Are we all “Chained to the Rhythm”?

You would be forgiven for not noticing that Katy Perry’s new track ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ was released recently and she has since performed it at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles and the BRIT Awards in London. Yes, yes! I know what you’re thinking but bear with me. This does have a political point!

During the rendition at the BRIT Awards last week she was joined on stage by two giant puppet skeletons which looked weirdly familiar. One skeleton wore a black suit and a red tie, while the other wore a red blazer and skirt. The puppets were even holding hands, which hinted at what we were really looking at. This was pop culture meeting political culture as there, on the stage; we saw a re-enactment of when President Trump met Prime Minister May at the White House. The only thing missing was the promise of a trade deal and an offer of afternoon tea with the Queen.

It’s easy to over-read this kind of political statement but it does make one wonder if we are in danger of cheapening political debate by making politics into a literal larger-than life puppet show.

The video for Perry’s song was also released last week and it depicted a futuristic theme park, where visitors are seduced and delighted by the distractions offered. The lyrics describe a world of repetition and ignorance where technology has placed us in a bubble where real problems are pushed aside:

Are we crazy?
Living our lives through a lens
Trapped in our white-picket fence
Like ornaments
So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, the trouble

Bubbles are, of course, very relevant to the modern political mood. Politics is often described as bubble, and the politicians living in it don’t understand the public’s attitudes to Brexit, Trump and other big issues. The video plays with all the cliches of state control. Around the park there are adverts for the “greatest ride in the universe” which turns out to be a hamster type wheel with a long queue. So are we all conforming and chained to this rhythm, and trapped like cogs on a machine like hamsters, and not able to break out?

Perry might be commended on her attempt at political commentary, as is a different theme from her previous tracks. Knowing about the bubble is different to breaking out of the bubble. Perry is just one mainstream and highly commercial artist who borrows the visual language of rebellion but for ends which, really, do little to promote individualism.

The lyrics that muse that we all “think we’re free” but are, in essence “stumbling around like a wasted zombie, yeah.” Is this a swipe (hehe) at social media, the time we spend online or using a camera phone? As we all know, modern technology can be perceived as bad. People who take photos aren’t enjoying the moment, and glimpsing what we think of as other people’s perfect lives leave us lonely and empty.

There is an odd moment, in the video, when the grandson of Bob Marley, Skip, appears on stage and begins to rap the most politicised lines of the song. Are we just taking in the lies from those in control, and a revolution will occur, or is the talk of revolution just a cliché in a pop song?

It is my desire
Break down the walls to connect, inspire
Ay, up in your high place, liars
Time is ticking for the empire

The truth they feed is feeble
As so many times before
They greed over the people
They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot
They woke up, they woke up the lions

We should be aware and cautious about treating pop culture as thought it’s capable or worthy of commenting on the political. Beyonce’s Lemonade was also recently celebrated for its political message but, really, one wonders if the message wasn’t just subverted. This would give the artist a greater credibility in the marketplace. Beyonce is not Bob Dylan and, despite her over political gestures, Katy Perry is no Johnny Rotten. Both treat politicians like they are puppets to be waved around without actually offering much in the way of meaning.

At last week’s Grammys, she began her performance behind a picket fence before bursting forward in a white pant suit that was clearly meant to be a copy of Hillary Clinton’s. She then joins hands with Skip Marley in front of a projection of the US constitution. Again, is this clever and sincere politics or more gestures? I leave it for you to decide. Politics is important and perhaps too important to be left to pop stars? Or does it give an audience who may feel left out of politics a voice?