The track, dripping in Michael McDonald-esque (or maybe Chaka Khan-esque) disco vibes, may sound like it’s just about partying and dancing to a good song, but it turns out the chains that bind us to the rhythm are actually the chains of oppression, guys. Woke lyrics include: “living our live through a lens, trapped in our white picket fence” and “keep sweeping it under the mat, thought we could do better than that.” On top of that Skip Marley (yes the grandson of Bob Marley) raps, ”Time is ticking for the empire.”
It certainly makes sense at a time like this, when it feels like the whole world is burning, for our pop stars to get a little political in their work. It makes even more sense that Perry, who spent a considerable amount of time on the road campaigning for Hillary Clinton, is the white lady pop star who is injecting her songs with this type of resistance, something she is calling “Purposeful Pop.”
Perry is far (like so very far) from the first artist to put out a politically minded song—saying that she invented "woke-pop" (or whatever) is like saying Tropical House is a thing—and honestly, the lyrics sound like whoever wrote them just watched Waking Life for the first time.
What does make “Chained to the Rhythm” interesting is that while it’s slow, it’s clearly supposed to be a club hit, and probably pulls that off more successfully than other socially conscious songs from recent history like “Where Is The Love,” by Black Eyed Peas. It’s catchy and it’s groovy, and it’s a cool thought that people might be shouting this in the club when it comes on at 11:45. Perry herself appears to see this song as a soundtrack of sorts for the revolution.
Ever since America chose the darkest timeline and elected Trump, many have remarked that art coming out of the Trump era will no doubt be more political and powerful. But I am unconvinced that this is an example of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m here for woke Katy Perry (though it could be argued that she’s been “WIDE AWAKE” since 2010). Her intentions are probably good, she's probably not releasing woke songs juuust because it's trendy, and it’s totally fine to infiltrate the airwaves in an attempt to educate people.
But the song isn’t exactly revolutionary. It’s catchy, but it's ultimately just another pop song that will spend its time and energy maintaining the delicate balance between conscious music and cheesiness. It's too mired in being meta, and it rests on dystopian platitudes. It's a Katy Perry song, which isn't the worst fate, but a Katy Perry song is unlikely to overthrow capitalism. As far as rallying songs go, “Roar” is probably more effective.
What Perry did give us is possibly the best use of a lyric video ever. I mean, look at it! It’s got the tiny food for the hamster, which is always mesmerizing. It’s got the metaphor of how we’re all mindless sedated rodents endlessly consuming stuff. It’s perfect, and I refuse to believe she'll be able to put out a music video that's better.