An Overly Intellectual Analysis of Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm”
A domestic symposium on what makes a good protest song.
I'm Brandon, and Katy Perry is wrecking my home.
Until Grammy night, 2017, my boyfriend and I agreed on most of life's important questions. We trusted each other to know that bubble tea is overrated; that cable news is terrible; that Lady Gaga peaked with the Let's Make a Sandwich portion of the "Telephone" video.
Penn and I have been together a little more than ten years, and we know each other well. Which is why we both understood we were in deep shit not long after Katy Perry appeared onstage at the Grammys in February to premiere her new single, "Chained To The Rhythm."
Sometime near the end of the first chorus I glanced Pennwards, and he had that look—the look I remember seeing on thousands of faces when we went to see Barack Obama speak for the first time, in early 2008. It was a look that combined exaltation and anticipation and shock. In this context, with Katy Perry bellowing her bull-moose blare from our flatscreen's speakers, it was a look that turned my stomach.
Penn noticed me noticing him after a minute, and he gave me a helpless shrug. "It's good!" he said, wearing a grin that was equal parts dopey happiness, reasonable embarrassment, and dumb defiance. I saw the future in that look. I knew that this song would play in our bedroom for months. We'd fight about it. Penn would sing it in the shower. He'd dance out of the master bath, all blinding-white knees and drippy elbows, hollering "Time is tick-in for em-pi-UR!" with an angry prole fist raised to the ceiling.
And so it came to be. Penn thinks "Chained To The Rhythm," which topped the Billboard Dance Chart last week and currently sits at #3, is an important document, and perhaps The Most Important Pop Song of The Decade. I, on the other hand, believe Katy Perry and my life partner are both full of shit.
So we're gonna hash this thing out. Here's Penn.
Penn Bullock: Katy Perry, the pop star who once shot whipped cream out of her boobs for the "California Gurls" video, is now, according to her Twitter (the most followed in the world), an "Artist. Activist. Conscious." Skeptical? Good. We should be.
But I came out of my first few listenings to "Chained To The Rhythm" convinced it was one of the most important pop hits of the past decade. I've obeyed the chorus's exhortation to "keep it on repeat." I've watched the video—set in a 30s-style, retro-futurist theme park unsubtly called "Oblivia"—more times than I can count.
"Chained to the Rhythm" is a song about the sedative powers of pop and the collapse of American society. It still gives me goosebumps, and even a shock of self-recognition. Dancing or singing along, I've been one of the literal "wasted zombies" to which the chorus is addressed, spiraling in the Trump era into loops of alcohol-fueled escapism and dread.
Brandon knows that since 2008, I've ranted to anyone who cared to listen that the United States was replaying Weimar Germany and doomed to fascism. I saw the pre-fascist zeitgeist expressed in Lady Gaga, in the Dadaism and German Expressionism of her music videos and image, especially in the totalitarian stylings of "Alejandro."
Now, the fascist moment has arrived. Our Mussolini-quoting president has endorsed the neo-fascist Marine Le Pen for the French presidency, and his chief advisor is a fan of Julius Evola, who found Mussolini too mild. And where are Gaga and the rest of the Top-40 hitmakers?
In bed with the overlords, it turns out. Gaga's countrified 2016 album Joanne fits right in with Trump's America. Her video for "John Wayne" worships American sadism, and her Pepsi-sponsored Super Bowl halftime show mesmerized with red-and-blue drones swirling in the sky and a rendition of "This Land" that seemed to invite mindless coming-together. It was much better received but almost as insipid as Kendall Jenner's Pepsi-sponsored trip to the barricades. Or take Lana Del Rey's newish single, "Love." It reassures millennials that, though the world has gone mad and their jobs are shit, they at least have (fleeting) youth and love. Its video combines lovely celestial imagery with creepy 50s nostalgia. Pop, in other words, isn't rising to the occasion. We might yet hear protest from Rihanna, Lorde, Ariana Grande, and others, but so far we've gotten more of the same. If we're left with Katy Perry as the first herald of the end times, I'll take it.
"Chained" was co-written by Sia and co-produced by Max Martin, the Swedish grey eminence of contemporary pop. It hooked me from its first seconds with a washed-out backing track that owes something to chillwave. Katy Perry wastes no time getting to her point, opening the first verse asking, simply, "Are we crazy?" She describes Americans "living through a lens" and curating their lives as if they were "ornaments." Her point is no less true for being crotchety. Americans really do spend too much time looking at reality captured by lenses.
Perry then asks if we are "lonely up there in utopia." In this utopia, "nothing is ever enough," Perry says, and the natives are "happily numb"—points that, again, are no less true or in need of saying for being simple. Must she really further substantiate that Americans are insatiable, lonely megalomaniacs? The proof is in the president.
The first verse would be preachy and flat if it didn't lead immediately to a soaring, fatalistic chorus. Perry goes self-referential, turning the lens on herself—after interrogating America, she invites listeners to put on the "rose-colored glasses," "turn up" her song, "dance to the distortion," "keep it on repeat," and "drink—this one's on me." She calls the people dancing to the song in clubs around the world "wasted zombies." She says this not out of contempt, but as an admitted enabler. And the meta-trick of the chorus wouldn't work if it wasn't viciously catchy, but it is. This is a song that critiques the opioid haze of popular culture with the ultimate in opiate-infused choruses. This is great art.
Brandon Thorp: Here's an argument that's very nearly ad hominem. Because Katy Perry has made the worst and stupidest mega-successful pop music of her era, we should approach her products with something meaner than skepticism. We should approach them with hostility. There are now two generations of young adults whose pop metabolisms have been corrupted by empty-calorie bullshit like "Firework," "Roar" and "Rise." These are songs that celebrate clichéd writing and thinking as virtues; songs that articulate and dramatize bad, wrong, soul-killing ideas; songs that occasionally stumble into interesting musical territory (the abrupt switch to melodic-minor at the end of each verse in "Dark Horse") but become so idiotically delighted with themselves that they drown what novelty they've found in self-congratulation (that switch to melodic-minor sounds vaguely Middle Eastern: let's set the video in ancient Egypt!). I should repeat: the actual "messages" in these songs, inasmuch as they have messages, are toxic. Katy's gospel is basically "The Secret": believe in yourself sufficiently, and nothing can keep you down.
I suppose "Chained To The Rhythm" is a corrective to that, at least. If we're "crazy," "tone deaf," and "chained to the rhythm"—and if we're all of those things "up there in utopia," where we've become "trapped in" (and not behind) "a white picnic fence"—then it probably won't do us much good to "let our colors work" as we "rise" and "roar." I'm glad Katy Perry realizes it, but I sense she's a bit behind the curve. Yes, life is hopelessly circumscribed, and most of us are chained to many things and doomed in one way or another. But while every obscenely rich pop star is different, it's perhaps not a stretch to assume that most of them see and know far less of chains and doom than the rest of us.
Katy Perry has finally learned of doom. It appears to have happened when her preferred presidential candidate, for whom she stumped, lost in a squeaker to an actual monster. I don't doubt that this was traumatic for Perry, as it was for nearly everyone I know. But I do doubt that the experience conferred on her the sort of wisdom she pretends to in "Chained To The Rhythm."
It is true that "we," no matter which "we" we might be, are "so comfortable we're living in a bubble, bubble/so comfortable we cannot see the trouble, trouble." How could it be otherwise? The waking day is a pitiful vessel for the screaming sensory waterfall of the world, and almost all of what we see and hear is curated by the people and media with which we surround ourselves. And that curation probably does prevent, say, a Californian pop star from understanding the economic misery of the Rust Belt, and vice versa. Everyone's near-sighted in this way. Edging up to this point, Katy Perry nearly arrives at something important—something which, if she was Elvis Costello or even Lady Gaga, she might dramatize in the song's next section with a story or a searing image.
But that's not Katy Perry's way. Perry's a collagist of cliché. In almost every song, she assembles fragments of sentences and familiar phrases into an order that matters only because it rhymes. Rearrange the lines, and you lose rhymes but no meaning. And so now she asks:
"Are you lonely
Up there in utopia?
Where nothing will ever be enough?
So comfortable we're living in a bubble-bubble"
It is now clear to which "we" the previous bit was addressed. She was referring to those of us in utopia. A utopia in which we're simultaneously somehow ravenous, numb, and comfy. Please pardon me if, after such confusion, I cannot hear sly self-implication in the chorus. I can hear only a singer not quite careful enough to realize who she's implicating, or why, singing in a style and to an audience as indifferent to nuance as she is.
Lenses, bubbles, chains—Katy Perry treats them as talismans, as if by merely invoking the buzzwords of the socially aware she is treating with their issues. But that's not how the world, or art, works. Pop music that engages with social realities must dramatize them. It must, at least, telegraph more than a bland awareness of their existence. Songs that manage the trick—"Like a Rolling Stone," Cyndi Lauper's cover of "Money Changes Everything," "Holiday in the Sun," "Fuck Tha Police," Santigold's "The Keepers," thousands of others—do not sound at all like "Chained To The Rhythm." They're disturbing. They unsettle the mind. They're not slick, no matter their production values. They bother, and by bothering, de-zombify the listener. "Chained To The Rhythm" remarks on our zombification while effecting it, inviting us to cluck our tongues, lament the state of the world, and leave it at that. Perhaps Katy Perry, Sia, and Max Martin believe tongue-clucking really is all our moment demands from its art. If so, it's only because the moment hasn't quite reached them. Their own bubbles are better insulated than ours.
Bullock: The problem with your argument is that, as you admit, it is "very nearly ad hominem." You drag Katy Perry's discography through the mud, but "Chained" is a break from that catalog. Perry is renouncing her past. We can't know where she'll end up, but "Chained" is promising.
You argue that Perry's "bubble" metaphor is simplistic, because we all live in bubbles—is Perry, who enjoys a nine-figure bubble, just discovering this? In fact, the "bubble" metaphor is open to interpretation. My own is that she's referring not to the many individual and local bubbles that Americans live in, but the overall bubble of American life. The system's shock absorbers have kept us too comfortable for too long. As the Trump presidency and climate crisis threaten to kill us off, we find ourselves too domesticated to see the danger and do much of anything.
And that's what makes "Chained" such a thrilling descent into nihilism, and allows it to pass your test for songs that "dramatize social realities." Such songs, you say, have to be "chilling" and "disturbing." And "Chained" is that, because it's addressed not to a social movement, as Bob Dylan's songs were in the early 1960s, but to dulled, atomized masses, and the only hope it offers comes in Skip Marley's incendiary bridge, prophesying social collapse and civil unrest. Like its forerunner, Grace Jones's "Slave to the Rhythm," which dominated the club charts with a coded message about the contiguity of past slavery with the present economy, "Chained" smuggles its message into bars and clubs under the covering fire of a slick chorus. You say that great protest music is never slick. Sometimes it has to be.
Thorp: This is the last test, Penn. What does the song actually do?
In the moment of listening, when you sit down to hear this thing, or when it glances your eardrums in a dim room while you're half-dancing and sipping a vodka soda, are you discomfited? Do you feel implicated? Does something in the atmosphere change?
Maybe "Chained To The Rhythm" does that for some people, even if I can't imagine how or why. But it reminds me too much of a gazillion bromides from recent Democratic party luminaries. Recall Barack Obama's constant invocation of "folks sitting around their kitchen tables," worried about their bills. Think of Hillary Clinton's endlessly repeated robot-nod to the miseries of steel towns and coal country: "We need an economy that works not just for those at the top, but for all Americans!" Call to mind anything ever said by deposed DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. These are not the sounds of political passion. These are not the sounds of reckoning. These are the sounds of boxes being checked, and they leave disgruntled anyone who actually lives with the horrors signified by the buzzwords and talking points. This is the drift of modern mass-thought, the rhetorical terminus of Facebook activism: the belief that to name an evil is to tame it.
This is a wrong belief, and a dangerous one. If you listen carefully to Katy Perry, you hear evil named, and accepted, and greeted with both shrugs and benediction. I say "benediction" because "Chained To The Rhythm" really is a beautiful song. There's a whiff of the epic in the sweeping, whooshing chorus; a widescreen grandeur to the echo and flangers on Skip Marley's voice. The doom of the world is made into an occasion for romance, and maybe a party. (Maybe a Democratic party!)
Are there other possible reactions to onrushing ruin? "Chained To The Rhythm" presents an excellent opportunity for its singer to register horror, anger, confusion—but these reactions do not occur to Katy Perry, and she seems unlikely to inspire them in her audience. "Chained To The Rhythm" doesn't even try to break the chains it describes. It only shows us how to dance in them.
Bullock: I have literally been that person you describe sipping a vodka soda and half-dancing at a club where "Chained" is playing. And I can tell you that the atmosphere does change. When the song comes on in a club it feels like an intrusion, or like a guilt-trip from a friend. The guys sitting along the bar seem suddenly shifty and annoyed and a little downcast and, yes, implicated, as if by a fart.
Perry's writing might be muddled, but her overall message is not. She inverts pop to make a point: there are no safe places anymore, no more apolitical retreats, and no more time for avoidance and escapism. She's trying to turn the dance floor into the public square. And if all she succeeds at, in the end, is making some drunk people feel shitty about our political situation when they'd rather not think about it, that's a start.