Katy Perry’s ‘Witness’ is a bleak crusade for intimacy in the digital age

Email my heart?

Imagine your terror of tweeting a joke that doesn’t quite land or even a careless typo. Multiply that pressure millions of times, and you’re in Katy Perry’s social media hell, where the weirdly defensive Witness was born.

The album plays out like the “Can you hear me now?” Verizon commercials a meme before we knew to call it that as Perry wanders aimlessly in search of a connection. “Can I get a witness?” she pleads. Feeling like the world is slipping out of your fingers is ripe for material, but more of than than not, it comes off as robotic. She’s chained to her own rhythm.

On “Roulette” she’s faced with temptation “texting me a bubble of trouble,” and gives in, “so I drop a pin to my location / and roll the dice.” The specific references are distracting. We know what’s going on with Perry’s iPhone but not with Perry herself.

“Save As Draft” doesn’t bother with code one bit, referencing an ex’s SUV on Sunset Boulevard and, more damning, his social media habits. “But I take a deep breath, and I save as draft,” she sings, “You don’t have to subtweet me / my numbers always been the same.”

Pop stars, historically, haven’t had much luck singing about the tools of technology without sounding clunky. The telephone is endlessly romantic the smartphone, so far, not so much. More often than not, it comes off as pure novelty. Britney Spears’ “Email My Heart” is a banner example as well as its dirtier counterpart, *NSYNC’s “Digital Getdown.” Beyonc made it work, but it was all in her delivery slinky and self-assured. Tackling the way we communicate now with Drake’s ease in a pop song is no small feat. Carly Rae Jepsen, though she doesn’t make the same explicit references to technology, sings about ghosting, yearning, and jealousy with conspiratorial authority. She cuts to the feeling of modern love’s glut of gray area.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of language for the the way relationships have been radically altered by technology. It seems like every week, we’re coining a new term for an egregious online dating offense repeated so rapidly it becomes routine.

Maybe it just has more to do with the way famous people are treating their digital existences as novel instead of simply the way people live now, and it’s a missed opportunity. Elevating mundane heartbreak to the sublime has always been the perfect formula for a pop song.

We’ve seen that Katy Perry (or Kathryn Hudson) before. Her tour documentary, Part of Me, captured the singer at the top of her game professionally and facing a personal nadir as her marriage to Russel Brand was crumbling. A cold text message ended it all. It was an endearing portrait of an artist trying to balance what she was willing to give and what she couldn’t let people take from her anymore. Teenage Dream‘s monster success followed by Part of Me set her up to ground her cotton candy cloud persona, but finding her footing since then has been a challenge. Prism was a decent effort that didn’t quite have the same luster, but Witness feels more like a spiral.

Ballads like “Miss You More” drag on and tired metaphors, like a bird with clipped wings, pollute nearly every single track. Remember the plastic bag, Katy? That was different!

There are bright spots on Witness, though. Perry takes charge of her unique upbringing on “Power” and finds her glee on “Pendulum.” The closing track, “Into Me You See” delivers the vulnerability she teased for this whole ride.

“This is intimacy,” Perry concludes in Witness‘ final breaths. It would have been a great starting point.

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