Say what you will about Katy Perry: She knows how to put on an eye-popping spectacle. During her Friday night show at TD Garden, the attention-grabbing chart-topper floated around the arena on a planet while strumming an acoustic guitar, emerged from its nether regions while perched on a giant hand, and engaged in calisthenics while atop a sleek motorcycle. She shot hoops with a father in the audience; she brought up a young man in a Superman shirt and invited him to wish on a star (he asked for world peace, which ignited a firestorm of applause); she called her mom while Left Shark, the lackadaisical Jabberjaw-costumed dancer who lit up Twitter during Super Bowl XLIX, looked on. Her set was fast-paced and fun; she was flanked by energetic dancers, and her tight band put an inventive spin on some of her most shopworn hits.
Perry broke through in 2008 with the bi-curious stomper “I Kissed a Girl.” In the years that followed, she racked up hits easily, working with pop architects like Max Martin and Dr. Luke on smashes like the goth-tinged “E.T.” and the inner-strength-summoning “Roar.” “Witness,” her latest album, came out in June; it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and the house-nodding single “Swish Swish” resulted in gossip-site headlines galore. But its songs have faltered at radio, even though the album’s most notable feature is the way it almost wholly subsumes Perry’s outsized personality and piercing bellow in favor of nodding to current trends — trap-pop on the single-entendre “Bon Appetit,” curdled synthpop nostalgia on “Chained to the Rhythm.”
Friday night, Perry put the spotlight fully on “Witness,” and its songs did get a boost from her showmanship and presence, particularly “Chained to the Rhythm” and the unsent-letters ode “Save as Draft.” The new versions of older songs, too, were invigorating; “Teenage Dream,” gauzy on record, was retooled into a brisk dance-pop song, while “I Kissed a Girl” opened with a verse steeped in pop-house.
Perry’s showmanship and gumption are undeniable. But at times it’s hard to reconcile her proclivities toward pettiness with her position in pop’s upper echelons, especially her rousing anthems about inner strength. The aforementioned basketball game came during “Swish Swish,” a bass-heavy poison-pen letter to a “joker” (or “shellfish” or “sheep” — if you want to go down a neverending rabbit hole of speculation, look up the song’s title and the phrase “Taylor Swift”) who will wind up “in a casket.” A metaphorical one, of course, but the grimness of that image still lands with a thud when placed next to the soaring “Roar” or the uplifting “Firework” — both of which followed “Swish” to close out her set. A little bit of space between those two sentiments would have made for a better narrative arc that more fully cast aside “haters,” even if it meant scheduling the basketball game earlier in the set.
With Noah Cyrus
At TD Garden, Friday (also Saturday)Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @maura.