On last weekend's season finale of Saturday Night Live, Katy Perry was the musical guest. It made complete sense to pair her with The Rock, Hollywood’s biggest name right now as well as the closer to the most popular SNL season in years. About a decade ago give or take, Perry had dropped her given birth name of Hudson for a bit of edge. Her big single was about kissing girls — we were about four years removed from Britney and Madonna’s MTV liplock so yeah, still a controversy — and her subsequent album did things only Michael Jackson had done. She even performed at the Super Bowl for crying out loud. Katy Perry on SNL was a slam-dunk in the minds of NBC executives.
Then, the performance happened. And um, things happened. Mostly terrible things worthy of a Stefon fever dream, but things nonetheless.
Normally, a Why This Song Sucks would be just right for both “Bon Appétit”; the customary Migos feature (which has ALL of the Migos, not just Quavo!) is mostly a "1,000 Ways to Make a Sex Metaphor With Food" song that R. Kelly already mastered with 2005's “Sex In the Kitchen.” But late Thursday night pre-SNL, Perry revealed “Swish Swish” featuring Nicki Minaj and, wait — we can’t have two clunker singles from the leader of the Katy Kats, can we? Oh yes, we definitely can.
“Swish Swish” is Perry’s attempt at a pop diss record with about every hashtag-worthy put-down of faux self-affirmation you can get packed into two verses: “Don’t come for me”; “you will kiss the ring”; “I keep winning,” etc. Minaj, for her efforts, rides a splashy, house-tinged beat as if this were “Truffle Butter” Part 2. Between name-dropping Migos and referencing her late-winter feud with Remy Ma (“silly rap beefs just give me more checks”), it’s a Minaj guest appearance I can get behind — except for the singing. Lord knows all of the subliminal messages deeply buried in “Swish Swish,” from art to delivery, are about Taylor Swift, right down to the “1 Tea” from “Karma Coffee & Tea” image on the receipt, a direct reference to last year’s delicious humbling of Swift by Kim Kardashian-West, of all people.
To her credit, Katy did something good in that SNL performance. She brought up a troupe of drag queens during “Bon Appétit,” an offset (no pun intended) of Migos’ rather confusing stance on homosexuality in hip-hop. It still doesn’t shift from the rather doofy statement Quavo made when he made it clear that making a song with Frank Ocean means Migos is not anti-homosexuals, but I digress. (Perry has since unfollowed Migos on Instagram, for whatever that's worth.) The entire night had enough awkward moments that we can easily highlight three key points: the Beetlejuice suit that made Katy look like the fusion-dance spawn of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus’ VMA “twerk-a-thon” of a few years ago; her attempts at hitting the dab, which we’ve moved on from; and, of course, the songs themselves, which feel more like a giant reach into the hip-hop universe by grabbing big names, only to get mediocre results.
What ultimately will be said about Perry and this new album of hers, Witness, is that for every grab for hip-hop relevancy (the Migos are ubiquitous, Minaj the biggest female rapper), there is cause for concern. Remember “Chained to the Rhythm,” her dark post-Hillary track that served as the lead single? Perry was lockstep in campaigning for Hillary Clinton’s failed White House attempt. "45" has become a simple, Voldemort-like pseudonym for the guy who is actually president these days. Clinton's defeat drove Perry to release "Rhythm," a dark, dystopian disco record; making cooking videos to tease singles; and declare herself an activist following her appearance at January’s Women’s March. “Chained to the Rhythm” has already come and gone, even after debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
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The point is, Katy Perry doesn’t know how to market this album, especially after reaching the Pop Summit with Teenage Dream seven years ago. Peak Katy Perry gave us clever, if not goofy, pop moments where dancing was key and having fun at a premium. Why else would “Friday Night” be such a cheesy yet welcoming splash of a weekend sugar rush? Coming out with bargain-bin Miley Cyrus hip-hop tropes (and once again touching those cultural-appropriationwaters) charges Cyrus ultimately avoided when she decided to go back to her country roots? Check. Making watered-down versions of hip-hop records that previous collaborators (Juicy J, Kanye West) brought better results from her? Check.
Last September, I referred to Drake as “Rap Game Hillary Clinton” solely because of his politician-like pandering. Pop-music think tanks staffed by stylists and faceless “teams” that mold artists into whatever pop culture is running with? Nothing more than "consultants" and campaign managers who ask candidates to kiss up to bases they may or may not truly give a damn about.
Given what we’ve gotten from Witness so far, Katy Perry may be on her way to enduring pop's equivalent to Hillary's loss last November. And that may be the most frightening thing of all.