The Ones of the ’10s: Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (feat. Juicy J)

In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s.

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Katy Perry- “Dark Horse” (feat. Juicy J)

HIT #1: February 8, 2014

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

Imperial phases don’t last forever. They can last for a long time or a short time but eventually, the moment when a pop star can put out anything and dominate the charts will fade once the trends in pop music change and people move away to other stars. Sometimes imperial phases end when you’re still releasing smash hits oblivious to the downfall about to happen. That’s the type of scenario with Katy Perry and “Dark Horse.”

For the early part of the ‘10s, Perry stood as one of the most dominant pop stars as far as the charts are concerned. 2010’s Teenage Dream easily became her career peak spawning a record-tying five #1s with more hits that followed. With 2013’s Prism, the album launched big with “Roar” which became yet another #1 hit. But that streak would end with the “Roar” follow up “Unconditionally” which missed the Top 10 peaking at #14, the first Perry song as a lead artist to do that since 2009’s “Thinking of You” which had peaked at #29. 

For the next single, Perry enlisted the help of Juicy J to create a hip-hop-inspired track about rising like a dark horse. After the relative failure of “Unconditionally,” “Dark Horse” sent Perry back to the top and in the process became her biggest Hot 100 hit with Billboard naming it 2014’s #2 single. Despite that, “Dark Horse” wound up becoming her last #1 and an end to her period of pop chart dominance. Sometimes things work out like that.

Recently, the YouTube music reviewer Todd in the Shadows put out a video discussing Witness, Katy Perry’s 2017 flop album that was seen at the time and now as the moment when she officially lost her central dominance in pop music. In the video, Todd describes Prism as a delayed flop album, the kind of album following the career-best that may still perform well due to the artist’s popularity with some big hits but ultimately not as well remembered in the long run signaling an end to an imperial phase. After all, what Katy Perry put out with Prism was gonna get eaten up regardless thanks to her success from Teenage Dream. It may not have seemed like it at the time but almost a decade later it’s clear now that a fall was bound to happen given the lesser impact Prism had.

In watching his video, a part of me is also thinking about what went wrong with Katy Perry and my theory is that she was a dominant pop star without much in the way of critical respect or a personality. Perry and her music existed in the early-‘10s as a big presence but unlike her contemporaries like Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift, she was never trying to use her music to lead the conversation or give us insight into her life. You don’t get much of an idea of who Katy Perry is from listening to her hits. Add to that, her style of supremely carefree and catchy songs coupled with a lowbrow tasteless image didn’t exactly win her over with critics. For as impressive as her run of hits is, it’s very apparent that Perry was not a pop star built to last when the pop landscape moved away from her.

Perry started writing “Dark Horse” with a new songwriting partner and friend Sarah Hudson, cousin of the actress Kate Hudson. As Perry tells it, their main inspiration for the song was The Craft, a 1996 teen horror film I’ve never heard of. In an MTV News interview, Perry described her take on the song, “It’s kind of juxtaposition. It’s got me, a pop artist, with a little bit of an urban kind of hip-hop flavored background soundtrack to it,” while also noting the song as having a “witchy, spell-y kind of black magic-y idea.” Alongside Perry and Hudson, the song’s producers Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Cirkut have songwriting credits. (“Dark Horse” would be the last #1 Dr. Luke would produce before getting sued by Kesha launching an ongoing legal battle. Despite a massive backlash, Dr. Luke is still in the business and has recently gotten back to producing hits. Hudson meanwhile has remained a big pop songwriter getting co-writing for instance on Dua Lipa’s 2021 hit “Levitating,” Billboard’s biggest song for 2021. “Levitating” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) 

In terms of previous Perry hits, “Dark Horse” mostly resembles “E.T.” Like with “E.T.,” “Dark Horse” was not an immediate choice as a single. Perry and Capitol figured it was just an album track with Perry even saying so to Billboard but like “E.T.” it only got a single release when the fans had their say. In anticipation of the album, Perry teamed with Pepsi for a Twitter campaign where fans could select what song they wanted to be a single. Against “Walking On Air,” “Dark Horse” was the winner and serviced to radio stations. And just like “E.T.,” “Dark Horse” got a guest verse from a rapper, one that was already a known player in hip-hop.

Since he was a teenager, Juicy J had been a member of Three 6 Mafia, the group he co-founded and was responsible for putting Memphis on the hip-hop map and were already big favorites among hip-hop fans before getting their biggest success in the mid-‘00s. Their song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimpwon the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2006 for its use in Hustle & Flow becoming the first hip-hop group to win the award. It was around this time when they started to make some play on the pop charts peaking at #13 for instance with 2005’s “Stay Fly,” the group’s highest-charting single. 

Not long after, Juicy J began focusing on a solo career to some moderate chart success. (Juicy J’s highest-charting single as a lead artist, 2012’s 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne collab “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” peaked at #29.) But he would have a greater chart impact as a regular feature on other people’s songs getting up to #11 for instance on “23,” the Mike Will Made-It produced collab with Miley Cyrus and Wiz Khalifa. That would be his last song appearance before “Dark Horse” with Dr. Luke requesting him for the song as Juicy J was signed to Kemosabe. As part of the song’s promotion, Perry and Juicy J performed a heavy metal and theatrical version of “Dark Horse” at the 2014 Grammys on January 26th which helped to give the song, already in the Top 5, the final boost it needed to go to #1.

Listening to “Dark Horse,” you can hear why Perry and her people weren’t so sure of its hit potential. It deviates heavily from the formula that had guided Katy Perry hits up to this point. It’s got some of the trap style that was just starting to break onto the charts but being Katy Perry, she was not going to delve that far into trap. What we get is a song led by a speaker-destroying bass drop, a chirpy synth riff, and pitch-shifted vocals that together leads to an unpleasant experience like a migraine headache. Hell, it’s not all that catchy or memorable even which is already a big failure for a Katy Perry song.

That chirpy synth riff would eventually get Perry in trouble when the Christian rapper Flame sued Perry, her co-writers, and Capitol for copyright infringement over copying his 2008 track “Joyful Noise.” Flame and his team argued that Perry’s roots in Christian pop could have exposed her to the song while Perry and her co-writers said they had no knowledge of the song. After a long federal trial, a jury found Perry and her co-writers guilty in 2019 of copying the song ordering them to pay lots of money in damages. Perry and her team quickly appealed and in 2020, the Ninth District Court overturned the ruling due to the commonality of the riff in music which as of now still stands.

Despite its sound, “Dark Horse” is pretty straightforward in its lyrical concept. Katy Perry wants to get with a guy doing everything to entice him and makes it clear she won’t accept anything else. She wants this guy to make her his Aphrodite but not her enemy. If he chooses to walk away then don’t. You may try to get out but Perry will come at you like a dark horse which is where there’s no turning back. The song and Perry try to come across as menacing but despite the massive buildup to the chorus drop sounding very monumental it just doesn’t get there for me.

On his part, Juicy J is just reiterating Perry’s lyrics telling this guy that she’s a beast and she’ll eat your heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer. (The Dahmer reference is another big turnoff for me.) He tells us that she may be sweet as pie but if you break her heart then she’ll turn her cold as a freezer. But in his last line, Juicy J brags about being able to put Katy Perry in a coma like Sleeping Beauty. Juicy J’s part is pretty much pointless like a lot of these rap verses on pop songs. It only exists to give the song more edge which this does not.

Even the music video doesn’t do much for me. Working with “California Gurls” director Matthew Cullen, Perry and Juicy J perform in a high budget Ancient Egypt-themed setting placed a crazy long time ago in Memphis, Egypt, a reference to Juicy J’s hometown. Perry plays a Cleopatra-type figure seducing guys into giving her various gifts like a diamond, shiny teeth, and some food. In keeping with the song’s theme, Perry presents herself as this almighty power being able to melt several guys who come near her where the video concludes with one guy getting turned into a dog that appeared earlier. Perhaps my view of the video is shaped by my view of the song but while ridiculous is nothing new for a Katy Perry music video, the ridiculousness in the “Dark Horse” video is just boring to me and I just don’t but Katy Perry as this all towering menacing figure.

The fact that “Dark Horse” was a #1 hit for Katy Perry isn’t a surprise but the massive success of it is weird to look back on. Alongside being her biggest Hot 100 hit, it’s also been one of her most streamed songs on Spotify as well as one of her most viewed videos on YouTube. I don’t get it. I was 14 when the song sat at #1 for a month and I don’t recall any major moments where I heard “Dark Horse.” I certainly heard it in passing but I wouldn’t have guessed it was bigger than her singles from Teenage Dream or even “Roar” from a few months earlier which felt like a bigger hit. 

For Juicy J, he didn’t make much impact after “Dark Horse.” In its wake, he continued appearing on the charts by making guest appearances on other artists’ songs with his biggest post-“Dark Horse” hit being Usher’s 2015 track “I Don’t Mind” which peaked at #11. Juicy J hasn’t made much of a chart impact since but is still releasing music. He also appeared with his group Three 6 Mafia in a Verzuz battle recently against Bone Thugs N’ Harmony. He’s doing alright for himself. 

As for Katy Perry, Prism spun off two more singles, “Birthday” and “This Is How We Do,” with both peaking at #17 and #24 respectively. Aside from two #1 hits, none of the other Prism singles made the Top 10 which right there should have indicated to Perry and her team that the sands were already beginning to shift beneath their feet. In terms of album performance, Prism went double platinum, still a fine performance but less than half of what Teenage Dream managed.

In the immediate aftermath of Prism, Perry was still riding high. She went on a big world tour but most notably was picked to be the lead halftime performer at 2015’s Super Bowl XLIX alongside guests Missy Elliott and Lenny Kravitz. Perry stuck to her hits including “Dark Horse” with Missy Elliott doing a few of her hits and Lenny Kravitz performing with Perry on “I Kissed A Girl.” There was also the viral Left Shark moment that took on a life of its own. (Missy Elliott’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “Work It,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8. Lenny Kravitz’ highest-charting single, 1991’s “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over,” also peaked at #2. It’s another 8.) All of this proved to be a winning combination as the show got a TV audience of 118 million, the biggest ever currently for a Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Looking at it now, that Super Bowl Halftime Show represents the last moment when Perry was truly at the center of pop culture. After that, Perry went silent in terms of music and aside from the one-off single “Rise” made for NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics she didn’t release much. (“Rise” peaked at #11.) Instead, she spent much of the interim as a hard supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign speaking at the Democratic National Convention and appearing with Clinton at her rallies. 

When Perry came back with new music in 2017, the pop landscape she embodied had shifted to more downbeat and trap-driven sounds. To kick off the new era, she released the song “Chained To The Rhythm,” a song co-written with future The Ones of the ‘10s subject Sia and Max Martin with a feature appearance from Skip Marley. In Perry’s words, the song was inspired by her depression after Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. “Chained To The Rhythm” is another upbeat song but the lyrics rant about how pop music often distracts us from problems in the real world acting as a sort of repudiation of her image. The song had enough star power to debut at #4 but didn’t last long showing that Perry had lost her long-held grip on the pop charts. (“Chained To The Rhythm” is a 4.)

Her album Witness did debut at #1 though wasn’t as big of a sales hit as her previous albums were with none of its other singles even reaching the Top 40. Things haven’t exactly recovered since with her recent highest-charting single, 2019’s “Never Really Over,” peaking at #15. She has a new song out now with the Swedish DJ Alessio “When I’m Gone” which has so far peaked at #90. But Perry has gotten involved in other ventures. She’s currently a judge on American Idol, she married Orlando Bloom and have a child together, and recently has made the move that most pop stars do when they’re past their prime: launch a Vegas residency. She’s currently scheduled to perform in Vegas through August and it seems to be going really well. 

Ultimately, Katy Perry’s trajectory wound up similar to most other pop stars. She had a period of massive hits and popularity before people moved on and the hits started drying up. Now she gets to spend the rest of her life performing her hits to audiences that are happy to pay to hear her. Compared to other trajectories, that doesn’t sound so bad.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s former YouTube pop music parodist Bart Baker’s parody of “Dark Horse” that skewers pretty much everything about the video, the song, and Katy Perry’s life at the time:

One thought on “The Ones of the ’10s: Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (feat. Juicy J)

  1. Yay, this column is back!

    This song is so ridiculous that I can’t really hate it. You can absolutely say, though, that this was the beginning of the end for Katy’s relevance.

    Liked by 1 person

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