Song: ‘Chained To The Rhythm’
Artist: Katy Perry feat Skip Marley
US chart peak: 4* (*so far)
Release date: February 10, 2017
Writers: Katy Perry, Max Martin, Sia Furler, Ali Payami, Skip Marley
Producers: Max Martin, Ali Payami
Quintessential Max moment: The ever-increasing amazingness of that final chorus
Video synopsis: Pastel-hued, Cliff Notes run-through of 2017 politics styled to look like Black Mirror meets Pleasantville
At the beginning of December last year, Katy Perry – a popstar whose original cartoonish, nudge-nudge-wink-wink persona allowed her to release a song called ‘Ur So Gay’ and get away with it – received a humanitarian award from her hero, Hilary Clinton (actually perhaps the new wig, like the power suits, is part of a Clinton homage). She posted about it on Instagram, saying that people often tell her that as a singer she should ultimately just shut up and sing. “Boy, will I do so in a whole new way… next year,” she wrote. “Hell hath no fury like a woman REBORN.”
Around this time she further amped up her public re-awokening, changing her Twitter byline to ‘Artist. Activist. Conscious.’. While it’s easy to scoff, and Lord knows that’s often the default setting when pop and politics merge like oil and water, it’s not like Perry’s political awareness was a new gimmick; Perry was a very vocal supporter throughout Clinton’s Presidential campaign, performing at rallies and posting about it to her 95.9m (!) Twitter followers. While other popstars chose to show themselves standing coyly near a voting station, Perry nailed her thoughts on America’s bleak future to the mast and continues to do so.
Aware that another cream-from-your-bra escapist anthem, or a turbo-charged, ultimately narcissistic self-help semi-ballad might not cut it in the bin fire of 2017, Perry’s launched what she refers to as “purposeful pop”, ie radio-friendly pop-aganda. In a recent, gloriously shambolic interview with Popjustice, eternal pop sage Neil Tennant branded Purposeful Pop “dull”, adding; “I think pop’s best when it reflects what’s going on without banging you over the head.” While this is undoubtedly true, subtlety has never factored in Perry’s M.O (even when she tried to strip things back with ‘Prism’ she still released ‘Birthday’), and, you could argue, is probably not what’s needed right now, from anyone.
So it’s into this context that ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ arrives, a song that unites non-stop hit machine Sia with non-stop hit machine Max Martin (previous non-stop hit machine Dr Luke is now out of the picture for obvious reasons – it’s her first US Top Ten not to feature his input since 2010). In an interview with Capital FM (as quoted here), she explained how the song came about: “We’ve [she means her and Sia] written for the ‘Prism’ record before and we’ve always kind of written. I was writing with my co-writer, who I always write with, Max Martin, and she had never written with him. It was one of my last writing sessions and I was actually really tired because I’ve written over 40 songs for the record. But this was after the election and I was kind of depressed and, you know, I definitely didn’t want to write a club banger,” she continues. “I was like, ‘How are we writing a club banger when the world is on fire?’ And it was a nice exercise of writing a song that at first listen is a really fun song, but I guess the more you dive into it, it has a different subtext.”
Like dystopian TV show Black Mirror, and anything Banksy has ever done, ‘Chained To The Rhythm’’s subtext – SOCIAL MEDIA IS BAD! WE’RE LIVING IN A BUBBLE! THINGS AREN’T LOOKING GREAT YOU GUYS, WAKE UP! – isn’t exactly hard to decipher. In fact, should you be having any problems drawing out any of the song’s buried subtexts, the brilliantly bizarre video helps shine a light on them, complete with ‘nods’ to Trump’s border wall, the housing crisis and the general relentless hamster wheel of life faced by us plebs. Despite all its heavy-handedness – which, as discussed, is likely what the world needs – musically the song oozes a lightness of touch, Max and Ali Payami conjuring up a frothy, disco-esque take on reggae and dancehall to create one of Perry’s more low-key singles (don’t speak to me about ‘Rise’). It somehow also manages to not fall fully into the Phil Collins ‘Another Day In Paradise’ abyss of suggesting the lives of everyday people are the same as those of super-rich popstars, the reference to the white picket fence an apparent self-referential nod to the naivety of her first album (she also pricks herself on a red rose in the video), while the “dance, dance, dance to the distortion” lyric – a great pop trope of dancing while Rome burns, as it were – seems to be about the general distortion of #fakenews, our own internet bubbles and how easy it is – for all of us – to get comfortable with what’s going on around us.
Also, it’s a Katy Perry song, co-written by Max Martin, the aim of which is to launch an album and massive world tour, so the politics are squeezed into undeniable melodies, with the verses, pre-choruses and choruses containing at least seventeen hooks each. The chorus itself is the song’s high point – as should always be the way – the little pauses between “zom”, “bie” and “yeah”, a neat trick that makes the song jump just as you start to settle into the chorus’ flow (they do it again with the pause and then “drink!”). In fact, as with all great Max creations, the final chorus is a thing of wonder, the layering of Perry’s ad-libs and those cute “aha” backing vocals (which, I’ve had it confirmed, are performed by Sia) suddenly overtaken by a whole new section – “it goes on and on and on” – that steadily snaps the song shut. AND it’s a great example of a song elevated by a guest rap, Skip ‘Skip’ Marley adding a dose of genuine anger to the song’s almost Xanax-ed, slow-burn frustration.