The fun-loving pop star arrived in Washington during a transformative stretch in her career.
Katy Perry is a pop star in transition. For roughly a decade, the fun-loving singer has been a Top 40 mainstay largely with fluffy party jams — satisfying ones at that. But with her newest album, “Witness,” Perry’s pushing for something more.
In the lead up to its release last year, the “American Idol” reboot judge described the album as “purposeful pop,” hinting at a newfound wokeness after a shocker of an election. Perry notably threw her celebrity muscle behind Hillary Clinton and her defeat at the (allegedly) small hands of Donald Trump left her shook. “The artist inside of me has been calling me to come to this position for a long time,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I think I have to surrender to that now. Evolution is not easy, and change is not easy.”
The results were disappointing, but that didn’t stop an army of moms and daughters in matching neon wigs from packing the Tacoma Dome when Perry’s Witness: The Tour came through Saturday.
British Columbia native Carly Rae Jepsen served as the high-profile opener. The “Call Me Maybe” queen is still touring on 2015’s critically acclaimed “Emotions,” a surprisingly deep and cohesive set of Janet Jackson-indebted pop tunes. Lacking another megahit, it was a commercial letdown. But lead single “I Really Like You,” backed by a full band, kept at least two young tutu-clad fans in the upper level squealing until Jepsen left the stage.
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As the house music faded, Perry’s band — featuring Washington native Ty Bailie on keyboard — set sail with an ultra funky (if abbreviated) version of title track “Witness.” Images of dueling starships flashed across the massive eye-shaped backdrop before its doors parted and Perry emerged on an elevated star platform rocking a Jedi-chic red jumpsuit. Now 50 shows in to the tour, the choreography was well-honed as Perry and a handful of dancers nimbly climbed atop a pair of giant golden dice during “Roulette.”
After her Juicy J-supported thumper “Dark Horse” — moody as ever with a pair of suave backup singers — failed to reach its turnt potential with the family-heavy crowd, “Chained to the Rhythm” shook them loose. The rich live basslines buttressed the buoyant hit, even if two giant power-suited puppets with TVs for heads distracted from the laid-back Caribbean disco vibe. The lead single from “Witness” is the singer’s proclamation of her post-Trump wake-up, though it ultimately lacks teeth.
“Witness” singles “Bon Appetit” and the supposed T-Swift response banger “Swish Swish” both slayed among Perry’s KatyCat fanbase Saturday. During the former, Perry proved capable of taking an arena by storm with a simple string of ascendant whoa-ohs, even while spandexed dancers pretend-doused her with salt and pepper. Still, the themes of sexual empowerment are obfuscated by regrettable food/sex metaphors (“got me spread like a buffet”). While “Witness” is supposed to be a new leaf for Perry, their release as follow-up singles to the introduction of woke Katy felt like more of the same.
Constant set and wardrobe changes, which had Perry looking like a crime-fighting flamenco dancer or a crop-topped billboard (“What, you’ve never seen a light up brassiere before?”), held the multi-generational crowd’s attention throughout the two hour set. Overall, the production felt like a made-for-Disney acid trip that kept getting weirder. Though a lack of spacing between semi-scripted crowd work with an adorable teenage fan, a KatyCat dad and a phone call bit to her mother made the back end drag a bit.
Between gripping acoustic renditions of “Wide Awake” and “Thinking of You,” which Perry gave hovering over the crowd on a neon-splashed platform shaped like Saturn, she reflected on the age range among her audience. “I feel like we’ve grown up together,” she said. Covering her bases, one minute she’s cracking drinking jokes, before quipping about how annoying parents are.
Either way, the back-to-back standouts, showcasing her ability to pivot from quivering falsetto to full-throated power balladry on a dime, displayed the more serious side of the goofball who earlier play wrestled Left Shark to mark the third anniversary of her viral Super Bowl moment.
Sure-thing closers “Roar” and “Firework” brought the night to a confetti-blasting end, with their self-empowerment themes taking on a new relevance in the #MeToo era.
Leg dropping mascots and exploring heavier topics in song certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. But as Perry navigates her new artistic ambitions while holding on to the party-girl persona that made her a star, her next act may be the most telling.