In the pop world, Katy Perry means success. There is no other way to describe a singer who scored nine no. 1 songs in the last 10 years. That high water mark of achievement might be why Witness, her new album out today, could represent an existential crisis for pop’s favorite girl next door. In February, she debuted “Chained To The Rhythm” through a series of disco balls scattered across the world, where fans could hear an early snippet of the song. A novel idea, but one that showed Perry was in need of a gimmick rather than allowing her music to stand on its own. The song peaked at no. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100, which for most artists would be good start to an album cycle, but not for Perry.
The following Witness singles “Bon Appétit” and “Swish Swish” failed to crack the Top 40, a bar that every major Katy Perry single achieved. A high bar to match, certainly, but the songs’ mediocre chart performance might be due to their lack of signature full-throated exuberance. “Bon Appétit” featured Migos, an Atlanta rap trio, who had a no. 1 hit this year with “Bad and Boujee,” but it was via viral means and online streams, not digital sales or radio airplay, which are Perry’s preferred metrics of success. She tried to make the song a meme with #bonappetitchallenge, but no matter how gameable virality is in 2017, there is no surefire way to replicate that success. “Swish Swish,” her duet with Nicki Minaj, should’ve felt like a summit of two major pop stars, but instead just sounded too close to Minaj’s own hit “Truffle Butter.” Was it a sign of Katy Perry fatigue?
Ten years of chart toppers is worthy of praise, when peers like Lady Gaga flame out after only five years. That astounding endurance is now working against Perry as the music industry shifts toward the post-streaming reality, and away from the iTunes sales they focused on in the late aughts and early 2010s. That is how Perry was able to score two Diamond singles, “Fireworks” and “Dark Horse"—the ability to buy a single track rather than a full album was a great boon for traditional pop stars, who always valued the single over the album.
Except in 2017, that iTunes sales market is cratering. Songs like Migos’s “Bad and Boujee” and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” can hit no. 1 through streaming’s disproportional weighting on the charts. That is a hard proposition for Perry. Her brand of pure pop is designed for Top 40 radio, not endless Spotify playlists. And more and more, radio programming follows what's being streamed. If Perry can’t make it on radio or streaming services—none of her songs, on the week of her album release, are on Billboard’s streaming chart—then it might be time to find a new path.
Earlier this year Katy Perry seemed to point out that new path—or at least a new path—when it was revealed she was going to be a judge on the reboot of American Idol. There was chatter about why Perry, who from the outside looked to be in the peak of her career, would make such a turn, but perhaps it’s because Perry senses that her career is in transition, and that this is a dignified pivot.
That would also explain why she announced Witness at the same as its subsequent tour, and that pre-order tickets would come with purchase of the album. (Like everyone else, Katy Perry makes her real money touring, and that will continue to be a success for her.) Packaged together, it's a tactic that should all but ensure Perry will hit no. 1 in her first week of sales, like the Chainsmokers and numerous classic rock acts before her. But will that enough of a success for an artist like her?
Last year, the smartest pop star move—other than Zayn Malik’s masterful smoke-and-mirrors show to appear interesting—was Taylor Swift's decision not to release a follow-up to 1989. The singer was due, according to her own two-year album cycle, but in the heat of an election year, post-Lemonade, and as the music industry itself was struggling to figure out its own next direction, Swift sat back. Perry, who hasn’t put out a new album since 2013, doesn’t quite get that luxury, but right now maybe it's not such a bad idea.
There is a new generation of pop stars in Julia Michaels, Halsey, Noah Cyrus, and even Selena Gomez, who are offering a slightly less glossy, less perfectly-constructed vision of a female pop star. The lyrical openness of their music feels more in line with the times than Perry’s saccharine mix of sexuality and wholesomeness. It’s hard to imagine any current pop star now shooting whipped cream from their bra in a music video. Artists can adapt to the times, of course, but right now for Perry, it appears the pop landscape is shifting against her. The jury's still out on whether she can regain her foothold.
See a 7-year-old interview Katy Perry.