Katy Perry has had a rough 2017. Her latest album, Witness, debuted at number one but ultimately sputtered. Its songs were largely ignored by radio, her music videos barely registered a blip around the pop-culture water cooler, and the album failed her mission statement to make "purposeful pop." Truth be told, her bleach-blond pixie haircut inspired more impassioned reactions than her music this year. Adding salt to the wound was that her personal Regina George, Taylor Swift, continually threw subtle shade in her direction. The old Taylor couldn't come to the phone this year, possibly because she was too busy planning ways to upstage Perry, like the time Swift released her entire discography to streaming services the very day Witness was set to drop.
If Perry was someone else, this kind of sustained antagonism would have framed her in a comparably favorable light. Americans love an underdog, particularly one they think is being unfairly attacked by someone like Swift, a figure the public loves to hate while her music continues to outsell that of her peers. Instead, with the exception of Perry's most dedicated fans, or KatyCats as she calls them, listeners have decided, seemingly overnight, that they no longer care for her or her music.
But Katy Perry is making the same saccharine pop she's always made. Why are listeners just now waking up to the banalities of her music?
It's possible many of her fans have simply outgrown her. Though her label made the smart choice to market her as an "edgy" live act by booking her for Warped Tour in 2008, Perry's music has been overwhelmingly teen-pop fare from the beginning. Her second studio album, One of the Boys, opens with lyrics such as, "I saw a spider/I didn't scream/'Cause I can belch the alphabet/Just double dog dare me/And I chose guitar over ballet." Painful. She was 24 years old when the song was released, but she continues, "So over summer something changed/I started reading Seventeen/And shaving my legs."
In fairness, Perry began writing One of the Boys in her late teens, but she continued to lean on her preteen appeal on her third album, Teenage Dream. Her music continued to appeal to the younger set, but she refined her sound on songs such as "Firework" and "The One That Got Away," swapping cringe-worthy lyrics for more digestible bubblegum pop that crossed into adult-contemporary territory. Still, Perry couldn't help but appeal to the lowest common denominator via songs such as 2010's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)." Its music video, including an ironic Kenny G cameo, practically invented meme culture.
The problem with basing your music on memes is that they're inherently dated and don't age gracefully. With every passing year, certain Katy Perry lyrics become as embarrassing as those on One of the Boys. If you loved "Last Friday Night" when you were age 13, singing along to "that was such an epic fail" at 19 or 20 might happen only if you're drunk at a karaoke bar.
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Certainly, Perry has always offered some appeal. Her music is practically crafted in a laboratory to be catchy and addictive, like sweets that provide an instant rush but later give you a stomach ache. Her hit single "Roar," off 2013's Prism, was a prime example of the ways a soaring Katy Perry chorus could stick with you all day despite its lack of substance. "Now I'm floating like a butterfly/Stinging like a bee/I've earned my stripes/I went from zero to my own hero," she sings on what is ostensibly a complete verse in the song.
Her latest effort, Witness, marks her first outing without the assistance of Dr. Luke, who was once a producer for pop artists as diverse as Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Pink, and Marina and the Diamonds. His career spiraled downward when former collaborator Kesha alleged he drugged and raped her during their professional relationship.
Unfortunately, without Dr. Luke's high-octane choruses and bouncing beats glossing over Perry's artistic shortcomings, fans are left with the realization that the emperor has always dressed her music up in little more than distracting technicolor clothes. Now, when she coats her songs in rehashed '90s house beats and sings, "Don't need opinions/From a shellfish or a sheep" or "You're 'bout as cute as/An old coupon expired," people notice. Maybe this time, the underdog is an underdog for a reason.