Honoring 90s House: Katy Perry's Witness and Madonna's Erotica

On Friday, Katy Perry released what is likely one of the biggest records of 2017: her fourth effort, Witness. After two high fructose pop albums (Teenage Dream and Prism), the diva has retooled her sound and released an album that celebrates early 90s house music. Witness's closest reference is Madonna's Erotica (1992), another brooding house album about self exploration and female power. Like Madonna's album, Witness  has an icy surface and may challenge listeners, but it works as a lyrical and sonic unit--textured, aggressive, and revealing.

Three teaser singles hinted to Witness's preoccupations: the social concern tune "Chained to Rhythm," the stiletto stomp ballroom track "Swish Swish," and the salacious "Bon Appetit." However interesting these tracks may be, they only anticipate the stronger material here. For example, "Roulette" borrows the girl-power hater take down of "Swish Swish" and escalates the formula with a larger, hookier chorus. Similarly, "Pendulum" builds on the social consciousness of "Chained to Rhythm"  but trades subdued satire for an anthem on karma, responsibility, and empowerment; it is one of the best tracks on the album.




Perry is not in a cheerful state of mind for most of the record, reflecting on self doubt ("Witness"), needing attention ("Deja Vu"), finding purpose ("Bigger Than Me"), and heartbreak ('Miss You More," "Save as Draft"). In some ways, it's disheartening to hear everyone's favorite California Girl sound so down, but nine years into one of the biggest music careers of the 21st century, listeners and critics have to expect some variation in Perry's sound.




That brings me back to Madonna's Erotica. Released nine years after her debut, the Queen of Pop's house record challenged perceptions of her pop brilliance. Erotica is a cold, harsh, and masterful exploration of sexuality and gender in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Madonna is not cheerful on Erotica and none of the singles from the album have the hook of a "Like a Virgin" or "Express Yourself," but the album succeeds because she is questioning, political, and often brutally honest. Critics and listeners took time to unpack Erotica's themes; two of its singles reached the Top 10 (the title track and "Deeper and Deeper"), but they were not runaway hits. (Not to mention, Madonna's best ballad, "Rain," peaked at 14--a crime, as far as I'm concerned.) However, time revealed the thoughtfulness embedded in the dance beats and dark themes.




It's hard to tell if Perry's Witness will face a similar reception. While Perry is not as controversial as a Madonna was in 1992, Witness also arrives nine years after her pop debut, has a chilly house sound, and focuses on downbeat subject matter; these parallels are too strong to ignore. What I can say is that Witness works as an unusual creation, and it is all the more interesting for its unexpected tone and restless lyrics.

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