CULTURE

Katy Perry’s Witness Can’t Fail. But Will It Really Succeed?

Why her new album ‘Witness’ marks a career crossroads for Katy Perry, one of the most successful pop stars we have.


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?

Katy Perry’s Kitschiest, Candy-Covered, Firework-Spouting Costumes

Fresh on the scene, Katy Perry performs at the opening of a Las Vegas hotel in 2008 in a Vegas-themed ensemble.

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Katy Perry performed at the 2008 MTV Europe Music Awards dressed up like a football player.

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Perry performed at another 2008 concert, ending her set by jumping into a giant cake.

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Perry entered the stage at a 2008 Jingle Ball via a giant banana and dressed like Mrs. Claus.

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Perry performed on the Today show in 2009 wearing a mini-dress embroidered with some large dice.

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The following year, in 2010, she returned in a candy-coated getup.

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At the holiday-themed Jingle Ball, Perry turned herself into a snowman.

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For the 2010 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, Perry opted for a bright yellow latex dress.

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At the 51st Annual GRAMMY Awards, Perry once again entered the stage via a giant banana.

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Perry flew high above the crowd for the 2012 Billboard Music Awards.

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Perry got into the movie spirit for the premiere of her film Katy Perry: Part Of Me.

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Perry closed out the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in a boxer’s ring in Brooklyn.

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For the 2010 MTV Movie Awards, Perry enlisted Snoop Dogg to live out a beach paradise.

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Perry jumped rope onstage during the iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 20, 2013.

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At the Pepsi Super Bowl XLIX Halftime Show in 2015, Perry soared through the sky on a shooting star.

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Perry’s 2014 Grammy Awards performance was quite literally lit, with a dark magic themed set.

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Perry became a maypole at the MTV EMA’s in 2013.

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Feeling feline on the opening night of her Prismatic World Tour at Odyssey Arena on May 7, 2014.

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On the same tour, the singer also embraced a flower child persona.

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And channeled Cleopatra, complete with a giant golden horse.

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What would a Katy Perry performance be without some fireworks?

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Katy Perry peforms onstage at YouTube #Brandcast presented by Google at Javits Center North on May 4, 2017 in New York City.

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Katy Perry performs at 102.7 KIIS FM’s 2017 Wango Tango at StubHub Center on May 13, 2017 in Carson, California.

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Katy Perry performs “Swish Swish” in Studio 8H on May 20, 2017.

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Katy Perry performs on the Pyramid stage on day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival 2017 at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 24, 2017 in Glastonbury, England.

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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.

Katy Perry at the Met Gala: See the Singer’s Outrageous Gowns on the Red Carpet (Including Her Comme des Garçons Gown)

Katy Perry wore a bold blue Tommy Hilfiger gown to the 2009 Costume Institute Gala.

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Katy Perry wore a bold blue Tommy Hilfiger gown to the 2009 Costume Institute Gala.

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Katy Perry wore a CuteCircuit gown covered in 3,200 LED lights to the Costume Institute Gala Benefit for the opening of the “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 3, 2010 in New York City.

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Katy Perry wore a CuteCircuit gown covered in 3,200 LED lights to the Costume Institute Gala Benefit for the opening of the “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 3, 2010 in New York City.

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Katy Perry wore a Dolce & Gabbana dress to the Costume Institute Gala for the “PUNK: Chaos to Couture” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2013 in New York City.

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Katy Perry wore a Dolce & Gabbana dress to the Costume Institute Gala for the “PUNK: Chaos to Couture” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2013 in New York City.

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Katy Perry and Moschino designer Jeremy Scott attend the “China: Through The Looking Glass” Costume Institute Benefit Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 4, 2015 in New York City.

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Katy Perry wears Moschino to the “China: Through The Looking Glass” Costume Institute Benefit Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 4, 2015 in New York City.

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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.

Related: Katy Perry’s Most Delightful Interview for Witness is With This Adorable 7-Year-Old New Yorker

See a 7-year-old interview Katy Perry.

Katy Perry: America’s Biggest Export Goes Glam

Katy Perry on W‘s November 2013 cover.

Fashion: Chanel dress; Fleur du Mal bra; Harry Winston earrings and necklace. Beauty: Covergirl Whipped Creme Foundation in Ivory, LineBlast 24 Hour Eyeliner in Enduring Black, Flamed Out Mascara in Very Black Blaze, and LipPerfection Jumbo Gloss Balm in Toffee Twist.

Read the full interview here.

Katy Perry on W‘s November 2013 cover.

Fashion: Michael Kors turtleneck. Beauty: Revlon ColorStay Whipped Crème Makeup in Buff, ColorStay Crème Gel Eye Liner in Black, Lash Potion Mascara in Black, and ColorStay Ultimate Suede Lipstick in Front Row.

Read the full interview here.

Ralph Lauren Collection sweater; Altuzarra skirt; Tiffany & Co. earrings; Mikimoto necklace; Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. ring; Louis Vuitton pumps.

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Marc Jacobs top and skirt; Jacob & Co bracelet.

Beauty note: Amp up your bedroom eyes with Dior Diorshow Iconic Overcurl Mascara in Over Black.

Read the full interview here.

From bottom middle: Jacob & Co earrings.

Special thanks to Skylight West. Digital technician: Xanny Handfield. Photography assistants: Lars Beaulieu, Johnny Vicari, Bartosz Jankowski, David Shechter. Fashion assistant: Dena Giannini

Read the full interview here.

Michael Kors turtleneck; Wolford stockings; Jacob & Co watch. Styled by Edward Enninful.

Hair by Anthony Turner at Art Partner; makeup by Gucci Westman for Revlon; manicure by Alicia Torello for Essie at the Wall Group. Set design by Philipp Haemmerle. Sittings editor: Patrick Mackie.

Read the full interview here.

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