Can We Shed Some Light on "Dark Horse"?

Katy Perry's hit single "Dark Horse" is, according to Perry herself, about a witch warning a man that, if he falls in love with her, she will be his last lover. Once he agrees to be with her, he will never be allowed to leave her without facing deadly consequences. The music video, while indulging in Perry's signature combination of sexualism and self-deprecating humor, follows this basic idea but modifies the "witch" concept by making Perry a magical Cleopatra who has the power to turn her would-be suitors into sand. Both Perry's original idea for the song and the music video create an image of female power over the bodies of men. Whether she is turning them into sand or threatening them with magic-induced destruction, or even "eat[ing their] heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer" as rap-collaborator Juicy J distastefully adds, the song emphasizes female dominance over male suitors in the realm of romance.

None of this is surprising coming from the poetess responsible for such confidence-boosting songs as "Roar", "Part of Me", and "Firework". However, the lyrics to this song express more clearly her fear of being abandoned by a lover rather than her true power over the lover himself. In fact, the entire idea of being a witch or a magical Cleopatra is nothing more than wishful thinking. The poetess is desperate to be loved but afraid of being hurt, so she threatens any potential lover with her particularly potent ire: "Make me your Aphrodite, / Make me your one and only, / But don't make me your enemy". The poetess is clearly asking for a loving and permanent relationship with her suitor rather than a short and sordid fling. The fact that she feels the need to threaten the man with vague ideas of personal harm if he tries to leave shows her helplessness in love rather than her strength.

Like it or not, this is part of what love is about. Love requires vulnerability. It requires you to put yourself out in the open, to lay your heart bare before the other, to allow the possibility of sacrifice and rejection and pain. Threatening to cause harm to a person you want to love you is not really love at all. You don't really want a lover; you want a slave at worst, or a pet at best. This is not love, but use. This is not a desire for personal relationship, but a desire for happiness-inducing things. But even with slaves and pets, pain and heartache are not impossible. Slaves run away, as do pets, and inevitably death gets us all. There is only one way to avoid pain in love: don't do it. As C. S. Lewis says in his book The Four Loves: "Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal." If we want to come out of this life with no scars, we can't even attempt to enter the battle. "Dark Horse" expresses the lovely fantasy of having pleasure without pain, love without struggle, and life without work. But if pain, struggle, and work are removed, pleasure, love, and even life begin to lose their inherent value and meaning. These things are of such high value because they are difficult to maintain. It is precisely because they require a full and complete commitment, regardless of what the world might throw at us, that we make them the goal and end and purpose of our existence. Being able to snap our fingers and have puppy-eyed flunkies panting at our heels may be momentarily thrilling, but no one would ever make the mistake of calling that "love"; it barely even qualifies as a relationship. In resorting to threats and magic, "Dark Horse" denies itself the very thing it desires: a meaningful and purposive romance.

But why does the poetess need to resort to such fantastical ideas in the first place? Why is she so caught between fear and desire, anger and love? Well, probably because of what Juicy J has to say for the male side of the conversation at the end of his little addition to the song: "Her love is like a drug: / I was tryin' to hit it and quit it, / But lil' mama so dope / I messed around and got addicted". In case you need a translation, I've become fluent in Rapese: he was intending to only have a one-night stand with the poetess, but she is so attractive that he can't help but to continue to see her. What a frank confession. This right here would be the root of all the fear and anger and threats and tears and desire for female domination that "Dark Horse" emotes from its pores. At the heart of this song is a heartbreaking situation that has become sadly a common phenomenon: a woman is being told that she is everything the man could want and he wants to become intimate with her immediately; she is happy with his flattery, but she wants to be appreciated for more than just the bodily pleasure she can provide, and no one can guarantee that the man in question will commit. The desire for meaningful relationships is constantly cut off by meaningless sex. Therefore, the woman feels the need to exert some sort of control over the man to keep him from leaving: she must have magic, or be some sort of living aphrodisiac, or she must threaten him. Female dominance, in this case, doesn't arise from female confidence but from female insecurity. Juicy J doesn't help the situation at all by perpetuating the myth that a man can be "addicted" or "entranced" or "changed" by his experience of an alluring woman if she allows him a "taste" of her. There are many women -- too many women -- who believe that showing a man how fun or how pleasing or how "bad" she can be by allowing physical intimacy will somehow magically make him a willing boyfriend -- and also, somehow, a "good" boyfriend. This is not how it works. A man who doesn't respect you enough to want to get to know you as a person, or to put your well-being above his own momentary pleasure, is not going to have any more respect for you in the morning, despite all the tricks you are able to pull the night before. You will not be his Aphrodite; you will be a notch in his bedpost.

"Dark Horse" is a heartbreaking song that shows the pitiable state of relationships between the sexes. But it also shows that the desires of women for real love and security from men have not been killed off or changed or drowned out in a sea of meaningless hookups. If anything, they seem to be getting louder. Even Juicy J makes mention of "That fairy tale ending with a knight in shining armor, / She can be my Sleeping Beauty". Maybe not every woman wants to sleep for a hundred years and be waked by a kiss from a complete stranger, but there is that desire in every woman for a man who is truly willing to go out of his way to make her happy, to show her he loves her, not just for her body but for who she is as a person. The "fairy tale" ending we all desire is not "she married a prince she met yesterday"; that's the hookup culture's "fairy tale", and we all know that doesn't ever come true. The real "fairy tale" ending is the last sentence of every good story: "they lived happily ever after". This is what we want: we want to live; we want to be happy; and we want it to be forever. This is what we want from our relationships: we want them to be life-giving; we want them to be truly loving; and we want them to be permanent. This is the cry from every woman's heart. This is what prompts the poetess to say to her would-be lover: "it's a yes or no, no maybe". We want it to be all or nothing.

If we want to promote true female dominance in the world of romance, we will stick to our guns and insist on "nothing" if men are not willing to give their "all".


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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