Chained to the Rhythm
Earlier this year, Katy Perry released new a single—“Chained to the Rhythm”—true to her signature sound of upbeat, nascent beats coupled with blithe lyrics reminiscent of the 80s. However, the single is surprisingly existential as it raises a handful of questions about not only the quality of life, but the meaning of it. Perry marries a buoyant beat to a myriad of uncomfortable universal truths reflective of how humanity is less subverted than supplanted by its increased reliance upon advanced technologies. Rather than abject anthem or content chorale, it rings like a Black Mirror episode. It dramatizes a dystopian narrative wherein rhythm allegorizes routines and repressors in respect to social norms that stilt imagination and alienate alternatives.
The song opens to invite us to critically consider our positionality in a spiritual scheme. The beat itself foregrounds any accusatory undertones, sparing listeners any guilt or conceptions of complacency, which makes for an interesting ideation. Perry isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) to liken the coveted picket fence as a prison, but her conveyance of interpersonality being transmuted by insatiability tickles my sociological prowess. This is a concept that occupies many character dialogues in my novels.
Perry’s perspective elicits a subtler, sinister sense however; which again, thanks to the beat, is moderated. The prospect of being depersonalized from your own identity due to its imperfections in order to ornament your dream life is unnerving, and something I admittedly find myself thinking about. The older I grow, the more established I stand to become, the more I realize that I condemn and censure certain pieces of myself; inconvenient pieces that don’t fit into the puzzle I can assemble.
Moreover, this compulsion to conceal the inopportune aspects of one’s identity is exactly what prevents honesty. The pretense outdoes the purpose, because relationships founded upon fictions ultimately prevent and dissuade genuine connections. It’s why the elites can have the world at their feet, in their pockets, and abide (and define) aesthetic hegemonies, yet maintain miserable lives. It’s why social media celebrities and platformers can have huge followings, but feel utterly disconnected. It’s why those whom we live vicariously through—whom appear to be living out our wildest dreams of fashion, fame, and fortune—are themselves disenchanted from the very thrall in which onlookers are spellbound. The pre-chorus quip that references rose-coloured glasses describes this vacuous visuality, wherein centerpieces and audiences alike are misled to idolize insincere tropes of beauty and happiness. It’s clear that parties are likewise accountable, as consumers and creators make a conscious choice to be ignorant through indulgent idealism.
This articulates the advent of modernism and capitalism being escapism driven by an illusion of individualism. Rather than connect through social media and technological advances, people are inclined to overstate their own personalities—which cease to be unique because collective representations and viral trends define the ways in which they exemplify their esteems. The populace is neither inimitable or happenstance, because it is operant upon uniform constants of memes, avatars, and other cultural staples.
The indulgence of the imagined individual scorns goodwill and prompts people to think wholly in transactional terms where the value of someone is determinant on their followers, likes, shares, or finances; and where ‘friendships’ are founded not upon understandings of reciprocity and affection, but upon tangible assets and abjection. This is why utopia is lonely: because it is ingenuine and impersonal, not sincere or sentimental. The perfect body, the perfect family, the perfection peeking through the picket fence: none of it is inhabited or indisposed, because it must be immaculate. Think of that display case in the museum full of costly collectibles that are pretty, priceless—perfect—also untouchable and unable to feel.
In our case, we are unable to show we feel. Perry peruses this in her second verse: “Are we tone deaf? Keep sweeping it under the mat. Thought we could do better than that. I hope we can.” To pine for perfection, to preserve pretenses, to fight against reality for the fantasy is to abdicate authenticity. Skip Marley’s verse explicates this quite plainly in the context of crafty corporates and Machiavellian elites, “the empire,” albeit closes on a somewhat optimistic note on the assertion of an inevitable uprising—which I think affords the masses too much credit. My own misadventures in grassroots activism and contending policymakers—in addition to, again, sociology—inclines me to be more pessimistic. There have been countless provocative speeches, essays that particularize pain, amidst many other incentives that illustrate inequality and abysmal artifice. Yet, here we are: still fattening the wallets of the rich, still forsaking our humanity in favour of painstaking performativity, and still priding profit over principle or people.
Although the song ends as it began, on a bouncy beat, the music video zooms in on Perry’s face. The character she plays is one who is exceptional to the rigid, repressive rhythm she describes and consequently concludes with an expression of agonizing realization. I’m not sure if this marks the beginning of a thematic arc where this character either overcomes or buckles beneath the luminous dystopia, but the sight alone conveys the crisis of one who is repulsed yet dependent upon their world.