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Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and the end of the Imperial Phase

When Katy Perry became the first pop artist to score five consecutive number one singles off one album, she became something more than just your average pop star.

The hits from said album, Teenage Dream, were not just hits, they were seismic in their impact and reach. To date, six of the album’s singles have sold more than two million digital copies each in the States. ‘E.T,’ with its trap-dominated ‘We Will Rock You’-esque beat was a bold precursor to the dominance of EDM on commercial radio, ‘Firework’s’ metaphor-based sentimentality helped set the template for the work of hit-maker Sia Furler and with the album’s title track, Perry helped create what, one day, many people will no doubt consider one of the crowning achievements of 21st century popular music.

Teenage Dream, to put it simply, made Katy Perry a superstar. One of the most successful, and consistent, hit-makers since Madonna in the 80s and it heralded in Perry’s Imperial Phase a pop-star; the point in her career when she seemed genuinely unstoppable. But every Imperial Phase has to end, it’s just taken Perry a little longer to feel the ricochets from her descent. Her fourth album, Witness, released last Friday, is preceded by three singles that have, in way or another, all missed the mark either commercially or critically. Perry herself has also, for the first time, become a wider target for derision on social media; from everything to her hair, her performances, even her half-arsed attempt at dabbing.

That’s not to say that this derision is entirely undeserved; in the past few weeks, Perry has seemed increasingly in-consistent with the tone for Witness. First, there was the ‘purposeful pop’ of first single ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ and an accompanying BRITs performance anchored by the appearance of two massive, blow-up, skeletal models of Donald Trump and Theresa May. A few weeks later, she’s buzzed all her hair off and re-ignited her ridiculous feud with Taylor Swift on the track ‘Swish Swish.’

This comes down to, more than ever, an identity crisis for Perry. Witness is – or even, was supposed to be – an evolutionary moment for Perry, stepping aside from the wink-wink, nudge-nudge cartoonish aesthetic of her past and into something a bit more tangible and relatable to modern times. Somewhere along the line, that’s been lost, and both Perry’s public appearance and the new album itself represent a wide berth between the album Perry originally intended to make, and the material she’s actually ended up releasing.

Identity crises in pop music is not a new thing. Many music icons have weathered an identity crisis or two in their time, most make it through alive, but left un-checked it can have devastating consequences for someone’s career. Take Lady Gaga, who, coming off her 2011 opus Born This Way was still the biggest, barmiest pop-star in the world, just tailing off from her Imperial Phase earmarked by the emergence of ‘Bad Romance’ and ended by the commercial disappointment of ‘Marry The Night.’ Gaga, however, took things one step too far with 2013’s ARTPOP; a convoluted mess of ideology and excess that played up her weirdness – lead single ‘Applause’ saw a swan-headed Gaga hatch from a furry egg – but managed to leave her penchant for a game-changing chorus in the background. Album standouts ‘MANiCURE’ and ‘Gypsy’ side-lined for more outre, avant-garde buzz singles like ‘Aura’ and the convoluted ‘Venus.’

Having both emerged at the turn of the decade when dance-orientated pop music began to dominate airwaves, Perry and Gaga will always be compared to one another, having both risen to the top through a combination of their transcendent choruses, larger-than-life public personas and their legions of devoted fans. Persona is at the heart of the problem here as well. For all their extremities – Gaga’s meat dress and Perry’s whipped cream-shooting breasts – we’ve entered a phase in popular music where less is more. This phase was just kicking in when Gaga debuted ARTPOP, and once where her extroversion seemed ground-breaking, it now seemed trite and self-indulgent. The same can be said for Perry – who kicked off Witness preaching purposeful pop, but then showed up on The Voice France two weeks ago dressed up as chef surrounded by life-size dancing fruit. Much like Gaga in 2013, it seems Perry has lost her foothold on the pop zeitgeist, and is instead playing catch up by throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

The fall-out of ARTPOP’s commercial and critical backlash is still being felt by Gaga today, who, in the immediate years after the album’s release, did everything she could to not act like Lady Gaga. She released a jazz album with Tony Bennet, won a Golden Globe for her role on American Horror Story and was Oscar-nominated for a song she wrote featured in a film about campus rape culture in the states. Last year’s Joanne was a reflection and a reaction against the indulgence of ARTPOP and was a more stripped-down, intimate look at not Gaga, but Stefani Germanotta. She even stripped all the Gaga ideology away for the album’s cover, appearing with nothing but a pink cowboy hat.

This, however, is a journey Katy Perry will still have to make. Witness is shaping up to be her ARTPOP – where her previously impenetrable hit-making armour is shown to have several holes – but it is only the beginning of her re-invention. And just like ARTPOP, for all the hoo-ha surrounding it, Witness is not a bad album. Yes, there’s too many needless detours (‘Swish Swish’) and an assortment of cliches (‘Bon Appetite,’ ‘Hey Hey Hey’) Perry should know better than to avoid, but for the whole it remains a solid dance-pop album (when it’s on fire, one of the best of the year) with moments of great emotional clarity (‘Roulette,’ ‘Pendulum’) that prove Perry still has clout.

It’s a re-invention that is already starting. Perry has shared footage recently of a therapy session (filmed as part of a Big Brother-style project to promote Witness’ release) where she tackles the difference between plain old Kathryn Hudson and her alter-ego Katy Perry. “I didn’t want to look like Katy Perry anymore,” she says, explaining the decisions behind her haircut. Gaga re-discovered her fire, and her commercial appeal, by stripping her identity down to its bare bones with Joanne, and it would be a wise move of Perry to do the same after moving on from Witness (which should top the US Billboard Charts but is currently being outsold by London Grammar in the UK). She will never be able to capture the past glories of her Imperial Phase – Teenage Dream will remain just that – but with any lucky, Perry still has a long career ahead of her and many avenues, and identities, to explore.

Words by George Griffiths

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