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Katy Perry: what are we actually witnessing?

Like many of today’s pop stars, the singer is striving for ‘authenticity’ but this hypervisibility has made it even harder to see what’s real

“Can I get a witness?” sings Katy Perry on the title track of her fifth studio album. The analogy of witnessing, viewing and sight seeps through the whole record and the unusual rollout of the album. The artwork shows the singer with her eyes closed and covered, her mouth open wide, with a third eye popped firmly in the centre. “Music has allowed me to travel, which has reeducated my mind and changed my perspective on so much, so my education and my consciousness comes from my voice,” she explains on Jimmy Fallon. “That's how I see, and that's how I witness you and that's how you witness me.” 

For the past month, we’ve seen a whole lot of Katy Perry, but it has become increasingly difficult to understand exactly what we are watching. Reinvention has become a requirement for any new album, and so fittingly we’ve seen the singer don a whole new persona. Pixie cut in tow, the ultra-relatable part-Katy Perry, part-Miley Cyrus hybrid was being wheeled out everywhere. Each promo appearance was a spectacle more peculiar than the last. Why is she making so many wacky noises on Ellen? What are those dance moves with Migos? Who is this random kid in the backpack with the shit moves on SNL?

The WTFs continued with her piece de resistance: Witness World Wide – I suppose the www is on purpose to signify the fact that this is the internet age and that she is an ultra modern gal. I tuned into a timestamped Livestream to an expressionless Katy Perry taking a bit of time to sleep, probably in need of a rest from doing the absolute most. At 4:30 am her face creases slightly as she touches her nose and settles back into a peaceful slumber. As each live camera focussed on a different angle of the sleeping musician I wondered what the hell I was watching and more importantly, why?

Social media has become increasingly important to musicians as their fanbases crave proximity to their favourite stars and there is a pressure to be relatable. So to coincide with the Witness album Katy Perry launched her own version of Big Brother for her KatyCats with only one contestant – her. The 24-hour live stream allowed for four days of uninterrupted access and included a star-studded lineup as carefully selected celebrities dropped by for conversations with the pop star.

Hypervisibility is already part and parcel of the celebrity lifestyle. With a heightened profile, you are often under constant public scrutiny and your private matters play out in public for all to see. It’s a familiar feeling for Katy Perry whose marriage and divorce to Russell Brand became tabloid fodder. However, when her unravelling relationship subsequently formed the subplot to her autobiographical documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me, she made $32 million. While the latest stunt could be an attempt to publicise her life on her own terms after living in a fishbowl where overexposure is the norm, the cynic’s view is that it is probably another example of her ambitious appetite for monetising her most intimate moments. 

“She’s just like you and it all feels like it could be real until she looks at the camera or speaks to the millions of people she knows are watching her every move”

By picking apart her selection of guests you can see what it is she so desperately wants to show us. She is almost Christ-like in her quiet humility when talking to DeRay Mckesson, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist. Together they rehash the many times the singer has been called out for cultural appropriation. Softly she confesses she had been wrong in the past, but condemns “clap back” culture. “Say it out of compassion,” she suggests. “Go fuck yourself,” Black Twitter replies. I guess they won’t always see eye to eye.

Throughout the programming, Katy Perry refers to her true self by her real name: Kathryn Hudson. Hudson is a lot shier than Katy Perry. She is insecure, quiet and above all she is human. Everything you say to Katy Perry, Hudson feels. Everything Hudson isn’t, Katy Perry masks. The schedule allows us to see a full spectrum of emotions and positive qualities of Hudson: she’s funny with James Corden, an LGBT ally with Rupaul, she’s just like you when she is playing with her dog – and it all feels like it could be real until she looks at the camera or speaks to the millions of people she knows are watching her every move. She never forgets she is being watched, she never falters.

This glitch in reality peaks with the therapy session televised in collaboration with Viceland. She refers to her stage name and her birth name and emphasises the battle between the two personas. For example, she says her hair was cut in order to be closer to her authentic self, a side she isn’t often able to show to her Christian parents, or even to her adoring fans. Amid her many admissions from difficult childhood memories to struggles with mental health, her struggle with authenticity is centre stage. 

Katy Perry said that she wanted to champion “purposeful pop” with her new album and start conversations. So far ‘Swish Swish’, ‘Bon Appetite’ and ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ (featuring Skip Marley who lent his talents to Kendall Jenner’s purposeful Pepsi ad), have failed to enlighten the masses. Therapy is a bruisingly honest exercise, and it could encourage young people to get help for their mental health issues. But that session along with the whole stream felt like an attempt to inject humanity into a pop megabrand. 

Vulnerability brought to you by Viceland, apologies for appropriation cosigned by Deray Mckesson: when you consider that a team of people will have sat, planned and carefully constructed this “realness” for you to see, the result is far less genuine. There is a collective fatigue (among those who are not hardcore KatyCats) with this performed authenticity for the sake of album sales. Despite the host of celebrities brought in to absolve her of past controversies and allow her to demonstrate her newfound woke-ness – only Katy Perry can know whether she is being her authentic self in these broadcasted scenes. However, she invited the world to watch and therefore to judge.

This is a hell of a stunt for the Witness release and for that her and her team should be applauded for originality, but with her calculated method of getting us to see the ‘real’ her, it’s hard not to see right through the whole thing.