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Katy Perry is 2019’s underdog

Knock knock. 

Who’s there? 

It’s Katy Perry — she wants to know if we’re still mad at her for cutting off all her hair and releasing “Witness.” Also, she brought three brand new singles.

The California Gurl took a short hiatus following the messy rollout of “Witness,” her fourth mainstream album in 2017. Lead single “Chained to the Rhythm” started the era off strong — debuting and simultaneously peaking at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. 

From there, however, things only went downhill. Follow-up single “Bon Appétit” divided listeners with its clunky trap beat and controversial guest verse from Migos. Not even the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Swish Swish” could resuscitate her diminishing chart performance.

Despite the album launching at number one in the United States, partly due to concert ticket bundles, “Witness” failed to achieve substantial commercial viability. With two more singles getting desperately squeezed out — and subsequently ignored by the wider public — onlookers whispered to one another: “Is Katy Perry over?” 

But as much as I want to scrutinize the  “Witness” era, in the words of Perry herself, “that was then and this is now.”

This, of course, refers to the recent release of three standalone singles starting with the absolute banger “Never Really Over,” which arrived earlier this year on May 31. The Zedd-assisted EDM smash soared to number 15 on Billboard, her highest chart peak since “Chained to the Rhythm.” 

This time around, Perry isn’t marketing herself as the woke-pop pioneer. Instead, she’s going back to what she does best: singing infectious hooks about romance and good times. The return to her roots is much better than awkwardly masquerading as the politically forward bastion of the pop industry while working with homophobic artists.

And, speaking of awkward, Perry’s next single truly embodies the word. “Small Talk,” which was released on Aug. 9, doesn’t offer anything too exciting. Still, it does a decent enough job reflecting on the emotional turbulence of navigating a former romantic involvement (“Isn’t it weird / that you’ve seen me naked?”). But the real shortcoming lies in the fact that it feels too much like a rejected “Witness” track – if you can even imagine such a thing. 

Although “Small Talk” is not nearly as uncomfortable to listen to as some of “Witness’” most blundered moments, it falls victim to the same overthinking and emphasis on unsubstantial lyrics. It also misses the mark when it comes to crafting the sound of today’s modern pop music. The unorthodox production eschews any identifiable genre and lacks many memorable moments. 

The hands-down winner in this trio of singles is definitely “Harleys in Hawaii,” a sultry tropical escape co-produced by Charlie Puth. This song sets the perfect vibe for a hot and sexy summer, which is unfortunate since it only just came out last month – far too late to capitalize on 2019’s Hot Girl Summer

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Regardless, Perry achieves what may be her most effective songwriting and vocal performance to date. Especially when compared to some of “Witness’” straight-up cringeworthy lyrical and conceptual fumbles, “Harleys in Hawaii” impressively sets a mood and sticks to it effortlessly. 

The beat follows a seductive downtempo rhythm that forces you to sway and groove like a palm tree. The repetition in the chorus mimics the ups and downs of zooming down a hilly road in a motorcycle. For extra authenticity, the distinctive Harley-Davidson engine roar makes an appearance in the song’s bridge, proving some real attention-to-detail. 

Unfortunately, Perry’s 2019 solo work still appears to be struggling to make a commercial impact. The pop juggernaut used to be unstoppable, with unprecedented triumph in topping the charts …  And while she’s still the first and only female artist to secure five number one singles from the same album her latest singles have yet to replicate her former success. 

Will she be able to reclaim her spot at the top? So far, that’s proving to be a tall order. 

As far as pop stars are concerned, it seems Katy Perry is the one that got away.