One year ago, on Nov. 8, 2016, Katy Perry — such a staunch Hillary Clinton stumper, she once designed a Hillary-inspired pair of shoes — reacted to the night’s presidential election results by temporarily blacking out her Twitter page, then returning to social media to declare, “Do not sit still. Do not weep. MOVE. We are not a nation that will let HATE lead us.” Three months later, she was onstage at the Grammy Awards singing her politically charged single “Chained to the Rhythm” in a Hillary-inspired white pantsuit in front of a giant backdrop of the Constitution. It was presumably a preview of the promised “purposeful pop” on her fifth album, Witness, then still unreleased.
Witness ended up not being nearly as “woke” as Perry’s Twitter feed and appearances at both the Grammys and last January’s Women’s March implied. Instead of being a great American songbook of protest anthems, it was a mishmash of inconsistent and unconvincing house music/hip-hop bangers about oral gratification (“Bon Appetit”), that tired Taylor Swift feud (“Swish Swish”), and email etiquette (“Save a Draft”) that received mixed responses at best from fans, critics, radio program directors, and bewildered SNL viewers.
Still, when Perry played Los Angeles’s Staples Center Wednesday on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s election win — and the night after several 2018 election victories for the Democratic Party, including five historic wins for transgender candidates — one might have expected Perry to make some sort of grand political statement. Perry didn’t do that (“Tonight is about community!” was the only thing she said that came even slightly close to social commentary), but the “Firework” diva and new American Idol judge did offer something that We the People truly need in these troubled times: escapism, optimism, and poptimism.
Much of Perry’s show was almost literally eye-popping. Giant, Residents-reminiscent eyeballs were a recurring visual element of her Vegas-style, two-hour revue, and it hearkened back to an ostensibly simpler time, a time of ’80s teenage dreams. Backed by a pastel-pink, flying V-brandishing band of Jem & the Holograms clones, Perry interpolated Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” during a Minneapolis funk version of “California Gurls” (with Left Shark filling for Snoop Dogg!); and gyrated in what appeared to be L.A. Gear kicks and Max Headroom sunglasses against a neon backdrop of pixelated Pac-Man and Patrick Nagel graphics. The 1980s may have had Reagan and the Cold War, but that decade was also a ton of fun, and Perry, who was born in ’84, seemed determined to recreate the feelgood retro vibes of her “T.G.I.F.” music video in many of her numbers.
Perry also got nostalgic for the more recent past, shouting out L.A.’s nearby Hotel Café — the 165-capacity club where she used to play regularly — while performing the acoustic One of the Boys ballad “Thinking of You.” True, she strummed the song while sitting on a model of the planet Saturn, strung up on wires, and riding above the 21,000-strong Staples crowd. But it was still the evening’s most intimate moment, with Perry’s often unfairly derided voice on full, glorious display — a welcome reminder of Perry’s humble roots and not-so-humble talents.
Not every performance was a slam dunk. Her burlesque/pole-dancing shtick on Witness’s “Tsunami” fell flat, for instance. Perry, a natural comedienne, fared better with Witness tracks when she took a goofy approach, like when she held a literally slam-dunking basketball free-throw contest during “Swish Swish” or had her dancers liberally sprinkle her with oversized salt-and-pepper shakers filled with glitter during “Bon Appetit.” The decidedly non-woke “I Kissed a Girl,” which has not dated well, was also a misstep: In 2017, a song celebrating casual bi-curiosity as a means of merely titillating hetero men and attracting the male gaze — particularly in front of an audience comprising so many LGBTQ and underage female fans — didn’t feel right, despite Perry’s vaguely feminist declaration: “This one’s for my ladies!”
But hey, at least Perry seems to have permanently retired “Ur So Gay” from her setlist. And her triumphantly show-closing body-positivity/anti-bullying anthem “Firework” sounded even more relevant and genuinely moving than it did seven years ago. So I’m with her.
The third and final night of Katy Perry’s Staples Center residency takes place Friday, Nov. 10.