Lo, the singer most associated with poorly trained shark dancers and weaponized bras and the last forthright celebration of homophobia on the pop charts has mentally molted: “Artist. Activist. Conscious,” reads Katy Perry’s recently updated Twitter bio. In late January she hinted at a change, writing, “Sometimes it’s scary opening up to consciousness … makes you realize how asleep you were, and how ok you were with it … ” Now comes her new single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” released to the world with Perry announcing, “We gonna call this era Purposeful Pop,” adding an eyeball emoji at the end.
A tropical-inflected disco anthem imploring the listener to dance, dance, dance, “Chained to the Rhythm” can pass into and out of the ears without forcing its Purpose on you. But listen close—maybe while watching the lyrics video about a hamster gourmand—and the politics are clear. It’s not just that Hillary Clinton’s No. 1 pop surrogate is mourning the election; it’s not just that she hired Skip Marley to sing “it is my desire to break down the walls / inspire,” which can’t help but be read as a Trump dig. It’s that Perry’s fed up with the complacency of the capitalist entertainment culture that she has thrived off—though, of course, she is going to try and keep thriving off it.
Perry’s gift for mixing metaphors, refined so exquisitely on “Roar,” returns within the first moments of the song: “Are we crazy? / Living our lives through a lens / Trapped in our white-picket fence / Like ornaments.” On a literal level, each line has nothing to do with the last, but taken together thematically, it’s Babbit. The pre-chorus makes like any given Atlantic columnist post-election and laments people “living in a bubble,” and the chorus says we sheeple “think we’re free free” but remain “chained to the rhythm.” Singalongs, the daily grind, social convention—all collapsed into one numbing hum. How to break out? An alt-righter might call the solution in Marley’s bridge downright antifa: “Up in your high place, liars / Time is ticking for the empire.”
A song like this was inevitable: Amid the ongoing drama of the Trump era, pop’s biggest stars have become more activist, headlining rallies and sending tweets of protest. Wouldn’t it be hypocritical for them to keep serving up the same distracting confections as before? Perry’s solution is to make music as perky as ever, and videos as cheeky-cute as ever, but to ladle in some malaise. Hit-making legends Max Martin and Ali Payami co-wrote the tune, and the way you can tell is that within three listens it becomes clear this song will be in heavy rotation at grocery stores for the next 16 months. But Sia also co-wrote, and the way you can tell is that something is going on with the chords so that even as you tap your toe you may also feel pangs of dread and consider the inevitability of death.
But it’s Perry’s involvement that is the most interesting. Her work always evoked a plastered-on smile, but despite her winks to the camera there was little irony within her music itself. This time, though, the false cheer is definitely meant to read false. It’s a vision of how liberals might be able to keep partying in the Trump era: sadly.