Katy Perry has been teasing us lately with a reinvention. With her newly blonde hair and ’80s-ish shoe designs, she's seemed to be prepping us for a new era of pop, particularly one hinging heavily on post-disco beats and pastel minimalism.
But “Chained to the Rhythm” — while a decent pop track — is hardly new terrain for Perry. Since “I Kissed a Girl” in 2008, she’s proved time and again that she knows how to pair a catchy hook with an even catchier beat. But who, exactly, does she want to be? Her new hair, new look, and seemingly new overall vibe in the past week seemed to promise an answer: Katy Perry in 2017 is going to be different.
Instead, she gave us “Chained to the Rhythm” — a totally fine song that's easy to listen and dance to, and one that does justice to her career in pop. Does it live up to the reinvention she led us to believe was coming? Actually, scratch that — the bigger question is, why do we expect artists like Perry to evolve aesthetically every time they release a new project, while other artists are allowed to stay static?
When we look at our most important pop stars, they tend to either embrace constant reinvention or nestle comfortably into the idea of Who They Are™. Aside from jettisoning her signature beehive, Adele has favored the same approach to makeup, wardrobe tones, and styles of dresses for years. On the other end of this spectrum, Rihanna changes her look on the regular, showcasing her limitless ability to adapt to social situations, red carpets, and even her own Fenty x Puma line. Then there's Ariana Grande, whose aesthetic, while distinct, cannot be described in a single word (and believe me, I’ve tried).
The thing is, reinvention can be even more limiting than wearing uniform-like pieces every day for 20 years. It requires the repeated abandonment of one persona and the creation of another, meant only to exist during the course of a grueling album and tour cycle. The Katy Perry we met in 2008 (the woman who played guitar on Warped Tour) wouldn’t recognize today’s version (though she’d likely applaud her sick beats). And the Lady Gaga who delivered “Let’s Dance” probably wouldn’t kick it with Joanne. But anyone who’s gone through any sort of transformation can recognize the work it takes to “before and after” your life, especially since once you’ve declared yourself new and improved, a move backward can seem regressive.
Which is one of the problems with constant states of pop-induced reinvention. We equate the past with something lesser, which puts pressure on artists to keep tweaking their public personas — usually to the point of us getting sick of them. (See: the era of meat dresses and cotton-candy bras.) On the flip side, artists who’ve only ever offered their voices or a very distinct brand need only deliver good music. We celebrate them for their lack of “shtick” while encouraging their contemporaries to continue changing, meaning the reinvention issue has more to do with our own expectations than with anything they're doing wrong.
From the moment Katy Perry announced her new song — and her new hairdo — we assumed she’d musically change based on her aesthetic. But Perry’s look has been evolving for the better part of a year, including the night she wore a Bumpit to the Golden Globes. She — like Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Pink, and Rihanna — has simply been generous with sharing an experimental part of herself with the public. So because of that, we also assume any outward change reflects something more pronounced, and expect a makeover or new hair color to coincide with a new musical direction or a riskier artistic step. In reality, Perry might just want to wear a pastel necktie because it looks nice with her blonde lob!
We haven't heard any of her other new songs yet, so it's still possible that her new hair and new shoes are ushering in a 2.0 brand of Katy pop. But “Chained to the Rhythm” suggests that it's a mistake for us to keep equating artists' style with their music. By deciding that every aesthetic change signals an exciting new step, we set them up to fail. Maybe blonde Perry will be more political or more vulnerable or more willing to call out “Bad Blood" — or maybe, sometimes, new clothes are just that. Or, as Perry’s Instagram account may have already implied, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.