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SZA, Lorde, and the Pazz & Jop Rise of Songs of the Self

In some ways, Katy Perry, ever a woman of the zeitgeist, understood perfectly how the cards were shuffled in 2017. After years of making ooey-gooey songs that kept step with whatever trends were then dominating radio, she took a turn to something more political, more strident, on her latest album, Witness. Trump’s victory was, Perry told the New York Times, “a revelation…a reckoning,” and it inspired her to reimagine herself as an “activist.” The first single, a woke disco song called “Chained to the Rhythm,” critiqued political bubbles. Included in her promo blitz was a filmed discussion of appropriation with DeRay Mckesson, a leader in Black Lives Matters, in which she apologized for stealing tropes from black and Asian cultures (amends for her gay-shaming 2008 song “Ur So Gay” are still, as far as I know, withstanding).

But while Perry’s intentions were within the Venn diagram of relevance, her execution was stuck in the past: The sentiments had evolved, but the songs were — in their bombastic exuberance and cheap hooks — the same. Some, like the petty “Swish Swish,” were moderate successes, but none compared to past hits.

Other old reliables like Taylor Swift, who doubled down on crunching synth pop, and Miley Cyrus, who ditched shock and awe for country-lite, also staged dramatic reinventions that felt thin, and their new albums faltered. Cyrus all but disappeared from the cultural conversation, and while Swift did big numbers with Reputation (she was the second-most streamed female artist on Spotify, after Rihanna), pop, like electoral politics, is a game of additions, and it’s hard to believe that she gained any new fans with her rebranding as an indignant post-Trump bully.

People yearned for something different, something more idiosyncratic, less formulaic, always personal. Honesty became its own kind of politics in 2017. This shift has roots. In 2016, the artists who felt the most fresh took an individualistic attitude: Solange’s A Seat at the Table meditated life as a black woman in America; her sister Beyoncé’s aching film Lemonade reimagined the idea of the album release; and Frank Ocean’s Blonde offered a stream-of-conscious ride through genre (he kept the stream flowing in 2017 with a string of wonderful one-off singles, released on a random schedule). Even Rihanna’s Anti was an unexpectedly nihilistic and subterranean dirge from one of the world’s most celebrated women.

This new mode turned even more inward in 2017, further into the psyche and away from the larger world, perhaps a protective or escapist move. Living in your truth — being yourself, no matter how flawed or fucked-up — was its own kind of statement, and artists like Lorde and SZA achieved urgency by letting listeners into their lives with a magnifying glass.

Lorde both predicted and pioneered a new, more personal pop style in 2013 when, as a sixteen-year-old, the New Zealand singer released “Royals,” a protest song of sorts against over-the-top opulence and decadence as epitomized by acts like Miley. According to the New York Times, around that time, David Bowie “proclaimed that listening to her music ‘felt like listening to tomorrow.’ ” Now, at twenty, she had set her sights on something less overtly statement-y with Melodrama. Like some pop Frank O’Hara, she wrote much of it in a diner near Columbus Circle, and it tracked her breakup with her boyfriend and life as a young free woman. When she played the key-shifting first single “Green Light” for Max Martin — the man pretty much responsible for inventing hook-heavy modern pop — before its release, he told her it was a case of “incorrect songwriting.”

She didn’t change a thing.

It was SZA’s Ctrl that delivered best on the promise of this era of individualism. The New Jersey r&b-pop-electro artist — signed to TDE, the same label as Kendrick Lamar — has been bubbling for some time, putting out well-liked if under-the-radar work that glittered and sparkled with neo-soul ambience. But after years of delays, she finally released her debut album, and it felt like a fresh shift in the focus of pop to something, well, a little out of focus: In contrast to the manicured clarity of Katy Perry, SZA excels at a loose impressionism that defies genre, with lyrics that are conversational in their casualness. It is the opposite of the laser-sharp songwriting of pop past, and she excelled by being herself, filling the songs with stories of insecurity and bad decisions and awkward interactions. As she told me last summer, she came by her candor authentically. “I’m a mess,” she said. “An actual mess.” Maybe so, but she’s at least in control enough that she was able to make certifiable hits from these disheveled diary entries, like the pugnacious and undeniable “Love Galore.”

There was a whole bevy of young pop stars who seemed liberated in form, too. Charli XCX and Dua Lipa and Khalid and Harry Styles (who made his solo debut, of all things, a pop-rock album) and even Selena Gomez (who put aside EDM beats for a Talking Heads sample on “Bad Liar”) reprogrammed the boundaries with pop music that didn’t stick to the script. Charli’s latest mixtape, the aptly titled Pop 2, found her deconstructing formula and stitching it back together with a liberal use of Auto-Tune and asymmetry, or, as Pitchfork referred to it, “an uninhibited, anti-algorithm vision of what pop music could be.” Lipa, who was just nominated for a record-breaking five Brit awards, showed on her debut that she could be the kind of artist to inherit (and reinvent) Katy Perry’s mantle. Her self-titled album adhered closest to a hook-heavy synthy formula, but, with a sultry voice and lyrics that teetered between pop bumper stickers and text messages (“Don’t pick up the phone/You know he’s only calling ’cause he’s drunk and alone”), she brought it back to life. “I want people to see a piece of me,” she said in an interview. “For this album I want to be as truthful as possible, then all the club shit can come later.”

There were the finger-on-the-pulse megastars who sensed the same shift that Katy Perry did, but who were able to evolve more naturally. I’m thinking of Lana Del Rey, who I interviewed in July about Lust for Life and found an artist both aware of what she should and — just as importantly — should not say about the Trump moment. It would’ve been wrong of her to all of sudden wake up woke the way Perry did — this is a woman who just three pessimistic albums ago was telling journalists that feminism bored her. But she clearly also had her eyes open in a way that she hadn’t before the election, and had factored what she’d seen into her work, including tamping down on her shticky obsession with the American flag (now a toxic symbol), producing songs meant to provide comfort to women shaken by a misogynistic president, and, for the first time, giving her fans a hit of optimism in the form of “Love,” perhaps her only unabashedly idealistic track ever.

To be sure, there was a counterbalancing movement toward mediocrity and muzak, exhibited by elevator musicians like the Chainsmokers, and there were still traditionalists like Demi Lovato and Camila Cabello, who made straightforward (and excellent) pop songs with big results. But with his schlubbiness and acoustic guitar, even Ed Sheeran — loathed by critics but loved by Spotify listeners, who made him the most streamed artist of 2017 — was closer to a raw singer-songwriter as we’ve had in some time on such a massive scale. And there were some who had come up through the old system but were now certifiable rulebreakers, like Kesha and Carly Rae Jepsen. Kesha spent two years battling to get out of a restrictive contract with the allegedly abusive producer Dr. Luke before finally being able to release Rainbow, a feminist manifesto of sorts that was greeted with wide acclaim (and a number one spot on the charts). Though Jepsen started her career in the most conventional way, as a contestant on Canadian Idol and then with a viral 2012 hit, “Call Me Maybe,” she has trod an independent path since, losing her mainstream celebrity but gaining a cult following, including the 45 Pazz & Jop voters who put the sweet, shimmering dance pop of “Cut to the Feeling” at number four on the singles list.

So I’d like to endorse (of all things) Katy Perry’s read on the situation — if not her response to it — that things in the cultural ethos are just spiritually different than they were even two years ago. I’d want to think it’s a compliment to listeners that we’ve increasingly come to embrace and expect more nuanced songwriting, more off-kilter sounds, more sophisticated experimentation. It is too simple to say, as Perry does, that this is a one-to-one response to Trump’s election — and if it is, there is no music, no matter how good, that could serve as a consolation for that — but perhaps it is fair to argue that complicated times call for complicated music. Whatever is behind this changing of the pop guard, here’s hoping 2018 gets even weirder.

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Katy’s Krisis

On the second day of her four-day YouTube livestream, “Katy Perry Live: Witness World Wide,” the singer talked to therapist Dr. Siri Sat Nam Singh, who hosts therapy sessions with musicians on the Viceland channel. Perry admitted to suicidal thoughts and alcoholic tendencies (perhaps what made Perry’s talk with Singh work as a co-presentation with Vice) and touched on another dangerous urge. “I really want to be my authentic self, one hundred percent,” she said. Perry has reiterated this idea in interviews with the New York Times and Rolling Stone. This runs the risk of stranding the fan in a zero-sum game. Go along with Perry and there’s ten years of material suddenly under review. Stand back from her identity flux and you are abandoning the most-followed person on Twitter, who somehow seems like she needs you and you alone — not the 100 million others.

Identity might not be as much of a problem as the 21st century itself, and you can hear it on her fourth album as Katy Perry, Witness, and across her career. Katy Perry, the professional ID of Katheryn Hudson, launched in 2008 with One of the Boys, driven by a Pop Gone Wild bi-curious shamwow called “I Kissed a Girl.” Hit or no, Perry quickly ditched this of-the-moment corporate cosplay and went back in time for some peak 20th-century signage. Teenage Dream found Perry building her theme park — a construction project that took up more than a year of pop radio real estate — using design elements from the Eighties: “E.T.” flashed back to Spielberg suburbia years before Stranger Things got there; the teen-movie set design of “Last Friday Night” let millennial icons play dress-up in their parents’ clothes. Like almost every throwback, Perry’s 20th century is an easy-sipper, a near beer leached of the gender torque she was hinting at with the first singles. A bomber girl in an angora sweater with a pocketful of peppermints in her candy California car like a teenager forever.

She was building a good park. She is good at her job: great in a chair and on a red carpet. Plunk her down on a talk show next to a Hemsworth or a struggle rapper and she shines. Fast with reactions, jokes, and ad libs, Perry is the reason James Corden invented Carpool Karaoke. Perry has been — from the cheap seats — pretty genuine from day one. It was a kick to watch her move out of Peppermint Valley into the full-on Disney core of “Firework” and “Roar” because you couldn’t imagine her losing sleep over any of these set pieces. She is twentieth century in material and approach, an entertainer free of artsy angst. It was always Katy Perry, starring now in Teenage Dream, never Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream.

The theme park became complicated on November 8. The election was not a waterslide and Perry, to her credit, threw herself into the reality of the moment. Having put her money down on Hillary, and then having lost, her authentic self was in play. Downside: identity crisis. Upside: identity crisis. Downside: the album is lagging behind this crisis.

Look to “Swish Swish,” the perfectly OK third single from Witness, whose mangled Taylor Swift disses Perry is already walking back. “Swish” gets into one of the 21st-century things that keeps hanging Perry up: cultural appropriation. Perry has become so identified with this process that a recent Artforum roundtable on appropriation included a still of Perry in cornrows (from Joel Kefali’s 2014 video for “This Is How We Do”). “Swish Swish” has no official music video, so her SNL performance from May is doing the job. The bed of the song is a deft paraphrasing of Chicago house, and her onstage dancers were presenting ballroom drag culture, which is no more or less legitimate than Madonna’s “Vogue,” none of it actual ballroom culture. Add that to phrases like “my name keeps comin’ out your mouth” and an SNL performance featuring a dancing meme like Russell “Backpack Kid” Horning, and you’ve got a gift basket of various things with roots in black American culture.

But is appropriation the problem or simply not appropriating well? Before you can unpack that, you will hit the awkward lyrics that reviewers have harped on (and that it’s easy to imagine pop listeners breezing past). What is Perry’s opening shot at Taylor in “Swish Swish”? “A tiger don’t lose no sleep/Don’t need opinions from a shellfish or a sheep.” Taylor is a clam? A shrimp? Is this a New England thing?

The appropriation thing can be called up if you see photos of Perry dressed as a Geisha, or take stock of the various styles she dips into or hires. On Witness, an album that mostly wants to be dance music, Perry enlists Migos for “Bon Appétit,” in which a viable hook and beat both die on the hill of a sex-as-food metaphor that would have been tired on Laugh-In. (Migos just sound like they’re killing time until the pitch meeting ends.) This would be a legit Euro banger if it were just simpler and dumber. “Pendulum” lives on that fine line between appropriated and clumsy. Did Perry and Jeff Bhasker and Illangelo cook up a gospel pop song with a very Stevie bassline? Yes. Does it work? No, and unless this gets some kind of unexpected chart action, you won’t need to worry about Katy Perry calling Kirk Franklin and making everyone uncomfortable.

Yet if you don’t land on a duff lyric or hear the wrong song first, this album isn’t nearly as uneven as it’s been made out to be. The indie electropop duo Purity Ring produced and co-wrote a slow burner, “Miss You More,” and Max Martin works with his teammate Ali Payami on “Hey Hey Hey,” another equally strong number in the lower BPM range. The Mike Will Made-It co-production “Tsunami,” a grumbling bit of synthpop, has one foot in the 20th century and the other in the 21st.

Perry may find it disorienting to go back to being the Woman in the Katy Suit. She’s really good at that, and Witness proves she is still really good at finding songs to sell the hustle. But I can’t blame her for not finding a new hustle right away. Big machines build up momentum and stop slowly, even if you throw yourself in front of them.

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Betty Who

Who, exactly, is Betty Who? Jessica Anne Newham, better known as Betty Who, is the Aussie songstress behind “Somebody Loves You,” the utterly infections pop number that’s spread from viral videos to Who’s exhilarating live sets. Her debut LP, Take Me Where You Go, out October 7, includes Who’s hit song and plenty more dazzling ’80s-inspired pop. See what the buzz is about on one of her U.S. dates before she’s homeward-bound to open for Katy Perry next month.

Wed., Oct. 8, 7 p.m., 2014

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Tove Lo

Swedish singer-songwriter, Tove Lo is entering legit pop star territory with her chart-storming “Habits.” It’s a cathartic tale of nursing a broken heart by binging, going to sex clubs and throwing up in the tub with an infectiously anthemic power pop chorus. Though her songs are in the dark, unpolished vein not so often present in mainstream pop, she has, with her revealing lyrics and ear for a good tune, stumbled upon mainstream success. After this tour, she’s heading out on the road again to open for Katy Perry.

Wed., Oct. 1, 9 p.m., 2014

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Katy Perry+Capital Cities

There are few things catchier than a Katy Perry song. Whether she’s your #1 pop icon or you really can get enough of her, she dazzles her audience of millions with that vivacious yet lighthearted voice. Katy Perry has had nine #1 singles on the Hot Top 100 and her songs heard nearly every hour on the hour on FM radio’s top stations, setting her above the bar as an iconic pop presence. After having synthpop indie band Capital Cities as her opener, the show will 100% live up to the amazing, bedazzled, candy-land fantasy…so go live it up and, yes, dance until you die.

Thu., July 24, 7 p.m.; Fri., July 25, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Katy Perry+Capital Cities

There are few things catchier than a Katy Perry song. Whether she’s your #1 pop icon or you really can get enough of her, she dazzles her audience of millions with that vivacious yet lighthearted voice. Katy Perry has had nine #1 singles on the Hot Top 100 and her songs heard nearly every hour on the hour on FM radio’s top stations, setting her above the bar as an iconic pop presence. After having synthpop indie band Capital Cities as her opener, the show will 100% live up to the amazing, bedazzled, candy-land fantasy…so go live it up and, yes, dance until you die.

Wed., July 9, 7 p.m., 2014

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Tegan and Sara

In Tegan and Sara’s 13-year career, they’ve made progressively influential material that has earned them a global following. The Canadian twins are back again, but this time they’re playing ’90s inspired music influenced by artists many of us have become increasingly nostalgic for this year as electronica seemingly devolves. Released in 2013, Heartthrob is the duo’s seventh studio album, filled with infectious singles like “I Was a Fool,” “Closer,” and “Now I’m All Messed Up”—modern pop/rock that makes you feel young and carefree, in the same vein as Ace of Base or “Baby Baby”-era Amy Grant. Tegan and Sara will be supporting Katy Perry on her Prismatic World Tour in September, which will also mark the anniversary of their much-celebrated fourth album, So Jealous. In the meantime, they’ll be doing what they do best: bridging the pop and indie music worlds as they finish up their Let’s Make Things Physical tour with The Courtneys—a Vancouver-based slacker pop trio blowing up skirts with their flying nun-influenced punk/pop that also drifts back to the sound of the early ’90s.

Tue., June 24, 8 p.m., 2014

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SPICE UP YOUR LIFE

It occupies a permanent spot in the cannon of pop crossovers, foremother to Katy Perry’s Part of Me and Britney Spears’s Crossroads. But Spice World (1997) has wonky British flair, placing it more fittingly next to the Monkees’ Head than any other music-to-movie venture. See Baby, Scary, Sporty, Posh, and Ginger (sometimes called Sexy) Spice as they blaze through a series of vignettes in their ballin’ double-decker tour bus. The phenomenon that was the Spice Girls may have been reduced to a mental footnote in the cultural memory of most millennials, to be consulted chiefly when belting “Wannabe” at bachelorette party karaoke and never more. But back in the day, everyone was on board; the movie’s guest stars include Elton John, Meatloaf, and Alan Cumming as Piers Cuthbertson-Smyth, an overzealous filmmaker stalking the band. Cumming introduces the film tonight, so slam your body down . . . a-zig-a-zig-ah.

Fri., June 13, 12:10 a.m., 2014

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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

A three-word preview for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Nanda Collection World Tour 2014: CANDY CRUSH SAGA. The Japanese pop star’s sickeningly sweet blend of kawaii (“cute” in Japanese) and offbeat goth won the obsessive hearts of her equally quirky fans when she debuted in 2011. Imitation art poppers Lady Gaga and Katy Perry probably wish they had music impresario Yasutaka Nakata on their team. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Nakata-penned singles, like “Candy Candy” and “PonPonPon” off 2012’s Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, are exquisite, grotesque, and addictive explorations of infantilized innocence. Reviews of earlier stops on her tour allude to teddy bears, bunnies, and Muppet-like creatures making prominent appearances. It’s hope that Halloween without sexy outfits could still be an affair of strange theater — or that Miley minus twerking could still be entertaining.

Sat., March 8, 8 p.m., 2014

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John Mayer

John Mayer will not relax or settle, bouncing from hard rock to jazz to pop to blues on the backs of fluid guitar figures that are less lyrical or prodigal than understatedly emotive. He’s like a MOR Pied Piper, this guy, with the doofy lyrics, the sad eyes, the sometimes amusing facial hair, the wishy-washy Katy Perry romance. Laugh at him now, but he’ll be laughing at you long after you’re dead, when your great granddaughter’s slow-dancing to “Daughters” at her wedding.

Wed., Aug. 28, 6 p.m., 2013