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In my Superlative Albums I Wrote About in 2017 list, Witness was awarded the Francis Scott Key Key for Most American Album
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To what extent should you get points for meaning well? Is it fair to take into account intentions when judging results?
On the opening track of her most recent offering, Katy pleads: “Can I get a witness?” She throws back the smothering curtain of celebrity, and finally shows us a glimpse of the real Katy. Behind the fairy floss and the fireworks is someone who drinks coffee and drives a car, a woman who wants nothing more than to inspire women and girls everywhere to be their best selves. Witness encourages aspirations to greatness. Here she is, laid bare: the artist whose wildly successful 2010 album Teenage Dream became only the second ever to spawn five number-one singles. (The first was Michael Jackson’s Bad.) By sharing an intimate peek into the rigorously scrutinised life of one of the world’s richest, most famous and most powerful pop stars, Katy hopes that you too can find the wherewithal to succeed.
She sees you, and all she asks in return is to be seen.
What a shame that Witness cannot articulate Katy’s intent.
From a technical perspective, the album is perfectly satisfactory. A veritable army of co-writers and producers have buffed each track to a sheen, resulting in a collection of slick and slinky beats that comply with industry standards. Unfortunately, they refuse to play to Katy’s strengths, and indeed actively shun them. She has an unparalleled flair for injecting anthemic hooks with doofy exuberance. Think fanciful and frothy. Think Left Shark. On her most underrated single, ‘Birthday,’ she cooed “I know you like it sweet / So you can have your cake / Give you something good to celebrate” to bright beams of neo-disco strings. In the video for her sparkly summer hit ‘California Gurls,’ she squirted whipped cream from her bosom at an assembled militia of gummi bears. And on her finest song, she married that exhilaration to deceptively simple musical tension (as expanded upon in Owen Pallett’s illuminating Slate article) —‘Teenage Dream’ can genuinely lay claim to a place among the ranks of greatest pop songs of all time.
Deceptive simplicity is by far Katy’s most distinguished asset. Her forceful delivery of universally sympathetic messages is often paired with strange instances of syllable emphasis to call attention to phrases that may otherwise slip past unappreciated. From Katy’s last album, the primping pastel Prism: “I will love you / Un-con-di-tion-ally.” That was a banger of a single. That sticks.
However, simple does not mean sedate.
Hookless and hermetic, Witness is a considerably more demure affair. Regrettably, shifting focus from skyscraping choruses to general atmosphere has pushed Katy’s lacklustre lyricism into the spotlight, far too exposed a position for her most prominent shortcoming. Her writing tends to lack the specificity that complements her contemporaries — Rihanna is smirkingly careless and aggressively carefree while Lady Gaga draws a clear, straight line from personal anecdotes to universal empowerment. And of course, who could forget radiant goddess Beyoncé and her staggering symposia on race and gender? (This is to say nothing of the scores of other modern pop singers who do not have access to Minaj-secondment cash reserves.)
Unfocused and underwhelming, Witness can’t help but pale in comparison. Its three singles are the best the album has to offer, hewing closest to Katy’s past successes, but beyond them there is little to recommend. Even then, ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ can only muster a vague syllogism about phones and zombies. It is one of two tracks that rhyme ‘bubble’ with ‘trouble.’ The bouncy ‘Bon Appétit’ metaphorically equates ‘eat me’ with ‘do a sex to me,’ and the blasé ‘Swish Swish’ is shaped like a devastating kiss-off to throwers of shade.
Katy dismisses her haters thus:
“Your game is tired /
You should retire /
You’re ‘bout as cute as /
An old coupon — expired /
And karma’s not a liar /
She keeps receipts /
Swish swish, bish /
Another one in the basket /
Can’t touch this /
Another one in the casket”
Oh deary me.
The snappy beats and bouncy basslines of Witness lend a more cohesive tone to the album as a whole, and to be sure I’ll have those three singles on high rotation over the next few weeks, but this is the tradeoff. How embarrassing.
Previous experiments of a similar lyrical calibre found more flattering homes among maximalistic production. Kanye collab ‘E.T.’ mashes together every single spacey word it can think of in service to a single hammering metaphor, but boasts a stuttering, starstruck chorus. A cacophonous moan of synths disguises the fact that it may as well have been written by a neural network fed only on hyperlinked words from the Wikipedia article on cosmology.
(Cliché-ridden does not begin to cover it — Rich Juzwiak of Gawker tabulated no fewer than two hundred and twenty-six such turns of phrase on Prism, averaging one every 11.4 seconds.)
Ironically, in her quest to get in touch with a more genuine version of herself, Katy has strayed from her sweet spot, far out past her comfort zone, into territory others have already charted far more thoroughly and in far more granular detail. The phrase ‘purposeful pop’ was thrown around in the leadup to the album’s release, and while intentions of and pretentions to percipience are all well and good, it carries the unfortunate implication that Katy’s existing discography is purposeless, when it is anything but. She has always been a touchstone of inspiring pop music, albeit tending towards the lightweight. “Baby, you’re a firework.” “You’re gonna hear me roar.” Manifestos that already do what Witness purports to, only now it is the main dish instead of a side salad. Woke-chic simply does not gel with Katy’s broad-brushed approach.
Frustratingly, Witness skates right past many an inkling of brilliance. Eleventh-hour throwaway ‘Pendulum’ marries a thumping drumline, a jangling piano and an unexpected gospel choir to a disorientingly elliptical chorus in the album’s only surprising moment. It’s weird, but it works. On the album closer, ‘Into Me You See,’ Katy leans into quite a lovely sighing ballad: “You broke me wide open / Open sesame.” Her cadence brings a smile of acknowledgement to the cliché, briefly striking exactly the balance she has been looking for. Elsewhere, she laments, “I miss you more than I loved you,” in an arrestingly simple instance of tapping into the depth beneath the banality. Most significant is the tender ballad ‘Save as Draft,’ which skims the surface of a well-gossiped-about issue as Katy contemplates reaching out to the ex-husband who infamously and callously dumped her via text message.
One is reminded of Quinn Morgendorffer, sister to Daria from Daria. Though she basks in the intersection between superficial and popular, the occasional spark of insight is enough to foreshadow her eventual shift towards becoming a fully-rounded person.
There is a vein of rich emotional content running beneath Katy’s discography, into which she has yet to tap. With a little boldness she could mine out a whole album of honest, truly heart-rending material. She is tantalisingly close to realising her goal: empowerment through sharing.
I feel bad saying mean things about Witness. I so wanted to like this album, and Katy so wants to be liked. Beneath her new Annie Lennox Jr. haircut beats the heart of a human being with a story to tell. I can’t wait to hear it.
If it is any consolation, I choose to believe that it is the preponderance of cooks that spoiled this particular broth. If Katy meets a poet who understands her, she can reassemble an Avengers of pop industry professionals. She has already made history once. I know that she can do it again.
For now, her ambition far outstrips the ability of her collaborators.
Katy has another Teenage Dream in her.
This is not it.