most direct is “Bigger Than Me,” a statement of purpose akin to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” (“But my intuition says there’s a bigger mission I must embrace/So I’m, I’m pushing my thoughts to a new place”).
Katy talks a lot about her “evolution,” her “liberation,” that she “literally” knows nothing. Time will tell if these ephemeral qualities are permanent, but right now they are mere gestures. Katy Perry makes a lot of gestures, and they often seem empty. During the aforementioned livestream, she changed a line in her Taylor Swift dis record “Swish Swish”: “Don’t come for me” became “God bless you on your journey.” The rest of the song—including lines like “Your game is tired/ You should retire / You’re ‘bout as cute as / An old coupon expired”—stayed intact. How much of anything that Katy Perry says publicly does she actually believe? You never know.
There’s a pointed divide, per Katy, between the old her and the new her in the Times piece:
The old Katy Perry wasn’t a construct, she explained, and she isn’t dead. “I didn’t kill her, because I love her, and she is exactly what I had to do then,” she said. “And I’m not a con artist, I didn’t con people, like, that was just me. And this is me now.”
What the actual difference is between the two, besides a display of spirituality and the suggestion of awareness, is unclear. That’s because, in my view, there has never been much there there with Katy Perry. She doesn’t possess any facet of virtuosity that’s generally associated with pop stars of her magnitude—her voice is fine, she doesn’t dance, she isn’t especially bad ass, provocative, or innovative. She released some hummable songs (which she maybe wrote, who knows) and got very, very lucky, as does anyone who ascends to superstardom. A lot of Witness reviews and recent think pieces have wrestled with the cause of Katy Perry’s current decline, but her falling out of fashion doesn’t surprise me one bit. You only get to be at the top for so long, and so if Katy held onto her popularity for Witness, she would have fallen out of favor with the next album or the one after that. That’s just the way this constructed universe of celebrity works, and Katy Perry’s floundering is the universe showing her that she needs to learn yet another lesson.