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Katy Perry’s ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ is a Semi-Woke Tropical Disco Bop: Review

Bernard Chapin via YouTube
Bernard Chapin via YouTube

“Dance, dance, dance to the distortion…”

It’s been just over three years since Katy Perry released her last album, Prism. Between then and now, she performed at the Super Bowl Halftime Show (with Left Shark!), launched her own label, recorded a song for the Olympics, campaigned tirelessly for Hillary Clinton… and got “woke,” for better or worse. (“I’m wide awake…“)

On “Chained to the Rhythm,” Perry’s first single from her long awaited fourth studio album, due out 2017, the picket sign-wielding pop star dashes her wistful sex-drenched teenage dreams of yesteryear (more specifically, 2010) for a subtle socially-minded sound—a path she previously hinted she would take.

Over a warm, shimmering, throbbing trop-disco beat, the “California Gurl” waxes about apathy, media distortion and the political bubble, all major points of conversation during the explosive 2016 presidential election: “Are we tone deaf / Keep sweeping it under the mat… / So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble / So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble,” she muses.

She also gets a reggae-tinged assist on the track’s bridge courtesy of Skip Marley—grandson of iconic peace activist and musician Bob Marley—who sticks it to the man:

It is my desire
Break down the walls to connect, inspire
Up in your high place, liars
Time is ticking for the empire
The truth they feed is feeble
As so many times before
They greed over the people
They stumbling and fumbling
And we about to riot
They woke up, they woke up the lions

Unfortunately, Perry’s message ultimately gets lost in the Max Martin-produced rhythm she so desperately desires to break free from. Any of the song’s mild, radio-friendly activism disintegrates altogether on the chorus when the artist loses her footing and begins to crow about turning up her “favorite song” and “stumbling around like a wasted zombie.”

If the intention is to sarcastically lampoon our collective tendency to willfully ignore the writing on the wall, so to speak—for instance, you may interpret the “wasted zombie” lyric as a criticism of our dependency on the State to manipulate us—the point becomes moot once the singer-songwriter surrenders to the tune’s bubblegum froth and shifts into party anthem ambiguity. (Not all music needs to be political, and all political music doesn’t need to be overt—but it should certainly be clear enough to leave a lasting impact on the listener without being up for interpretation.)

While the performer’s fizzy, rose-colored “purposeful pop” return is welcome—and a nice break from the moody, atmospheric R&B sex-pop currently dominating Top 40—it lacks the bite and sacrifice of other artists who have tread into unfiltered social, cultural and political commentary in their music (Lady Gaga‘s “Born This Way,” Beyonce‘s “Formation,” M.I.A.‘s “Powa”).

Don’t get me wrong: There’s no doubt Perry’s catchy, mid-tempo “Chained to the Rhythm” won’t be her next radio hit. It’s a bop. And the single’s anti-complacency rallying cry is something I can get behind. But until the pop star breaks wholly free from the notion that she can dance her way through the revolution, she remains shackled to her disco ball.

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