The pop singer’s Wednesday night concert put up a lot of shots but kept missing its target
Katy Perry’s concert at Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday had it all: shooting stars, confetti, giant dice, a huge set of lips, more confetti, shirts with LED readouts, Left Shark, 1980s fetishism, a basketball intermission, a phone call to her mom, still more confetti, flamingo puppets, a garden scene, pyrotechnics, trampolines, beach balls, you name it.
The only thing it didn’t have was a soul.
Perry’s show, part of her “Witness: the Tour” outing, was gleefully random, packed with oversize props that looked like they were picked up at a “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” warehouse sale. But as each song added more and more stunts — look, Katy’s flying over the audience! Look, she’s dunking herself through a jumbo basketball hoop! — any humanity or sense of the performer at its center slipped away amid the clutter.
The 33-year-old Perry, a decade into her pop music career – her major label debut album, “One of the Boys,” turns 10 in June – is at a bit of a career crossroads. Her last No. 1 hit was 2013’s “Dark Horse”; her latest album “Witness” produced the No. 4 hit “Chained to the Rhythm,” but its subsequent singles “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish” were chart stiffs. This is unthinkable for the once Teflon artist, whose 2010 album “Teenage Dream” cemented five No. 1 hits, tying Michael Jackson’s “Bad” for an all-time record.
All artists experience ups and downs in their careers, the hope is that over time you create enough of a bond with your core audience that you can weather those rough days. But 10 years in, who is Katy Perry as an artist? She lives hit to hit, and when those hits start drying up, well, it’s time to wheel out the gags.
With its throw-everything-at-the-audience-and-see-what-sticks pastiche, the show resembled Miley Cyrus’ 2014 “Bangerz” tour. But where Miley was actively working to shed her child star image while simultaneously sending up our culture’s obsession with sex by throwing it back in our faces, Perry struggled to find a unifying theme for her two-hour show. Why was the stage turned into something out of a Tim Burton film for “E.T.?” The answer after three minutes and some change seemed to be, “uh, why not?”
Perry’s live shows have always been fluffy and light; her “Teenage Dream” tour was like “Candy Land” come to life. She’s hinted at more in her music – “Chained to the Rhythm” is about how we ignore the problems of the world by retreating to our comfort bubbles – but it’s difficult to deliver a woke message in an arena pop concert, and sometimes it’s easier to just deliver comfort food. We’re all chained to the rhythm, it turns out.
Perry opened her 20-song set with “Witness” and “Roulette,” a pair of tracks from this year’s “Witness.” Then came the hit parade: “Dark Horse,” “Teenage Dream,” “Hot N Cold,” “TGIF” (complete with a round of cartwheels from Ms. Perry) and “California Gurls,” the end of which saw Perry doing the splits and popping open the belt on her pants. “I think it’s because I’m touring and eating all of the holiday foods,” she reasoned. “Who needs pants?”
She then live-telephoned her mom, using an oversize phone prop on stage, while her Super Bowl sidekick Left Shark looked on. Mom told a bad joke about Tim Tebow, the crowd groaned, and the bit was better on paper than it was in execution.
Backed by a team of dancers, three backup singers and a small band, Perry charged through still more hits, switching outfits several times, from an all red hooded ensemble to a glittery gown and wig combo to a Mega Man-inspired blue latex anime outfit. For “Bon Appetit” she laid down on a leaf while her dancers poured glitter on her from supersize salt and pepper shakers, she hopped on a likeness of Saturn and rode out above the crowd to sing “Wide Awake.” The audience of about 10,000, many of them young girls, responded politely.
It took an 8-year-old from the audience to bring a sense of heart to the show. Perry called out the girl from the back of the arena and brought her to the stage, and after some cute back-and-forth — Perry is quite good at interacting with children — Perry asked the girl if she had a wish. “So my brother has diabetes, and I wish for a cure for him,” the young girl told the pop star, nearly bringing Perry to tears. Perry led the crowd in a wish for her brother, and the girl gracefully left the stage and returned to her seat.
It was natural, unrehearsed interaction that didn’t rely on stunts or props, but it was more real than anything else in the show. Perry could learn a lot from that moment.