What does "Chained to the Rhythm" by Katy Perry mean?
"Chained to the Rhythm" Lyrics Meaning
I've always been a bigger fan of Katy Perry's sound than of her lyrics, and I think that sometimes pop stars put their music above their lyrics. In fact, they may do that most of the time. After all, when you think of pop music, do you think of dancing and good times, or do you think of careful consideration of abstract concepts? Well, since you're here on my site, maybe you're one of the few who would say the latter.
And I think that's a good thing for us, but one of those abstract concepts we have to consider is the effect of the sound of the song on the content of the lyrics. We have to be able to interact with both music and lyrics as well as be able to imagine the effect of the music on an audience. I'll talk more about that at the end of the blog post as well as give my opinion on whether she combines the lyrics and the music well, but for now, let's talk the meaning of the lyrics alone.
Psst! Check out my podcast about "Chained to the Rhythm"!
"Chained to the Rhythm" Meaning
"Chained to the Rhythm" by Katy Perry is about people who live live far away from difficulty or unhappiness and who aren't willing to come down out of these "bubble[s]" to see real problems that need to be solved in the world. She doesn't specify the kind of problems and leaves it to her audience to apply her song to situations on their own though there does seem to be a pretty substantial political charge to this song.
In the first verse, Perry sings, "Are we crazy? / Living our lives through a lens / Trapped in our white-picket fence / Like ornaments." Notice that she's putting herself in with her audience--the people she's trying to wake up and talk sense into. The "lens" refers to seeing things the way only we want to see them, and the "white-picket fence" is a clear attack on the American dream and prosperity-focused thinking. She wants people to not be satisfied or complacent but instead wants them to be willing to fight back against wrongdoing. If all we are is "ornaments," we're not going to do anyone any good.
She continues by accusing herself and her audience of being "[s]o comfortable" as they all "live in a bubble" and "cannot see the trouble." They live protected lives and turn a blind eye to injustice or danger in the world.
Katy Perry asks her audience, "Are you lonely / Up there in utopia?" A utopia is a perfect place where a person can be perfectly safe and at ease, but Perry believes that a utopia in an imperfect world is a false utopia and separates its inhabitants from reality and others. She claims that in that utopia "nothing will ever be enough . . . ." They will merely be "[h]appily numb" and not have a full understanding of what is real.
In the pre-chorus of "Chained to the Rhythm," Katy Perry sings, "Aha, look so good / So put your rose-colored glasses on / And party on." This is a reference to that lens she mentioned in the first verse. These people want to dance (after all it's a party song she's singing), and they want to forget the troubles that others face.
In the chorus of "Chained to the Rhythm," Katy Perry focuses particularly on irony by promoting her own song as a distraction, perhaps in an attempt to make her audience feel self-aware. This shock factor is attempted in the lines "Turn it up; it's your favorite song / Dance, dance, dance to the distortion / Come on, turn it up, keep it on repeat." She drops the facade of false self-promotion for a moment and very clearly accuses her audience of "[s]tumbling around like a wasted zombie." This suggests they are not only ineffective but also mindless, not thinking for themselves.
Katy Perry reminds us all, "Yeah, we think we're free," and slips back into irony with "Drink, this one is on me." She's telling us that we're only free if we think through things, and she's being ironic by being the one taking that freedom through the very words she's using to tell us about all of this. She leaves her audience "chained to the rhythm."
In the second verse of "Chained to the Rhythm," Katy Perry asks, "Are we tone deaf ?" While this is another subtle acknowledgment of the fact that she's making music right now, she's also wondering whether we're unable to notice injustice or danger on our own. She accuses us of "sweeping it under the mat" and says that she "[t]hought we [could] do better than that." She finishes by singing that she "hope[s] we can."
In the bridge, Skip Marley raps, "It is my desire / Break down the walls, to connect, inspire." While the rest of the song has been negative and been about how we're all trapped, Katy Perry lets Marley break the tone for a moment to clearly give the point of the song. They want people to wake up and do something about the wrong they see in the world.
Marley then addresses "liars" "up in your high place," and tells us that "[t]ime is ticking for the empire." Obviously, this is a disestablishment theme and considering Katy Perry's dislike of Donald Trump, this could be her and Marley directly calling out the Trump administration. Marley tells us that the "truth they feed is feeble" and that propaganda won't work forever. He tells us that those at the top "so many times before / They greed over the people"--the greed of those in power is more important to the powerful than the people they're supposed to help.
He finishes by saying that those in power are "stumbling and fumbling / And we're about to riot / They woke up, they woke up the lions." Whatever the specifics are, this certainly seems to have a strong political leaning and seems to very possibly be antagonistic of the current American political administration. Of course, the lyrics are innocuous enough that few will take issue with them, and most will be able to apply them to whatever similar situation they're currently thinking about.
Deeper Meaning of "Chained to the Rhythm" by Katy Perry
Overall, "Chained to the Rhythm" is an attempt at the same kind of ironic success that Mike Posner had in "I Took a Pill in Ibiza." Posner's song is about his own personal struggles with a partying, celebrity lifestyle, but after it was remixed, it became a club staple. People found themselves dancing to a song with lyrics that really weren't danceable if they thought about them too hard. Like Posner's song, in "Chained to the Rhythm," Katy Perry sings about people (including herself) who live perfect, utopic lives and who are using her music to ignore the "trouble" outside their "bubble[s]."
But at the same time, "Chained to the Rhythm" is obviously intended to be a club hit, which brings us to a dilemma: do we dance and ignore the message, or do we stop and try to change the world? Perry obviously wants us to wake up (and possibly stop listening to her song), which makes "Chained to the Rhythm" deeper than your average pop song and also heavily ironic.
Of course, all of this has a vague but unmistakable political tint to it. Katy Perry was no fan of Donald Trump for United States president. In fact, she was outspokenly in favor of Hillary Clinton, so it makes sense that a song calling out people for not standing up and calling out those in power for being in the wrong could be about Donald Trump's administration. In any case, "Chained to the Rhythm" is an interesting song with a deep meaning. Let me know what you think in the comments, and let's continue the conversation!